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15 June 2011

Sri Lanka must not continue to ignore allegations of war crimes

Footage aired on Channel 4 appears to show evidence of sexual assault, shelling hospitals, and summa

By Samira Shackle

Britain has renewed calls for Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes committed at the end of the civil war in May 2009, after footage aired on Channel 4 last night.

In some of the most shocking images ever shown on British television, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields showed naked and bound prisoners being shot in the head, the disposal of dead bodies of women who had been raped, and the aftermath of a hospital being shelled. The footage, much of which was filmed on mobile phones, was either shot by Tamils escaping, or by soldiers as grotesque war trophies.

The film shows the end of the 25 year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) two years ago, when government forces pushed thousands of Tamils into an increasingly confined piece of land, which was then shelled and bombed. There is strong circumstantial evidence for a series of war crimes: the summary execution or prisoners, widespread sexual assault, and the systematic shelling of hospitals with 65 attacks.

Much of the footage is previously unseen. The fact that it exists — when the Sri Lankan government had forced the UN to leave so that there were no international observers — is testament to the power of the digital age.

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The film does not shy away from the fact that atrocities were committed by the LTTE, too. The group pioneered the use of suicide bombing, and used civilians as human shields. But the fact remains that this was an unequal war, and atrocities by one side never give the other carte blanche.
A UN panel last month rules that there were “credible allegations” of war crimes and crimes against humanity (committed by both sides), but the Sri Lankan government rejected its findings.

The British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said today that if the Sri Lankan government does not probe these claims, it could lead to international action. The signs do not look promising. Rajiva Wijesinhe, a government legislator, responded with a denial: “It is a fact that pro-LTTE groups in Britain are applying a lot of pressure on British politicians to pay attention to the Channel 4 video. I would be particularly sorry of Alistair Burt for succumbing to this.”

As Steve Crawshaw, Amnesty International’s advocacy director, says in the film, the world’s silence on this so far is inexplicable and morally indefensible. If proved, these crimes are comparable to Srebenica, for which Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are standing trial at The Hague. Over 40,000 civilians were killed in Sri Lanka — President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa must face justice too.


This clip shows a Channel 4 News report from 3 June, after the Human Rights Council in Geneva convened to watch the film. Warning: some distressing images.