Groups ask Swiss to prosecute Sri Lankan diplomat

August 4, 2011 - 10:30 AM
Sri Lanka Civil War

Sri Lankan government supporters hold placards against Britain's Channel 4 television during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011. Hundreds of government supporters, including state-run media journalists, protested Tuesday in Colombo against the UK channel with placards reading

GENEVA (AP) — Two advocacy groups asked Swiss authorities Thursday to pursue war crime charges against a former Sri Lankan army commander now serving as a European diplomat, reflecting still-simmering Western concerns about the South Asian island nations' human rights record.

The Swiss-based groups Society for Threatened Peoples and TRIAL said they filed a confidential complaint with Switzerland's attorney general against Jagath Dias, a former major general in Sri Lanka's final offensive that smashed a 26-year rebellion by ethnic minority Tamils in May 2009.

The United Nations estimates between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed during the civil war. Dias, whose Sri Lankan forces captured some of the rebel Tamil Tigers' last strongholds, became Sri Lanka's deputy ambassador to Germany, Switzerland and the Vatican in September 2009.

Dias, reached at his embassy in Berlin, said it's easy to make accusations, but he denied being a war criminal.

"Anybody can accuse anyone of anything. I don't see that any of these allegations are well founded," he told The Associated Press. "We did our best to complete the military operation with zero casualties. How could we have released or rescued 300,000 people if we really wanted to destroy them?"

About 300,000 Tamil civilians were caught in the climactic battle. The government then carved camps out of the jungles of northern Sri Lanka to hold them and screen out former rebels who could stir up trouble.

The Swiss groups' complaint — based largely on the findings of the United Nations and other international organizations — says Dias' army division was responsible for massive bombing of civilians and hospitals.

The groups said in a statement that "it is high time that Switzerland gives a clear signal against impunity" by pressing criminal charges against him.

The office of Switzerland's federal prosecutors said it was examining the complaint. The Swiss Foreign Ministry said it takes the matter seriously, and has been in touch with Sri Lankan authorities.

Dias also was one of a number of Sri Lankan war leaders given diplomatic status after the war, but Benedict De Moerloose, TRIAL's legal counsel, said that won't insulate him against potential legal action in Switzerland for wartime actions.

"We've made a case based on the credible and serious accusations of international organizations and human rights organizations, and we consider that Jagath Dias may be arrested in Switzerland even if he has diplomatic status," he said.

In May, a U.N. expert called for Sri Lanka to investigate and file charges against soldiers shown in a graphic video obtained by Britain's Channel 4, shooting bound, blindfolded prisoners and abusing corpses in the final days of the war.

Dias — echoing the Sri Lankan government's view — said the video is staged and an attempt by pro-Tamil Tiger groups to undermine its hard-won victory in the country's 1983-2009 civil war.

"It's bogus — there is no fact at all," he said, claiming that the government has its own video footage that tells a completely different story.

The government insisted after the war ended there was no civilian bloodletting in the last months of fighting, contrary to a partial U.N. count showing at least 7,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the last five months of the conflict.

U.N.-appointed officials concluded both sides committed atrocities. A recent U.N. report said Sri Lankan government forces deliberately targeted civilians and hospitals, blocking food and medicine for hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone, while the Tamil Tigers recruited child soldiers and used civilians as human shields.

Sri Lanka vehemently rejected calls for an independent international probe in favor of setting up a national panel to investigate, while continuing to celebrate its battlefield victory.