Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is reportedly on a personal visit to the U.S., prompting calls from an international human rights group that he be investigated for his alleged role in torture and war crimes.
Mr. Rajapaksa is commander in chief of Sri Lanka’s armed forces, which along with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), face allegations of war crimes during the decades-long conflict on the South Asian island.
Under international law, military commanders may face criminal charges if they knew, or should have known, of such crimes being committed by their subordinates, according to Amnesty International.
“The United States has an obligation under international law to investigate and prosecute people who perpetrated war crimes and grave human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.
A spokesman for the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington was unable to confirm reports that Mr. Rajapaksa is in the U.S.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has convened a panel of experts to advise him on accountability issues during the war in Sri Lanka.
The LTTE, which resorted to suicide bombers and child soldiers, has been listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.
“Thousands of victims in Sri Lanka demand accountability for the abuses they’ve suffered from the Sri Lankan security forces as well as armed groups such as the LTTE,” Mr. Zarifi said.
Contrary to Mr. Zarifi’s claim, the embassy spokesman, Steve Hedges, said that Sri Lankan forces actually rescued about 300,000 civilians that were held hostage by the LTTE.
Sri Lankan forces, he said, were under strict orders to carry out a “zero civilian casualties” campaign.
A number of government soldiers died and were injured trying to clear a path of escape for the civilians, Mr. Hedges said. It was LTTE practice to shoot civilians who tried to escape and the LTTE did shoot some civilians as they fled to the government troops, he added.
Tamil protesters disrupted Mr. Rajapaksa’s visit to Britain late last year.
The Oxford Union said it was forced to cancel a scheduled talk by the Sri Lankan leader in December “due to the sheer scale of the expected protests.”
The war against the Tamil separatists wrapped up in May 2009 soon after LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed by the army.
The last few months of fighting were some of the bloodiest. According to some estimates, as many as 40,000 civilians were killed.
However, the United Nations sets the toll at a much lower 7,000 casualties. The government of Sri Lanka believes that civilian deaths were minimal, since its troops opened up several routes through which hundreds of thousands of trapped civilians were rescued.
In a confidential cable published by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis wrote that Mr. Rajapaksa, along with the country’s top civilian leadership and then-army chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka, was largely responsible for the alleged war crimes.
“There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power. In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka,” Ms. Butenis wrote in the Jan. 15, 2010, cable.
She cited this as the reason for the slow progress in the investigation of allegations of war crimes.
Fonseka challenged Mr. Rajapaksa in a presidential election and was later convicted of corruption by a court-martial last year.