John Dowd, president of the Australian chapter of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), has named the current Sri Lankan high commissioner to Australia, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, in a submission containing allegations of war crimes.
Admiral Samarasinghe joined the Sri Lankan navy in 1974 and retired in January 2011.
John Dowd, in a statement released on October 17 said:
“Those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 must not be allowed to go unpunished. The expert committee established by the United Nations secretary-general found credible allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.”
The submission has been handed to the AFP for investigation. In doing so John Dowd said the ICJ in Australia had put together a brief of evidence which corroborated and substantiated the findings of the UN secretary-general’s expert panel.
“Since October 2009, such evidence has been taken from witnesses in Australia and overseas. It is clear,” said John Dowd, “that Australia has an obligation to investigate and, where appropriate, to prosecute those responsible. Under Commonwealth law, there is ample possibility to prosecute these most serious offences here, where Australia has custody of a person and where immunity does not apply.”
Receipt of the submission presents the AFP with something of a dilemma. It currently has a presence in Sri Lanka working with the Sri Lankan navy, army and police in preventing persecuted Tamils from leaving the country by boat for Australia.
The armed forces of Sri Lanka occupy traditional Tamil lands in the north. There are now emerging credible claims of rape and other abuse by members of the occupying forces against Tamil women and those old people and children that remain who are seeking to eke out a living with what few assets they have left.
The Sri Lankan police have blood on their hands, having engaged in the extra-judicial killing of Tamils. They have been involved in the murder of Sri Lankan journalists. Press freedom is all but dead in Sri Lanka. In 2009 the editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered. In the same year JS Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist and newspaper editor, was jailed for 20 years for publishing editorials critical of the government in 2006.
Over the years the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia has conducted a campaign of harassment against Sri Lankan Tamils living in Australia. They were assisted by the AFP, who saw nothing wrong in visiting and intimidating Tamils in their homes at odd hours.
A Victorian Supreme Court Judge, Paul Coghlan, strongly criticised the AFP during his summary at the conclusion of a trial into the alleged terrorist activities of three Tamil males at the end of March last year. One of the accused, Arumugan Rajeevan, had the novel experience of being “unarrested” by AFP agents. He was pulled over as he was driving to a meeting, and arrested and handcuffed at gunpoint. Realising they did not have the legal grounds to arrest him, the AFP “unarrested “him. Coghlan also commented that Rajeevan had been abused during his interview which was an “absolute departure from normal principles”. No admission of fault or attempt at recompense was made.
Admiral Samarasinghe, as chief of staff of the Sri Lankan navy, oversaw the shelling of Tamil soldiers and civilians trapped in what had been declared a safe zone at the end of the civil war. The navy then blocked attempts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate the injured, women and children from the safe zone.
The UN report estimates 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed towards the end of the war, some, as already noted, by the navy. In addition, 4,000 Tamil soldiers (LTTE) are being held incommunicado by the government. The 500-page UN report notes that:
“The fact that interrogations and investigations as well as ‘rehabilitation’ activities have been ongoing, without any external scrutiny for almost two years, rendered alleged LTTE cadre highly vulnerable to violations such as rape, torture or disappearance, which could be committed with impunity.”
There are precedents for seeking Samarsinghe’s recall. In September of this year General Jaghat Dias who was Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Germany and Switzerland was recalled to Colombo after the Swiss government contacted the Sri Lankan government concerning accusations that General Dias ordered troops of the 57th division, which he commanded, to fire on civilian and hospital targets during the army’s final offensive against the separatist Tamils in 2009.A report by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights accused Dias of participating in acts of torture and the execution of rebel fighters.
In 1995 Australia rejected the nomination as ambassador of retired Indonesian General Herman Mantiri. His nomination was rejected on the basis of war crimes committed by Mantiri against the East Timorese. In 2005 and 2008 the Canadian government refused to accept nominations for the position of high commissioner put forward by the Sri Lankan government, for reasons associated with human rights abuses.
The Australian Federation of Tamil Associations has called for Admiral Samarasinghe to be sent back to Sri Lanka.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Sri Lanka.