7 Jan 2010

Sri Lanka execution video ‘appears authentic’

Sri Lankan officials branded as fake the video of alleged executions by Sri Lankan Armed Forces broadcast by Channel 4 News, but a UN investigation said it “appears authentic”.

Jonathan Miller’s report contains images that some viewers may find distressing.

The video was obtained by the group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka and Channel 4 News broadcast it on 25 August 2009. It provoked an angry reaction, with Sri Lankan army spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara immediately saying the footage was a fabrication designed to discredit security forces.

However, the report, commissioned by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, examined the video frame-by-frame and a group of experts said they could find no evidence that the video was a fake.

UN expert analysis
Forensic video analyst Jeff Spivack concluded that the technical attributes of the images were entirely consistent with mobile phone footage. He also said there was no evidence of editing or image manipulation.

Mr Spivack presented frame-by-frame analysis of video and audio recordings, rejecting Sri Lankan assertions that the footage had been tampered with.

Pathologist Daniel Spitz concluded that the two executions appeared real.

The body reaction, movement and blood evidence of both victims are entirely consistent with what you'd expect, he said.

Ballistics expert Peter Diaczuk's report included a picture of the 7.62mm AK-47 assault rifle used in the shootings. He conducted experiments and videoed live firing.

Recoil, movement of the weapon and the shooter and the gases expelled from the muzzle in both shootings were consistent with firing live ammunition, he said.

After 26 years of cold-blooded killing by both sides, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009; the Tigers’ demise as violent and bloody as the campaign they had waged for a homeland.

With Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire, many claim targeted, there were allegations of brutal abuse by both sides.

In August 2009 Channel 4 News was sent a chilling video depicting the execution of nine bound, blindfolded men. We were told they were Tamils.

The source, a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, claimed it was filmed by a Sri Lankan soldier on his mobile phone last January.

Jonathan Miller’s report contains images that some viewers may find distressing.

The decision to broadcast the pictures caused a controversy which embroiled Channel 4 News and went as far as the UN Secretary General and the top echelons of the US government.

Sri Lanka accused Channel 4 News of deceitful journalism and malicious intent.

The Colombo government strenuously denied the authenticity of the footage, disputing the credibility of our source and demanding retraction.

“The conclusion clearly is that the video tape is authentic.” Philip Alston

Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, released a report on the video in January 2010. He said he had concluded that the video is genuine and called for a war crimes investigation.

“The conclusion clearly is that the video tape is authentic,” he said. “I call for independent inquiry to be established to carry out an impartial investigation into war crimes and other grave violations of international humanitarian and human rights law allegedly committed in Sri Lanka.”

In his report, Philip Alston says that after viewing the pictures, he asked the Sri Lanka government to conduct an independent investigation. Initially, he says, they refused.

Who is Philip Alston?
Philip Alston has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions since 2004.
He is the John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University, teaching international law and international human rights law primarily.
Alston was chief-of-staff to a cabinet minister in his native Australia from 1974-75, and discrimination commissioner for the Australian Capital Territory for three years.
His other work for the UN includes chairing the UN committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UNICEF's legal adviser when it was drafting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and directed the project that resulted in the Human Rights Agenda for the European Union in 2000.
In September 2009, Philip Alston told Channel 4 News: "I am able to say very clearly that these images (of the executions) are gravely disturbing, that they raise prima facie concerns about significant extra-judicial executions and a full-scale investigation should be undertaken."

In September 2009, a government spokesman was interviewed on Channel 4 News about the UN rapporteur’s request.

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have to have so-called independent inquiries into any Tom, Dick and Harry allegation,” Professor Rajiva Wijesinha of the Sri Lankan ministry of disaster management said.

The Sri Lankan government had already announced to a roomful of foreign diplomats that they had “scientifically established beyond any doubt that this video was a fake”.

The Sri Lankan experts insisted that the footage could not possibly have been shot on a mobile phone. Their technical analysis concluded that there had been “very amateurish” video editing and crude audio dubbing.

The United Nations special rapporteur questioned the independence of the Sri Lankan experts, two of whom worked for the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. Releasing his report, he branded their conclusions “more impressionistic than scientific”. He said they were not impartial and that they had not been thorough.

Foreign Editor Ben De Pear on the UN verdict:
"We found ourselves dragged into the still unfinished business of Sri Lanka's bitter civil war, and into the centre of an argument which involved human rights organisations, the highest echelons of the United Nations, the American ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and most vocally and actively the government of Sri Lanka. "They bombarded us with emails, letters, threats of legal action, launched an internet propaganda campaign, and even organised a protest outside Channel 4's headquarters in London, where scores of government supporters with printed placards branded Channel 4 as biased, liars, and declared we were a 'disgrace to ethical broadcasting'.
"Meanwhile they tried to use us to track down the sources of our story - sources who received death threats.
"The Sri Lankan government called press conferences, released technical investigations (which prove, they say, that the footage was faked or doctored), and dispatched senior civil servants and politicians to London, New York and Geneva to publicly defend their position and criticise Channel 4 News.
"This was swiftly followed by a series of complaints lodged with the British regulator Ofcom backed by an attempt to seek anonymity so that their identity as the complainant was not disclosed to us."
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The three experts the UN commissioned did raise some unexplained elements in the video.

There is the question of the date embedded in the video file which does not line up with when Channel 4 News were told it was filmed. There are also unexplained frames at the end of the footage. The pathologist also questions two unexplained body movements among the apparently dead victims.

The UN Special Rapporteur concludes that these anomalies are not enough to undermine what he calls “strong indications of authenticity”.

The Sri Lankan government disagreed. The foreign minister responded by casting doubt on the UN’s findings, telling a Colombo newspaper they were ambiguous. He accused the UN special rapporteur of playing politics, releasing his findings just before a presidential election.

Channel 4 News Correspondent Sarah Smith at the UN:
The special rapporteur told Sarah Smith that if the events on the tape are real, then this definitely is a war crime. "He's taking this very seriously," she said.
"The problem is the UN cannot force Sri Lanka to accept an investigation or impose one on them, and the special rapporteur told me that the problem is, of course, unless the Sri Lankan authorities agree to cooperate, especially the military, then it will be impossible to identify that you can see on the tape or work out where or when this incident took place."