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Sri Lanka project ongoing

Sri Lanka project ongoing

The work of Australian lawyers who last week brought to light allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka is far from over, according to one of the project leaders.Daniel…

The work of Australian lawyers who last week brought to light allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka is far from over, according to one of the project leaders.

Daniel Petrushnko, the president of the New South Wales Young Lawyers (NSWYL), the organisation which assisted the International Commission of Jurists Australia with an evidence-gathering project, said that while he is pleased to see the fruits of two years of hard work, there is still much more to do.

"The work is not finished and there is plenty more to do, but it is a satisfying feeling to see the public being educated and the awareness increase on what happened in Sri Lanka," he told Lawyers Weekly.

The NSWYL assisted the ICJA prepare and submit a brief of evidence to the Australian Federal Police and Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions on 14 October, calling for an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sri Lanka during the final phase of the civil war.

Confidential copies of the brief were also provided to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd and Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

The Sri Lanka Evidence Project consists of four phases. This includes research and preparation of a chronology of events that occurred over the past 20 years in Sri Lanka and a summary of law relating to war crimes, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations; the training of evidence-gatherers and support staff in statement-taking and dealing with traumatised witnesses; the taking of statements in Australia and overseas and the consolidation of witness statements in order to prepare a body of evidence which can be used in any national or international prosecution for violations of international criminal law.

"Phases one and two of the project were completed in 2010. Now the project has been focused on phase three," said Petrushnko. "Numerous statements have been taken from witnesses of Sri Lankan origin presently living in the Australian community. The project has also recently taken statements beyond Australia, due to the significant numbers of Sri Lankan migrants living in countries abroad."

Phase four of the project has already commenced and, in December 2010, the Sri Lanka Evidence Project made a submission to the United Nations Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka in relation to evidence gathered by the project.

"The project is currently undertaking further work in relation to a submission at a national level," said Petrushnko.

The NSWYL and ICJA have urged the Federal Government and Opposition to support calls for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth at the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held in Perth from 28 to 30 October.

Sri Lanka is due to host CHOGM in 2013, though Petrushnko is hopeful this will not eventuate.

"[Suspension from the Commonwealth] has happened before for much less, in terms of what a country has done," he said.

"If CHOGM goes ahead in 2013 with Sri Lanka as host, it's ignoring the fact that these atrocities occurred in Sri Lanka."

The president of the ICJA, John Dowd, refused to comment on whether the brief implicated Thisara Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in Australia.

Samarasinghe was in command of the Sri Lankan navy in the north of the country in the final weeks of the civil war against the Tamil Tigers in early 2009. He told the ABC that the Sri Lankan navy only fired at terrorists and did not target civilians during the conflict.

Samarasinghe was appointed as the chief of the Sri Lankan navy after the conflict ended in July 2009 and retired from that position in January this year.

He took up his current role as the High Commissioner in May.

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