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Sri Lanka war crime allegations: Justice Minister calls for cross examination of accusers, verification

Rauff Hakeem

Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem yesterday said those who levelled war crime allegations against Sri Lanka should be cross-examined. Hakeem, who is also the leader of the UPFA constituent, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), said that the veracity of allegations had to be ascertained and, therefore, specific allegations would have to be made in a court of law either here or abroad.

Minister Hakeem was responding to questions raised by The Island in an interview at the Justice Ministry yesterday.

The Justice Minister said that the recommendation that written and oral submissions as regards accountability issues received by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s three-member Panel of Experts (PoE) would remain ‘strictly confidential’ until 2031 could hinder the ongoing efforts to address accountability issues. The PoE further recommended that even after that declassification they would be subject to another review in accordance with UNSG Moon’s bulletin on ‘Information sensitivity, classification and handling.’

The PoE comprising Maruzki Darusman (Indonesia), Steven R. Ratner (US)and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa) released its report on March 31, 2011.

The US embassy, too, declared that it wouldn’t reveal eyewitness accounts of war crimes though officials met on a regular basis with a broad range of individuals around the country.

The Island sought a clarification in the wake of US embassy’s claim in a statement issued at the conclusion of State Department official Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp’s visit on January 11 that the envoy had got an opportunity to listen to eyewitness accounts of serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law including those which allegedly occurred during the closing stages of the Vanni war.

Minister Hakeem said that the government was in the process of introducing a witness protection programme to facilitate investigations into accountability issues. The country had felt the need to introduce such a programme even before the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, he said.

Referring to the work undertaken by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) as regards witness protection mechanism etc at the height of the war, the Minister said that the Attorney General’s Department had objected to the move.

Responding to another query, the SLMC leader said that in accordance with mutual assistance in criminal matters legislation there was provision for foreign courts to obtain evidence relating to a specific case heard in Sri Lanka and transmit the same to Colombo. Minister Hakeem said that he had an opportunity to discuss the proposed mechanism with Ambassador Rapp, who was in Sri Lanka from January 6 to 11.

Acknowledging that their refusal to divulge sources had been influenced by the assumption that those giving evidence could be harmed, Minister Hakeem said that a witness protection programme was now on the drawing board.

The minister stressed that whatever the circumstances, information collected by the UN or any other agency couldn’t be accepted without proper verification. The PoE is on record as having said that it has received over 4,000 submissions (both oral and written) from 2,300 persons.

Commenting on human rights allegations against the US and UK for military action in Iraq and elsewhere, Minister Hakeem said that the US had ignored the International Criminal Court (ICC) though the UK endorsed the Rome Statue way back in 2001. The Minister said that the US produced servicemen accused of atrocities before military tribunals. Sri Lanka could do the same, the minister said, adding that the ICC too, would allow local investigations to take place before direct intervention.

The minister was responding to recent UK declaration that there was no need for ICC intervention as accountability issues were either under thorough investigation or had been dealt with through various means, including the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, independent public inquiries, the UK and European Courts and in Parliament.

The Island also brought the US recommendation to Sri Lanka that the arsenal of Russian MiG 27s and Israeli Kfirs be expanded to include cluster bombs to the notice of the Justice Minister. The US made the recommendation in late 2002 following a comprehensive examination of strength and weakness of the Sri Lankan military.

Minister Hakeem acknowledged that a section of the Catholic clergy had recently accused the GoSL of using cluster ammunition during eelam war IV during a meeting with Ambassador Rapp.

Former SLAF Chief Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke told The Island that cluster ammunitions had never been used though both Kfirs, MiG 27s as well as Chinese jets could have been deployed for the purpose.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

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