The US has imposed sanctions on Sri Lanka’s chief of army staff, Lt Gen Shavendra Silva, for war crimes committed at final stages of the conflict against the Tamil Tigers in 2009, when up to 70,000 Tamil civilians were killed.

The US travel ban against Silva and his family marks the first time any of the leading suspects in the mass killings have been held accountable on the world stage.

The sanctions come three months after the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary during the brutal counter-insurgency. His victory increased fears there would be a return to impunity for war crimes, and a creeping erosion of human rights protections.

During the 2008-09 conflict, General Silva was the commander of the army’s 58th division, which was accused of shelling “no-fire zones” where ten of thousands of civilians had been told by the government to take shelter as it mounted a final offensive.

Hundreds of Tamil Tiger fighters also disappeared after surrendering to Silva’s troops. His promotion to army chief in January 2019 triggered widespread outrage.

Frances Harrison, the programme coordinator of the International Truth and Justice Project, which advocates for accountability for mass crimes in Sri Lanka, said: “How on earth did the government of Sri Lanka think it would not have consequences when they appointed one of the most notorious commanders to head the army?

“Shavendra Silva’s promotion to army commander and acting chief of defence showed utter disdain for international law and disrespect to victims of the civil war.”

Harrison, the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, said: “Eyewitnesses say he was present at the surrender of hundreds of Tamils on the last day of the war who have subsequently disappeared in army custody – for years those mothers have been sitting in the hot sun in the roadside holding up photos of their children desperate to know what happened.

“This is not justice. It’s humiliation.”

The state department designation holds him accountable, through command responsibility for “in gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings, by the 58th division of the Sri Lanka army during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009.”

Sri Lanka has ignored UN human rights council resolutions it signed agreeing to establish an system to hold to account the perpetrators of mass killings.

Since Silva became head of the army and Rajapaksa was elected president, victims’ families and witnesses have been under pressure to withdraw their testimony, according to Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“After that, families of the disappeared, have been receiving threats from from security forces asking them to withdraw their protests, and their complaints,” Ganguly said. “They have been getting calls from the intelligence agencies asking about their meetings and plans.”

In a statement accompanying the sanctions announcement, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo said: “We urge the Sri Lankan government to promote human rights, hold accountable individuals responsible for war crimes and human rights violations, advance security sector reform, and uphold its other commitments to pursue justice and reconciliation.”

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