Sri Lanka war crimes probe says lacks legal powers

COLOMBO Wed May 12, 2010 6:13pm IST

Displaced Tamil civilians watch, as Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (not seen) arrives at the Manik Farm refugee camp, on the outskirts of the northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya, December 9, 2009. REUTERS/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/Pool

Displaced Tamil civilians watch, as Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (not seen) arrives at the Manik Farm refugee camp, on the outskirts of the northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya, December 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/Pool

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COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's committee probing war crimes said on Wednesday it does not have the legal power to investigate alleged rights abuses during the final stages of the South Asian nation's 25-year separatist conflict.

The committee of local experts, appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said it has had trouble finding public officials identified in a U.S. State Department report which blamed both sides in the war for committing rights abuses.

The State Department report released last year detailed possible atrocities by both government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the final battle of the war last May and urged Colombo to investigate the allegations. More than 100,000 people died during the war.

Sri Lanka has a long history of inquiries into rights abuses that have largely failed to hold anyone accountable.

S.M. Samarakoon, the head of the Sri Lankan committee, said his group did not have the same statutory powers as a commission of inquiry. Analysts say the committee was appointed only as an advisory body and its investigations have not been transparent.

"There are so may commissions of inquiry and committees appointed. None of the previous commissions or committees have given their findings to the public," said Bhavani Fonseka, a legal analyst at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.

Samarakoon said the committee had not yet investigated allegations about the killing of captives or combatants who had sought to surrender, or other "disappearances".

"However, the committee will endeavour to complete its inquiries and submit its findings and recommendations to the president by (the) end of July, 2010," it said in a statement.

The State Department report, requested by Congress, detailed allegations of government shelling of civilians during the early months of 2009 and killing of LTTE fighters who had surrendered.

Sri Lanka is facing heavy Western pressure over its human rights record, pressure the government blames on members of the Tamil diaspora who have settled in European countries or the United States and are angry the LTTE were beaten.

Analysts have said Sri Lanka's failure to investigate properly such allegations could cost it an annual $150 million worth of trade concessions from the European Union that help its garment industry, Sri Lanka's top exporter.

However, Sri Lanka has relaxed emergency regulations, with a journalist who had been sentenced to 20 years in jail on conspiracy charges recently pardoned.

(Editing by Shihar Aneez and Paul Tait)

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