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NEW DELHI -- The United States has imposed an entry bar on Sri Lanka's army chief, Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, citing his alleged involvement in war crimes during the final stages of the country's civil war.

The travel restriction on the general is the first significant international penalty to be imposed on a Sri Lankan official over atrocities committed during the country's 26-year civil war with Tamil Tiger militants, which ground to a halt in 2009. The United Nations estimates that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians died in those final stages, many in extrajudicial killings, accusations the Sri Lankan government has denied.

The move was a rebuke to a Sri Lankan government that is stacked with officials accused of rights abuses during the civil war -- including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who won the presidential election in November. Rajapaksa was the defense secretary during the final years of the war and has appointed or promoted several officials accused of war crimes to important positions.

Now observers and diplomats fear Sri Lanka is slipping back into illiberal democracy. Since Rajapaksa became president, activists, journalists and opposition members have increasingly come under pressure from the government, which has harassed them through the courts, police investigations and pro-government media outlets.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have ignored calls from rights groups and the international community to investigate and prosecute war crimes. U.S. sanctions may prompt other countries to follow suit, or increase pressure for Sri Lanka to pursue its own tribunals, however flawed, observers said.

The sanction against Silva, announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will prevent the general and his family from entering the United States.

"I am designating Shavendra Silva ineligible for entry into the U.S. due to his involvement in extrajudicial killings during Sri Lanka's civil war," Pompeo tweeted Friday.

Sri Lanka's government was quick to denounce the decision, with a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declaring that there were "no substantiated or proven allegations" against Silva.

"It is disappointing that a foreign government should question the prerogative of the democratically elected president," the statement said.

But for Tamils still struggling with trauma from the war, the bar on Silva is both welcome and overdue.

"Our people have been waiting for justice for over a decade, and they are finally beginning to see the first moves by the international community to hold government officials accountable for crimes committed during the war," said Abraham Sumanthiran, a Sri Lankan lawmaker who represents a district in the island's predominantly Tamil northern province.

"At least now, the government of Sri Lanka must wake up to this reality and allow the perpetrators responsible for killing thousands of civilians to be brought to justice," Sumanthiran added.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the travel restriction and urged the European Union and Britain to consider similar sanctions against Silva and others accused of wartime violations.

A Section on 02/16/2020

Print Headline: U.S. bars Sri Lanka's army chief

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