Sri Lanka introduces witness protection program to encourage people to testify

Sri Lanka has introduced a witness protection program to encourage people to testify at inquiries into killings and alleged human rights violations.

Victims and witnesses testifying at a Presidential Commission of Inquiry would receive "necessary material assistance and the commission would ensure strict confidentiality and anonymity," the president's office said in a statement.

Human rights groups have said past probes into allegations of rights abuse in Sri Lanka's decades-long separatist conflict have failed in part because witnesses are reluctant to testify for fear of retribution from either side.

The witness protection program would include "independent security personnel, safe houses and relocation of witnesses within or outside Sri Lanka," the statement said.

"There is also provision for witnesses to use pseudonyms and give evidence in camera and even evidence via video link for those residing outside the country," it said.

The commission has been mandated to investigate 16 major incidents including the 2005 assassination of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, execution-style killing of 17 workers from Action Against Hunger aid group, and a raid by the air force that allegedly killed 51 schoolgirls last August.

Sri Lanka is witnessing an escalation of violence and human rights violations as the separatist conflict continues to worsen.

Some 5,000 people have been killed in the past 19 months despite a Norway-brokered cease-fire between government troops and separatist Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

The rebels have fought the government since 1893 to create an independent state for the island's 3.1 million ethnic Tamil minority who have suffered decades of discrimination by successive Sinhalese-dominated governments.

About 70,000 people have died in the conflict.