Channel 4 rejects Sri Lanka 'war crimes' film criticism

Sri Lankan army soldiers patrol along the Jaffna Peninsula in April 2008 Sri Lanka maintains that no civilians were killed by troops during the war

The British TV station Channel 4 has strongly rejected claims by Sri Lanka's government that footage broadcast in a recent documentary is false.

The film in question appears to show troops executing Tamil prisoners, but Sri Lanka's government now says the killers were rebels in army uniform.

Channel 4 rejected the idea, saying its work had been meticulously checked.

It also stressed the film had made clear that both the army and Tamil Tiger rebels had committed atrocities.

The BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo says that the latest claims are part of a broad government campaign to discredit the Channel 4 documentary, entitled Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, which was broadcast last month.

Documentary row

The Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tigers, who had been fighting for a separate homeland, in 2009. An estimated 100,000 people died in the 26-year civil war.

In the documentary Channel 4 showed what it said was previously unseen footage of what purported to be extrajudicial killings of Tamils by the military during the closing phase of the war.

Start Quote

We stand by this excellent journalism and do not accept that the footage we broadcast has been doctored in any way”

End Quote Marion Bentley Channel 4 publicity manager

At the time of the broadcast Sri Lanka dismissed the footage as fabricated. Now the government claims to have new evidence about a segment of footage.

In the Channel 4 film, comments were audible in the Sinhala language. The channel said this was evidence that army soldiers were killing rebel Tamil Tiger prisoners. The Sri Lankan military is overwhelmingly ethnic Sinhalese.

But on Monday a pro-government Sri Lankan channel broadcast what it said was the "original" version of the same video. This is just over a minute long and the soundtrack is in Tamil. It claims the killers were Tamil rebels in army uniform.

In an email to the BBC, Channel 4 spokesperson Marion Bentley said all the mobile phone footage used in its documentary had been found to be authentic.

She said it had been independently verified by experts in forensic pathology and video analysis and had twice been subjected to months of tests by audio-visual experts commissioned by the UN.

Ms Bentley said the film's sources had been rigorously scrutinised and corroborated, and added that Britain's media regulatory body, Ofcom, had rejected three Sri Lankan government complaints about Channel 4.

The government's account also contradicts that of a senior UN human rights expert, Christof Heyns. He said last week that two independent experts had concluded that both the video and audio of the Channel 4 footage had not been tampered with. He asserts that the Sinhalese-language version is correct.

Channel 4 also described as "categorically untrue" allegations on the Sri Lankan defence ministry website that the film ignored Tamil Tiger atrocities.

Sri Lankan troops The Sri Lankan army is overwhelmingly ethnic Sinhalese

"The film features horrific footage of the aftermath of a Tamil Tiger suicide bombing, and throughout the film it is made clear that atrocities have been carried out by both sides," Ms Bentley said.

Journalist challenge

Meanwhile, a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists which has also publicised the controversial mobile phone footage has challenged the government to submit its Tamil-language version for expert authentication.

Sanath Balasuriya of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) asked how the government could declare its validity when it had previously alleged that the video was acted and faked.

The Sri Lankan authorities and military deny that any of their number committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in the final controversial months of the war in 2009.

However, interviewed by the BBC's Hard Talk programme on Tuesday, Rajiva Wijesinha, an adviser to President Rajapaksa, admitted that some government shells may have fallen in hospital compounds in the war zone.

But he strenuously denied that civilians in the compounds were deliberately targeted.

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