Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister has strongly defended a commission of inquiry into the massacre of 17 aid workers after an independent human rights group accused senior police officials of a cover-up.
"We want the truth to come out," Rohitha Bogollagama said yesterday. Asked why the commission had still not completed its investigation after 18 months, the Foreign Minister replied: "We can't dictate the course of justice, we can only encourage the process by facilitating its work."
The commission has not completed any of the cases and an international panel of experts appointed as advisers resigned earlier this week, claiming the investigation did not meet internationally-recognised standards. Mr Bogollagama said the panel had failed to make regular visits to Sri Lanka and had got bogged down with "procedural issues".
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka's University Teachers for Human Rights directly accused the security forces of murdering the 17 aid workers. In a 29-page report it said that two police officers, a paramilitary and a team of commandos had entered the offices where the aid workers were based, forced them to kneel down and then shot them.
The government forces apparently accused the workers – all involved in tsunami relief projects with the French charity Action Against Hunger – of aiding the rebel Tamil Tigers.
The report said: "The country has learnt to be comfortable with grave crimes going unpunished one after another, with the certainty that even graver ones would follow. The answer to the question why Sri Lanka is steeped in recurrent gross crimes, especially against the minorities, that go unchecked is not far to seek. For years, the state has gone on denying, obfuscating, abusing detractors, intimidating or killing witnesses and making matters progressively worse."
The killing of the aid workers, known as the Muttur Massacre, happened in August 2006 in an area that had been the scene of fierce fighting between government forces and Tamil rebels.
The government has denied responsibility. "If they have eyewitnesses and direct evidence, let them come forward," Mr Bogollagama said. "We welcome that."
A spokesman for the human rights group, Rajan Hoole, told the Associated Press that its members had interviewed more than a dozen family members and residents of Muttur and had also received important information from the police.
It also interviewed those who collected the corpses of the aid workers and carried out its own forensic examination of ammunition left at the scene. "The incident itself is by no means unique. These massacres have been going on for almost 25 years and no one has been tried or punished," said Mr Hoole.
The Sri Lankan government has been involved in a civil war with Tamil separatists for more than 20 years. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in that period and there have been countless accusations of atrocities by both sides. A ceasefire signed in 2001 began to fall apart in late 2005 and was abandoned this year. Fighting has intensified recently as the government tries to fulfil its pledge to defeat or permanently weaken the rebels by the end of this year. Fourteen people were reported to have been killed yesterday.
Mr Bogollagama was in London for talks with ministers. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, discussed human rights with his counterpart and pressed Sri Lanka to hold "credible" elections, the first of which are scheduled to take place next month in Eastern Province.