Sri Lanka

Press conference by United Nations human rights expert concerning authenticity of Channel 4 videotape depicting extrajudicial executions in Sri Lanka

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A United Nations human rights expert, at a Headquarters press conference this morning, called for an independent investigation into war crimes and other grave violations of human rights law in Sri Lanka, based on an examination he commissioned to determine the authenticity of a video that apparently depicts the shooting of naked, bound prisoners on the island.

Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said that the cell-phone video, which was purportedly shot sometime early last year before the Sri Lankan Government declared victory over rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after years of fighting, had been submitted to three highly-qualified technical experts.

"Each of the experts concluded that there was nothing to indicate that the video was a fake," Mr. Alston said, reporting also that they had specifically rebutted the evidence presented by the Sri Lankan Government, after its own investigations that it said proved that the videos were not authentic..

"In light of these conclusions, and of the persistent flow of other allegations concerning alleged extrajudicial executions committed by both sides during the closing phases of the war against the LTTE, I call for an independent inquiry to carry out an impartial investigation into war crimes and other grave violations of international humanitarian and human rights law allegedly committed in Sri Lanka," Mr. Alston said.

In September, he recalled, he had called for an independent probe into the authenticity of the video, stating that the four separate investigations carried out by the Government after the airing of the video on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in late August had not been impartial and that the evidence presented by the Government was "impressionistic rather than scientific".

At that time, however, the United Nations Human Rights Council, to which he reports, called on him to withdraw his call for an investigation and apologize to the Government. He then decided to commission expert opinions, identifying three individuals who he said were clearly highly qualified and were totally removed from the conflict.

Those experts were Jeff Spivak, a forensic media analyst, Daniel Spitz, a forensics pathology examiner, and Peter Diaczuk, a forensic firearms expert. Their technical reports are appended to a "Technical Note" that Mr. Alston presented at the press conference.

They concluded that there were no signs of editing and that the automatic weapons and bodies reacted in the way to be expected from shootings in the back of the head at a close range, he said. He admitted, however, that the encoded date of 17 July presented a puzzle, since that date was well after the end of the conflict.

He noted that such phones allowed the date to be set by the user and there was no reason that it would necessarily be correct. He speculated, in addition, that the person who taped the video, presumed to be a Sri Lankan soldier, could have changed the date in order to prevent the video being traced to a specific event.

In response to questions, Mr. Alston said that the videotape should not be taken in isolation, but should be looked at in the context of many allegations of human rights violations that took place in the conflict zone, from which the media was barred.

As long as there was no independent investigation facilitated by the Government, he maintained, the bitterness that such allegations fuelled would continue. He believed that witnesses to the final action could provide valuable information and vindicate the Government, if allegations turn out to be false.

He would not specify who should undertake such an investigation, although he noted that the United Nations had previously undertaken similar probes. Sri Lanka was not a party to the Rome Statute underlying the International Criminal Court (ICC), so the involvement of that mechanism was out of the question at this point.

Asked why the Sri Lankan Government would facilitate the investigation, Mr. Alston noted that the country had a very long tradition in civil rights and there was a reason it would want to uphold it, particularly if the international community got behind a probe. "I think that the Government would see that it was in its interest to pursue that option," he said.

He said that other investigations in the works included one undertaken by British journalists and another commissioned by Tamils living abroad. He welcomed those, but felt that they could not obtain the access they needed to conduct a conclusive probe.

He had no information on the individuals depicted in the video and on who might have taken it. The Government had impugned the credibility of the group that had released it, and the group had not been prepared to provide any other information.

The Government, he said, had not questioned the authenticity of the uniforms worn by the shooters, but they had maintained that the tee shirts under them were not standard issue and that no Sri Lankan soldiers would have hair the length of the gunmen depicted.

In answer to questions about such details, he said that the important factor at this point was that the video appeared to be genuine and, therefore, it should be assumed that extra-judicial executions had occurred. It was crucial, therefore, to find out who carried them out, and if it was part of a widespread pattern.

For information media - not an official record