SRI Lanka’s high commissioner to Australia, former navy Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, should be investigated for war crimes, a brief before the Australian Federal Police says. The submission, from the International Commission of Jurists’ Australian section, has compiled what a source has told The Age is direct and credible evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Witnesses – former Sri Lankan residents now living in Australia – can attest to the crimes, the source said.
Admiral Samarasinghe was the commander of the Sri Lankan navy’s eastern and then northern areas, as well as naval chief of staff, during the final years of the country’s bloody civil war with separatist terrorist group the Tamil Tigers.
In the final months of fighting in 2009, according to the United Nations, up to 40,000 civilians caught in the north and east of the country were killed when government forces moved against the insurgent army.
Separate and independent allegations have been made, to the jurists’ commission and other investigators, that naval ships fired directly on unarmed civilians as they fled the conflict.
There has been no evidence Admiral Samarasinghe was involved in shelling, or gave direct orders to that effect, but the submission before the AFP states military superiors hold a responsibility for the actions of those under their command.
A spokesman told The Age that ”the AFP is currently evaluating the submission. Therefore it is not appropriate to comment further.”
Admiral Samarasinghe told The Age that all of his – and the navy’s – actions during the conflict were legal. ”There is no truth whatsoever of allegations of misconduct or illegal behaviour,” he said.
”The Sri Lanka Navy did not fire at civilians during any stage and all action was taken to save the lives of civilians from clutches of terrorists.”
The commission submission has been sent to the AFP and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, as well as to the offices of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. It calls for investigations into Admiral Samarasinghe and other key military and political figures, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is commander-in-chief of Sri Lanka’s armed forces, with a view to issuing arrest warrants against those responsible.
The International Commission of Jurists is an independent international law body, based in Geneva. It holds consultative status with UNESCO, the Council of Europe, and the African Union.
The Australian section made a similar submission over allegations of war crimes during East Timor’s struggle for independence – and evidence it gathered was used by that country’s
Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, the official body set up to investigate human rights abuses.
President of the Australian section is former NSW Supreme Court justice and attorney-general John Dowd. He declined to comment.
But independent of the commission dossier, another member of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic corps with links to Australia is already under investigation by the AFP for his alleged role in possible war crimes.
In May, The Age detailed allegations against dual Australian-Sri Lankan citizen Palitha Kohona.
Dr Kohona, who was an Australian diplomat in the 1980s, and is now Sri Lanka’s representative to the UN, is accused of sending, via intermediaries, text messages to defeated Tamil Tigers and civilians, telling them they could surrender, unarmed and under a white flag, to government troops.
About 20 followed the instructions. Eyewitnesses report they were loaded into army trucks. They were later found, shot dead, nearby.
The AFP has confirmed it is evaluating the allegations against Dr Kohona ”with a view to determining any potential breaches of Australian law”.
Dr Kohona has denied the allegations, admitting he sent the messages, but saying they were never a guarantee of safety, only advice on how best to surrender. ”I never had the authority to issue orders to troops or to discuss surrender terms of any terrorists, either directly or indirectly.”
Admiral Samarasinghe enjoyed a distinguished 37-year-career in the Sri Lankan navy. He was commander of the Eastern Naval Area, then commander of Northern Naval Area between 2007 and 2009. In May 2009, the final month of the war, he was made navy chief of staff, before being promoted, two months later, to navy commander.
Admiral Samarasinghe resigned his commission in January to take up his diplomatic post in Canberra. At the time of his appointment, foreign affairs officials reportedly saw his nomination as ”problematic”, in light of his command role in a military accused of serious human rights violations. But his appointment was not opposed.
Since the end of the war, allegations the navy fired on civilians have been raised inside Sri Lanka and out. The country’s reconciliation tribunal heard from a woman that in May 2009 she tried to escape the war zone in a boat.
”We held two white flags and on seeing the Navy we called them ‘Aiya, Aiya’ [Sir, Sir]. There was sudden shelling and eight died on the spot . . Navy hit; Navy attacked and many people died.”
Part of the commission submission is further testimony from Tamils now living in Australia that shelling came from the sea in the final weeks of fighting.
Admiral Samarasinghe said this week: ”All conduct of the Sri Lanka Navy was within the rules governing domestic and international laws.
”There were no orders given to fire by anyone to Sri Lanka naval vessels. Rules of engagements were clear to all commanders.” He said the accusations levelled at him, and at other members of the Sri Lankan military and political establishment, were politically motivated.
”I was part of the Sri Lankan military which prevented the most brutal terrorist organisation from dividing my country. Those that still have aims to divide Sri Lanka continue to hurl baseless, unsubstantiated allegations.”
A UN report this year found it was ”unable to accept the version of events held by the government of Sri Lanka”.
It said the government deliberately shelled no-fire zones where it had encouraged civilians to shelter, as well as attacking the UN, food distribution lines and Red Cross ships rescuing the wounded.
”The government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines … [and] deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies, particularly surgical supplies, adding to their suffering.”
The report was equally condemnatory of the separatist Tamil Tigers, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It said they used civilians as hostages and human shields, forcibly recruited children as young as 14 to fight, and shot – point-blank – any civilians who attempted to escape the conflict.