Sri Lanka bars rights experts ahead of Commonwealth summit

Sri Lankan police officers looks at a billboard featuring a windmill announcing the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo next week. —  AFP pic
Sri Lankan police officers looks at a billboard featuring a windmill announcing the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo next week. — AFP pic

COLOMBO, Nov 8 — Sri Lanka, which faces international censure over alleged war crimes, has revoked visas of human rights experts for a meeting coinciding with a Commonwealth summit, the International Bar Association said today.

The London-based IBA's team of experts had their visas withdrawn ahead of their planned attendance at a seminar next week in Colombo, where the 53-member Commonwealth bloc also holds its summit - an event that takes place every two years.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka said the government's decision to block their foreign guest speakers amounted to a “clear assault” on freedom of speech and association.

The International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) was due to attend a seminar titled: “Making Commonwealth Values a Reality: the Rule of Law and the Independence of the Legal Profession.”

IBAHRI said Sri Lankan authorities revoked the visas on Wednesday, saying they were unable to “facilitate any visits” during an “embargoed period from October 20 to November 20”.

The visas had been issued in August.

“By denying entry to the IBAHRI delegation, the government of Sri Lanka is demonstrating to the world its determination to block freedom of speech and independent discussion in the country,” IBAHRI co-chair Sternford Moyo said in a statement.

He said Sri Lanka was trying to leave Commonwealth heads “cocooned and isolated”.

“The argument from the government is that we did not get permission from the foreign ministry to hold the seminar,” Upul Jayasuriya, chief of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) which was organising the seminar, told AFP.

“We don't need their permission, there is no legal requirement for that. This is a clear assault on the freedom of expression and association.”

Jayasuriya said BASL had similar parallel legal gatherings during previous summits in Sri Lanka and that authorities placed no obstacles in their way.

Sri Lanka's foreign ministry said the local organisers had not obtained “clearance” to hold the seminar and stressed there could be no seminar with foreign participation because of “road closures, non-availability of hotels and accommodation”.

“It is categorically rejected that entry visas have been denied to a delegation of IBAHRI, as alleged by IBAHRI in a press statement,” the ministry said in a statement.

However, both local organisers of the November 13 seminar and IBAHRI insisted their delegation had been granted visas on August 28 and they were later revoked Wednesday.

The IBA had been critical of Sri Lanka's impeachment earlier this year of chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake who had given rulings that were considered to be unfavourable to the administration.

Two legal experts hired by the Commonwealth had noted that the impeachment was a violation of Commonwealth values of judicial independence and rule of law.

Sri Lanka's hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) four years after the end of the decades-long Tamil separatist war is already mired in controversy.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is boycotting CHOGM to protest against Sri Lanka's failure to probe its troops over allegations they killed up to 40,000 civilians while defeating Tamil rebels in 2009. — AFP

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