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August 21, 2017

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Australia faces pressure to probe alleged war crimes linked to Sri Lankan envoy

CANBERRA -- Australia's government came under pressure on Monday from rights groups and lawmakers to investigate Sri Lanka's top envoy to the country for war crimes, risking a diplomatic showdown ahead of a summit of leaders from 54 Commonwealth nations next week.

The International Commission of Jurists' (ICJ) Australian section has handed police direct and credible evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Sri Lanka Navy during the last stages of the bloody civil war against Tamil rebels in 2009, The Age newspaper said, citing unidentified sources.

Sri Lanka's Canberra high commissioner, former Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe was the navy's eastern and then northern areas commander, as well as chief of staff, in the last months of the war, during which naval ships allegedly fired on civilians as they fled the conflict, the paper quoted the ICJ as saying.

"The report ... is extremely serious," said Lee Rhiannon, a senator from Australia's influential Greens Party, which backs Prime Minister Julia Gillard's minority Labor government.

"With a delegation from Sri Lanka, headed up by their President Mahinda Rajapaksa due to arrive shortly in Perth for (the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting), the Australia government can no longer refuse to take action."

Police confirmed they were evaluating the ICJ's brief, received last Friday, but said in an e-mail that they would not comment on possible charges or action until the process was completed.

Australia's government, already wallowing in opinion polls, will be reluctant to add a diplomatic upset to domestic concerns about carbon taxes and border security already worrying voters.

Samarasinghe told The Age that all of his and the navy's actions in the final months of fighting were legal under the rules of conflict.

"There is no truth whatsoever of allegations of misconduct or illegal behavior. The Sri Lanka Navy did not fire at civilians during any stage and all action was taken to save the lives [of] civilians from clutches of terrorists," he said.

There was no evidence Samarasinghe was directly involved in or gave orders for shelling, The Age said, but the submission before Australian police stated that military superiors held "a command responsibility" for the actions of subordinates.

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