General accused of human rights abuses named Sri Lanka’s army chief

Silva’s appointment comes as President Maithripala Sirisena’s and his government face criticism that they failed to heed warnings ahead of a series of suicide bomb attacks in April. (Representational Image)

Sri Lanka’s president on Monday appointed a general accused of grave human rights abuses in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s long civil war as the country’s new army chief.

The new commander, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, who is now promoted to the rank of a Lieutenant General, was in charge of the 58th Division, which encircled the final stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels in the last stages of the civil war in 2009. Rights groups have accused the pision of violating international human rights laws, including shelling a hospital.

Silva’s appointment comes as President Maithripala Sirisena’s and his government face criticism that they failed to heed warnings ahead of a series of suicide bomb attacks in April. The attacks on Easter Sunday by two local Muslim groups that had pledged allegiance to Islamic State group killed more than 260 people.

Silva is respected by many in Sri Lanka, mostly among the ethnic Sinhalese majority. He has denied attacking the hospital in the final stages of the war.

The government declared victory over the rebels in May 2009, ending the Tamil Tigers 26-year campaign for an independent state for minority ethnic Tamils. Both the Sri Lankan military and the rebels have been accused of war time abuses.

The United Nations has said some 45,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in just the final months of the conflict.

According to a 2015 investigation by the U.N office of the high commissioner of human rights, near the end of the war Silva was tasked with capturing the Putumattalan area in from the Tamil Tigers. The report found evidence that both a hospital in the area as well as a UN hub were shelled.

"Witnesses alleged the use of cluster-type munitions by the Sri Lankan armed forces in their attacks on Putumattalan hospital and the United Nations hub," the report said.

The government promised to the U.N human rights council in 2015 to investigate the allegations and involve foreign prosecutors and judges but nothing has been done so far.

The US Embassy in Colombo expressed concern over Silva’s appointment.

"The allegations of gross human rights violations against him, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible," the embassy said in a statement.

"This appointment undermines Sri Lanka’s international reputation and its commitments to promote justice and accountability, especially at a time when the need for reconciliation and social unity is paramount."