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UN rights chief lashes back at Sri Lanka claims

Friday - 9/20/2013, 10:51am  ET

GENEVA (AP) -- The United Nations' top human rights official lashed back Friday at the Sri Lankan government, accusing some of its most senior officials of waging a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting her and her office.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, in a statement that's unusual for a top U.N. official to direct at a U.N.-member country, took aim at Sri Lanka's powerful Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and other government officials, on the heels of her visit to the South Asian island nation last month.

During the visit at least three government ministers "joined in an extraordinary array of distortion and abuse" which is continuing now, Pillay's spokesman, Rupert Colville, told reporters in Geneva. "We consider it deeply regrettable that government officials and other commentators continue what appears to be a coordinated campaign of disinformation in an attempt to discredit the high commissioner or to distract from the core messages of her visit."

On Sept. 12, Pillay's office sent a formal complaint to the government demanding that it immediately retract and publicly correct "misinformation which has -- not surprisingly -- aroused much disquiet in Sri Lanka," Colville said.

Pillay complained that the defense secretary made widely reported but false claims that she had asked President Rajapaksa during their private meeting to remove a statue of Sri Lanka's first prime minister from Colombo's Independence Square.

"Firstly, we categorically deny that the high commissioner ever uttered a single word about the statue of Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake at any point during her visit to Sri Lanka, let alone asked the president to remove it. This claim is without a shred of truth," Colville said. "Secondly, there has been a further distortion concerning comments the high commissioner made to the president concerning a flag in Independence Square."

Pillay told the president she was concerned about "rising inter-communal tensions and incitement to violence on the basis of religion in Sri Lanka," and asked the president why the flag of one religious community was flying next to the national flag in such a symbolic location, Colville said.

She suggested "it might be more inclusive to fly only the national flag," he added. "At no time did she request any flag to be removed."

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