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Jayasuriya backtracks over responsibility for war, blames Fonseka

A former Sri Lankan military commander who stands accused of overseeing war crimes has backtracked over claims of responsibility for the military during the final stages of the armed conflict, and instead blamed Sri Lanka's former army commander Sarath Fonseka.

Speaking in an interview to Ceylon Today, Jagath Jayasuriya who fled his post as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Brazil last week after a law suit accusing him of war crimes, contradicted previous public statements on his role.

A senior UN official also reassured him that he would not come under fire over the reports of war crimes, he stated. "In fact Radhika Coomaraswamy, who was the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed conflict… told me that that there is ‘nothing against you’," Mr Jayasuriya told Ceylon today.

“I was never the fighting commander,” Mr Jayasuriya said. Instead, he claimed Mr Fonseka delivered orders direct to troops on the front line.

Responding to questions regarding the execution and torture of Tamils, Mr Jayasuriya admitted that “those things may have happened on the frontline at the last minute I think”.

However, he denied any responsibility for human rights violations.

“You cannot expect… Lt Colonel, who is commanding about 800 persons, to know what a private soldier has done,” he said. “Of course, it can be reported. But I don’t know if that happened.”

“On the ground, whether something like that had happened or not, I don’t know because I was not on the frontline warring. I was in the Vanni Camp. At the highest level we don’t know. At the lower level, they may be knowing whether it happened or not.”

“A General will not know what a soldier is doing on the frontline,” he claimed.

Details of the Sri Lankan military's chain of command during the final stages of the armed conflict in which tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed. Source: ITJP

Mr Jayasuriya was commander of the Sri Lankan security forces in Vanni during the government's massive military offensive in 2007 until its closing days in 2009. He stood alongside Sri Lankan troops as they fired artillery shells in a victory ceremony on the beaches of Mullivaikkaal in May 2009.

The commander was then appointed as Ambassador to Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Suriname in 2015, by the current government led by Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena. A video outlining the charges leveled against former military general Jagath Jayasuriya's involvement can be found below.

A Question of Command Responsibility (English) from NoFireZone on Vimeo.

Previously Mr Jayasuriya had boasted about his role in the final Sri Lankan offensive in the North-East. The general has repeatedly restated his roles and responsibilities in overseeing the final military operations.

“The entire northern operation was conducted in the tactical area of responsibility that came under my command,” he said in 2010. “I was actively involved in the ground operations executing directives from Army headquarters and the Ministry of Defence.”

“Overall I... was responsible for the conduct of the whole thing,” he told the Sri Lankan government appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that same year.

In 2012 Mr Jayasuriya spoke of his personal contact with senior political leaders during the massacres - including then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rakapaksa. He stated in an interview,

“President Mahinda Rajapaksa was determined and did not give in to pressures of the international community to suddenly stop the military operations when the Wanni humanitarian operations were entering a decisive phase around April 2009.”

“I still remember, the President, personally giving me a call instructing me to pursue the operations as planned, though he remained under enormous pressure to stop it. It was the country’s political leadership that gave strength to us to be successful.”

However this week, Mr Jayasuriya sought to pin the blame on Mr Fonseka, who said on Friday he was ready to testify in against his former colleague if legal action was commenced.

“Army Commander Sarath Fonseka went to China with his mobile phone and the map of the Vanni” during the final stages of the armed conflict, claimed Mr Jayasuriya.

“Fonseka was contactable on telephone. Fonseka’s wife used to tell us ‘his entire bed was taken up for the map’. I worked with him, so I also know he does that. He used to call and verify reports. I can say categorically he had given me in writing that I have no operational command of troops in the Vanni and that I will only do logistics.

“So, I was not giving orders,” he said.

The general went on to deny reports that he oversaw torture at the notorious Joseph Camp in Vavuniya, where he was commander of the site.

“I had my headquarters inside the same complex I was responsible for,” he said. “But there were Commanders at various levels in other camps in the same premises. So, if something had happened in those camps I am not responsible.”

He went on to shirk responsibility for the camp, adding that “overall in charge was the Vavuniya Brigade Commander who was responsible for the security”.

“I was not the one in charge of security,” he said. “The entire complex was not under my command.”

Mr Jayasuriya went on to deny reports that he had fled Brazil, where had taken up a posting as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the country. Human rights groups, including the South Africa based International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) had filed lawsuits accusing him of overseeing war crime.    

“Yasmin Sooka has lied to the media,” he said of the ITJP’s executive director.

He went on to state that Ms Sooka, a South African human rights lawyer, and the ITJP “came up with allegations”.

“Sooka has never been to the Vanni camp and not been to Sri Lanka either.”

Mr Jayasuriya has now returned to Sri Lanka. This morning, the Sri Lankan president pledged that he would protect the former general, who also has the public support of the country’s former president and a cabinet minister.

See the full text of his interview with Ceylon Today here.