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12 March, 2010 - Published 16:23 GMT

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

US slams Lanka rights record

The US State Department in its annual report on human rights for 2009 has been highly critical of the Sri Lankan government and also of the now defeated rebel group, the Tamil Tigers.

It said the government or paramilitary groups close to it were involved in summary killings and disappearances and that lawyers and journalists were harassed and victimised.

But it did also acknowledge some improvements, noting that disappearances are down in number.

The State Department accuses the government, pro-government paramilitaries and the Tamil Tigers of all using excessive force against civilians while Sri Lanka’s war still continued, until May.

'Traitor' journalists

It says the war-affected parts of the country saw the greatest number of political disappearances, estimated to be in the hundreds.

It also highlights the case of an ethnic Tamil aid worker, Stephen Sunthararaj, abducted in the capital last May by men it said were wearing Sri Lankan army uniforms.

He has not been seen since.

The State Department said “numerous” people were killed last year by suspected paramilitary members including those from pro-government Tamil factions.

It also recalled the destruction of an independent television station’s premises and the still unexplained killing or beating of certain journalists, adding that the then police chief described journalists as “traitors who would be dealt with”.

Contacted by the BBC the government’s former human rights secretary, now a parliamentary candidate, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, said there was “no intimidation” of the press in Sri Lanka.

He said it was “nonsense” for Washington to say people were afraid to report instances of disappearance.

But he did say that cases of abducted people, including Mr Sunthararaj and others, were “terrible”; and that the authorities should be, in his words, constantly vigilant to prevent such cases and improve human rights.