Sri Lanka’s foreign minister has told The Associated Press that hundreds of hardcore Tamil rebels are likely to be prosecuted on charges including mass murder for crimes committed during the island’s quarter-century civil war that ended in 2009.
The rebels are among some 11,500 Tamil fighters who were captured or surrendered after the war’s bloody end. Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris said all but about 3,000 of them had already been released from military-run rehabilitation camps and were reintegrating into society.
Interviewed in New York where he attended the UN General Assembly opening session this past week, Peiris said that of those remaining, “less than 2,000” hardcore rebels were expected to be indicted, and that court proceedings were likely to being next year.
Responding to accusations the government is overlooking allegations of rights violations by its own forces, Peiris denied that troops targeted civilians during the conflict.
But he said it was within the mandate of a reconciliation commission appointed by the nation’s president last year to review the conflict and learn lessons from it, and to also look into allegations of rights violations. If the commission found reliable evidence that any individuals had committed serious crimes, they would be indicted in a Sri Lankan court.
“They (the commission) cannot fulfill their mandate if they exclude from consideration these issues,” he said.
He said, for example, the commission would examine British TV footage purporting to show atrocities by troops.
The commission is due to submit its final report by Nov. 15. Rights groups have questioned its impartiality and whether it investigated allegations that tens of thousands of minority Tamils were killed, primarily by government forces, as they closed in on retreating Tamil Tiger rebels during the final five months of the war.
Experts advising U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave credence to those allegations, and Ban has forwarded their report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, although it remains unclear if the council will recommend a formal probe. The experts also reported that the Tamil rebels held civilians as human shields, used child soldiers and killed people who tried to leave areas under their control.
Peiris accused several Western nations, including Britain, Australia and Canada of being unduly critical of Sri Lanka’s efforts to recover from the war and using the island nation as a “political football.”
“Sri Lanka has to be given the time and space to resolve its issues. It’s premature for any kind of intervention by the international community,” the minister said.
A documentary aired by Britain’s Channel 4 in June included graphic video showing soldiers shooting bound, blindfolded prisoners and abusing corpses. The British government subsequently demanded progress by Sri Lanka in investigating alleged war crimes by year’s end or it would support international action to press Sri Lanka to do so.
Sri Lanka said the video was fake, but the U.N. independent investigator on extrajudicial killings who reviewed it with a team of technical and forensic specialists said it provided definitive evidence to warrant a war crimes prosecution.
Peiris did not comment on the video’s authenticity, but said the reconciliation commission “has indicated that even matters like the Channel 4 footage will be looked at by them.”
Sri Lanka is also under pressure to expedite a political settlement in the predominantly Tamil north of the island, where the Tigers, who were also known for their use of suicide bombers, had fought for an independent homeland. Tamils have long complained of discrimination at the hands of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. Hopes for independence have been snuffed out, but Tamil groups are still seeking greater autonomy.
Tamil politicians has accused the government of stalling on negotiations on devolution of power that broke down earlier this year but the talks will resume in early October. Peiris said progress would take time and refused to set deadlines for a settlement. But he said provincial council elections would be held in early 2012.
He said the government has cleared 440,000 land mines since the end of the war and has resettled 95 percent of the 300,000 Tamils displaced by the conflict.