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Page last updated at 13:46 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 14:46 UK

S Lanka judge rebuffed over camps

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo

Displaced people near Omantai
The government says the UN must take some blame for camp conditions

A Sri Lankan minister has said that a top judge is "entitled to his own opinion" after criticising conditions in camps for displaced Tamils.

Chief Justice Sarath Silva had said people in the camps were living in immense distress.

Thousands of people have been housed in the camps before and after the end of the war against Tamil rebels in May.

Aid agencies and the UN have expressed concern about their plight and have demanded better access to them.

'Pathetic situation'

The Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, told the BBC that Chief Justice Silva had simply expressed his own point of view after his first visit to the camps, where more than a quarter of a million Tamils are detained.

Injured in Vavuniya
The camps have to cope with treating the wounded

The top judge, who is about to retire, said in a speech on Wednesday that there were no words to describe the displaced people's suffering and grief, as he put it, and their pathetic situation.

"I was unable to console them," he said.

He said there were queues of 50 to 100 yards (metres) for the toilet, and people living 10 to a tent.

The judge said that people were beyond the protection of the law.

But Mr Samarasinghe said this was not the case and that anyone, even those in the camps, had access to free legal counsel.

He said he agreed with some of the chief justice's criticisms of toilets and tents - facilities which, he said, were the responsibility of the UN children's fund (Unicef) and its refugee agency (UNHCR).

But a Unicef spokesman, James Elder, rebuffed the minister's allegation.

He said that ultimate responsibility for the camps rested with the government, and that the UN's support had been greatly hindered by the government's restrictions on access to the camps.

Mr Elder said that if the government would let more of the camp occupants leave to stay with host families, many congestion problems would be instantly solved.

The government says it is screening everyone for possible connections with the defeated LTTE or Tamil Tiger rebels.



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