October 25, 2011 / 8:18 AM / 8 years ago

Australia mounts pressure on Sri Lanka over war crimes

PERTH (Reuters) - Australia joined Canada on Tuesday calling for Sri Lanka to address allegations of human rights abuses during its war against Tamil Tiger separatists, adding pressure on President Mahinda Rajapaksa ahead of a Commonwealth leaders summit.

A former LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) carder attends a reintegration ceremony in Colombo October 25, 2011. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

A Sri Lankan-born Australian also filed court papers seeking war crime charges against Rajapaksa, who is due to arrive in Perth for the summit on Tuesday, although the government said it would not agree to the request, citing diplomatic immunity.

Western nations are pushing Sri Lanka for an independent probe into allegations that thousands of civilians died in May 2009 as government troops closed in on the Tamil Tigers, a group on the terrorism lists of more than 30 countries.

Sri Lanka, which rejects the war crimes charges, has warned that the issue could split the Commonwealth summit of 50-plus leaders. Sri Lanka is due to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2013 and Canada has threatened to boycott the Sri Lanka summit.

“Australia and like-minded countries have been urging and will continue to urge Sri Lanka to address the serious allegations that have been made of human rights violations during the end stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka,” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said ahead of opening a pre-CHOGM business forum.

Protesters say they will target the Perth summit which starts on Friday and, among a number of demands, will single out “war criminals and parasites,” including Sri Lanka’s president.

Australian Arunachalam Jegatheeswaran said on Tuesday that he had filed court papers to seek justice for civilians killed in aerial bombardments during the final months of the war.

Jegatheeswaran, a civil engineer, returned to Sri Lanka early in 2007 to work as a volunteer, staying with relatives in the Tamil stronghold of Kilinochchi. When the aid work was disrupted by the war, he volunteered to work in a camp for displaced people, but says he did not work for the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“We want an international war crimes investigation into Sri Lanka. We want the inquiry to look at both sides,” he told Reuters.

A court hearing is set for November 29, and Australian police and the country’s attorney-general would need to conclude there was enough evidence of criminality for the case to proceed.

Australian Attorney-General Robert McClelland’s office said it would not accept the request, as it would have breached both domestic laws and Australia’s obligations to grant immunity from prosecution to foreign envoys and heads of state.

“Those immunities include personal inviolability including from any form of arrest or detention and immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state,” s spokesman for McClelland said.

But Jegatheeswaran said in his court paper that he was living testimony to what happened during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war.

“I saw Sri Lankan planes directing bombs into towns and open areas where displaced people were congregated, including areas declared as no-fire zones. I saw many hundreds of civilians killed and injured by these attacks,” he said.

Sri Lanka has said it was impossible to avoid all civilian casualties during the final offensive of the 25-year war against the Tamil Tigers.

A U.N. advisory panel report says there is “credible evidence” both sides committed war crimes.

The LTTE attacked civilian targets throughout the war and are widely accused of recruiting children as soldiers and using civilians as human shields in the final days of the conflict.

Additional reporting by Rob Taylor and James Grubel in Canberra; Editing by Nick Macfie

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