COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka said on Monday it had demanded Washington drop an attempt to question its top military official over possible human rights violations in the last phase of the country’s 25-year civil war.
Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said he had been told General Sarath Fonseka, the chief of Defense Staff, had been asked by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to attend an interview aimed at gathering information against Sri Lanka’s defense secretary.
Fonseka, who led the army to victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May, is visiting the United States where his daughters attend university.
The foreign minister said an attorney at the Department of Homeland Security told Fonseka the aim of the interview was to pull together information against Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and a naturalized U.S. citizen.
The department’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division would normally have authority only to probe a matter related to Fonseka’s prospective U.S. citizenship as a green card holder and not any possible human rights violations.
Bogollagama said Fonseka, army chief at the time of the final offensive against the Tigers, had received a letter followed by a phone call to attend an interview on Wednesday. Fonseka is now in Oklahoma.
“The Department of Homeland Security should forthwith desist from any endeavor to interview General Fonseka,” Bogollagama told reporters, adding he had called in the U.S. ambassador to Colombo, Patricia Butenis, to give her that message.
“Whatever information General Fonseka may have acquired in the exercise of his official duties is privileged by nature. Therefore, it cannot legally be shared with third parties without the prior approval and consent of the Sri Lanka authorities.”
Asked for details of the interview request and the reasons behind it, Jeff Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Colombo, said: “We are looking into it.”
Sri Lanka faces heavy Western pressure over its human rights record.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on October 22 suggested an external inquiry in Sri Lanka similar to Gaza on war crimes [ID:nLN294865], while the European Union is considering whether to withdraw a trade concession that helps Sri Lanka’s top export, garments. [ID:nLJ731429]
Sri Lanka said last week that it would appoint a panel to probe a report by the U.S. State Department detailing possible atrocities by both warring parties in the final battle of the 25-year war.
The government defeated the Tamil Tigers in May in a bitter final phase led by Fonseka with both Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving all the necessary support.
Fonseka’s name has now surfaced as a potential presidential contender to President Rajapaksa, speculation opposition parties have been happy to fan against the incumbent’s enormous post-war popularity.
But the government has said there was no rift between Fonseka and Rajapaksa, who promoted the army commander to the Chief of Defense Staff in July, which many analysts saw as neutralizing the wide powers Fonseka had in wartime.
Additional reporting by Bryson Hull; Editing by Dean Yates