The Hague: Five Sri Lankans accused of supporting the Tamil Tiger rebels in their country's 26-year civil war went on trial in a Dutch court on Thursday, in a case that hinges on whether judges rule that the Tigers were legitimate freedom fighters or terrorists.
Prosecutors accuse the men — all ethnic Tamils who live in the Netherlands — of illegally funding the group, which has been branded a terrorist group by the European Union, and membership of an international terror organisation.
But a lawyer for two of the suspects said the men were just collecting money for Tamil victims of the bloody conflict and rejected the assertion that the Tamil Tigers, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE, is a terror group.
Instead, he drew comparisons with Libyan fighters who battled to oust Moammar Gadhafi and received support from the international community.
"There has not been any proper legal debate about whether the LTTE is a terrorist organisation or whether they are a group such as the Libyan rebels now," defence attorney Victor Koppe said outside court.
Thursday's hearing opened with a judge reading out transcripts of interviews with witnesses while the five suspects sat listening through headsets to simultaneous translations.
Prosecutors and defence attorneys are expected to lay out their cases later this month and a verdict is likely toward the end of October.
Koppe said if the three-judge panel at the Hague District Court rejects the terror label, "then the whole case falls apart. Then what you have is legitimate support to freedom fighters. Exactly like everybody now is supporting the Libyan rebels."
The Sri Lanka war ended in May 2009 when government troops crushed the rebels and killed their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The rebels had been fighting to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils.
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans fled to Britain, other European countries and neighbouring India during the civil war. Rights groups have accused both sides in the conflict of possible war crimes.
First Published: Thursday, September 15, 2011, 20:16