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Australian accuses Sri Lanka’s president of war crimes

A 63-year-old retired engineer who was caught up in the fighting at the end of the civil war says he saw hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in both Tamil-held areas and no-fire zones being deliberately attacked by Sri Lankan forces.

An Australian citizen who says he saw hospitals deliberated attacked by Sri Lankan forces has filed war crimes charges against president Mohindra Rajapaksa in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.


ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: As Commonwealth leaders arrive for CHOGM this week, an Australian citizen has filed war crimes charges against the president of Sri Lanka, Mohindra Rajapaksa, in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.

A 63-year-old retired engineer who was caught up in the fighting at the end of the civil war says he saw hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in both Tamil-held areas and no-fire zones being deliberately attacked by Sri Lankan forces.

Thousands of civilians were killed in the three-decades-long civil war which came to an end when Sri Lankan forces defeated Tamil rebels in 2009.

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly denied war crimes accusations, but there are growing calls for stronger action to be taken.

The federal Attorney-General will need to give final approval for the Australian indictments to proceed.

Hamish Fitzsimmons reports.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS, REPORTER: Two years ago retired engineer Jegan Waran left Sri Lanka for Australia, but he’s still haunted by what he saw in the hospitals and displaced persons camps at the end of that country’s civil war.

JEGAN WARAN: Everybody who’s alive today, it’s a miracle that they have escaped death or injury.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Mr Waran is an ethnic Tamil and sympathised with the Tamil tigers, or LTTE, which fought for a Tamil nation for decades until their defeat in 2009 by Sri Lanka’s military forces.

In 2007, the Australian citizen returned to Sri Lanka to offer what assistance he could, volunteering in Tamil hospitals, schools and displaced persons camps. It was here he says he witnessed Sri Lankan military forces deliberately attacking clearly-marked civilian infrastructure such as hospitals.

JEGAN WARAN: Patients were killed and patients who were in the hospital were killed and there were other patients waiting for treatment, they were killed. And there was a medical store where they kept the medicines, those were destroyed, scattered all over the place, you can see. Ambulances was destroyed. So I have seen that personally.

JEGAN WARAN: This and other incidents have led him to issue summonses for three war crimes charges against Sri Lanka’s president, Mohindra Rajapaksa.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Jegan Waran says that on Christmas Day 2008 drones circled another hospital before Sri Lankan Airforce planes attacked.

JEGAN WARAN: The hospital, clearly a big red cross sign was marked on the roof, and drones usually take surveillance, so I’m very positive that they know where the hospital is and they know it’ll be damaged. So, that’s what I can tell at this stage.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Could there have been LTTE infrastructure near the hospitals that they were targeting?

JEGAN WARAN: No, I can positively say there was nothing whatsoever in that vicinity.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Why bring these charges against president Rajapaksa?

JEGAN WARAN: Because I feel that he’s the commander-in-chief and nothing would have happened without his knowledge or his directions, and ultimately, he should be answerable to what was happening.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Sri Lanka’s government has repeatedly denied allegations of war crimes.

THISARA SAMARASINGHE, SRI LANKAN HIGH COMMISSIONER (Oct. 18): I would categorically say it is not the learning of Sri Lankan military to fire at a hospital. That has never happened in our military.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Last week, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Australia, Thisara Samarasinghe, who led the Navy in the north of the country, was named in a brief by the International Commission of Jurists. It suggested he be investigated for war crimes. The Australian Federal Police is examining the allegations.

THISARA SAMARASINGHE: Such allegations are baseless and unsubstantiated. In the contrary, I have been commended for my role during the period of my career.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Claims that Sri Lankan armed forces deliberately attacked civilians are not new, but this is the first time charges have been brought by an Australian citizen in an Australian court.

Lawyers in the case have asked the federal Attorney-General to become involved, but a spokesman for Robert McClelland says the Attorney-General hasn’t been informed of any criminal matter or charges relating to Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa.

ROB STARY, LAWYER FOR COMPLAINANT: We’ve written to the commissioner of the AFP and we’ve written to the Commonwealth Attorney saying here’s your opportunity, Mr Rajapaksa will be in Australia, it’s appropriate to conduct those investigations.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Last Thursday Victoria’s chief magistrate authorised the charges brought by Jegan Waran to proceed, noting that they satisfied Victoria’s Criminal Procedure Act. It now needs the approval of the federal Attorney-General to go ahead.

ROB STARY: These are not frivolous or vexatious complaints, they are bona fide credible complaints.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: In April this year, a United Nations panel of experts appointed by Ban Ki-Moon found credible reports that both government forces and Tamil rebels committed war crimes towards the end of the civil war.

Bruce Haigh is a former diplomat who served in Sri Lanka and has long been critical of what he says is inaction on war crimes committed there.

BRUCE HAIGH, FORMER AUSTRALIAN DIPLOMAT: I think just because the Sri Lankan government won the PR battle. The Tamils lost that a long time ago. They’ve had three decades of being ground under by the Sinhalese. That’s why the Tamils wanted a separate state.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: High commissioner Samarasinge says Tamil groups in Australia are manipulating human rights groups and pro-Tamil campaigners. This evening the Sri Lankan government declined Lateline’s offer of an on-camera interview and issued a statement, which said in part:

JACKSON MCDONALD LAWYERS STATEMENT (male voiceover): “The issue of the proceedings which are apparently to be the subject of your story are plainly a violation of Australia’s obligations under public international law. Furthermore the purported proceedings are incompetent under Australian law.”

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: President Rajapaksa arrives for CHOGM on Tuesday.

Hamish Fitzsimmons, Lateline.


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