Australia may investigate Sri Lanka envoy for war crimes

Ex-admiral Thisara Samarasinghe was Sri Lanka navy commander when ships allegedly fired on civilians as they fled conflict.

julia gillard australian pm 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
julia gillard australian pm 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CANBERRA - Australia's government came under pressure on Monday from rights groups and lawmakers to investigate Sri Lanka's top envoy to the country for war crimes, risking a diplomatic row ahead of a summit of leaders from 54 Commonwealth nations in Perth.
The International Commission of Jurists' (ICJ) Australian section has handed police direct and credible evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Sri Lanka Navy during the last stages of the bloody civil war against Tamil rebels in 2009, The Age newspaper said, citing unidentified sources.
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Sri Lanka's Canberra high commissioner, former admiral Thisara Samarasinghe was the navy's eastern and then northern areas commander, as well as chief of staff, in the last months of the war, during which naval ships allegedly fired on civilians as they fled the conflict, the paper said.
"The report ... is extremely serious," said Lee Rhiannon, a senator Australia's influential Greens Party, which backs Prime Minister Julia Gillard's minority Labor government.
"With a delegation from Sri Lanka, headed up by their President Mahinda Rajapaksa due to arrive shortly in Perth for CHOGM, the Australia government can no longer refuse to take action."
Australia's government, already wallowing in opinion polls, will be reluctant to add a diplomatic upset to domestic concerns about carbon taxes and border security already worrying voters.
Samarasinghe told The Age that all of his and the navy's actions in the final months of fighting were legal under the rules of conflict.
"There is no truth whatsoever of allegations of misconduct or illegal behavior. 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," he said.
There was no evidence Samarasinghe was directly involved in or gave orders for shelling, The Age said, but the submission before Australian police stated that military superiors held "a command responsibility" for the actions of subordinates.
Amnesty International last month said between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians were killed in the war's last months, but a national inquiry has failed so far to investigate war crimes by both the army and Tamil rebels. .
Sri Lanka deflected a Western-led push for a war crimes investigation at recent U.N. Human Rights Council sessions. Western nations are still calling for an independent probe for killing thousands of civilians in May 2009.
A United Nations advisory panel's report says there is "credible evidence" that both sides committed war crimes, which the government hotly contests. Many of the allegations originated with pro-Tamil Tiger sources or propaganda outlets.
Canada has publicly criticized Sri Lanka over its human rights record, setting the scene for a confrontation at the Commonwealth summit next week, at which human rights protesters have also promised to target "war criminals and parasites" among leaders.
The Greens Party's Rhiannon said Australia should follow the lead of the British and Canadian prime ministers, who have both spoken about Sri Lankan war crimes.
Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd would not immediately comment on the accusations as they were with police, but a spokeswoman said Australia had asked Sri Lanka to respond to the United Nations.