By Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO (Reuters) - A Tamil group criticised Australia's immigration minister on Thursday for visiting northern Sri Lanka without meeting Tamil leaders, days after Australia returned a boat of asylum seekers, including Tamils, under its hardline border security policy.
Some of the 41 Sri Lankans intercepted and sent home by Australia said on Tuesday they had been mistreated by Australian Customs, accusations Immigration Minister Scott Morrison denied.
A second boat carrying 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers remained in legal limbo as the Australian High Court considered whether their interception was legal.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to power last September partly because of his tough stance on asylum seekers. His government has touted its success in blocking such boats, saying there have been no illegal arrivals since last December.
During a visit on Wednesday to the northern city of Jaffna, Morrison met the governor of the Northern Province, G.A. Chandrasiri, a presidential appointee.
Tamil groups were upset Morrison did not meet the province's chief minister, C.V. Vigneswaran, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, the party that finished first in last year's regional election.
"He did not meet any single Tamil representative or civil society group," Tamil National Alliance spokesman Suresh Premachandran told Reuters. "I still don't know the intention of his brief visit. He may want to show that he visited Jaffna. But he did not speak to any Tamils."
Most of the group returned to Sri Lanka are members of the majority Sinhalese community and not minority Tamils, who have alleged persecution by Sri Lankan authorities since the defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists in the north in 2009.
Morrison's schedule was organised by the Sri Lankan government, a spokesman for the minister said, adding that he has previously visited the north with members of the Tamil community.
He was visiting Sri Lanka to hand over two patrol boats to strengthen the island nation's surveillance against people smuggling.
"The purpose was to hand over the boats on the invitation of defence ministry. The date was fixed long before the people tried to enter Australia," Sri Lankan Deputy Foreign Minister Neomal Perera said. "It was unfortunate the visit came during these days."
SEEKING A BETTER LIFE
The United Nations has launched an inquiry into war crimes allegedly committed by both Sri Lankan state forces and Tamil rebels in the final months of the civil war, saying the government has failed to investigate properly. Sri Lanka rejects such allegations as interference in its internal affairs.
While Sri Lanka says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, rights groups say Tamils seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military. They say some Sinhalese who criticise the government are also at risk.
The 37 Sinhalese and four Tamils on the first boat were returned to Sri Lanka over the weekend and appeared in court in the port city of Galle. Five people suspected of being the ringleaders of a people-smuggling operation were detained and 27 released on bail. Children were released without charge.
Daluwattage Don Ranjith, one of the five people detained, told Reuters through his lawyer that he was on board the vessel as an asylum seeker, not an organiser.
"What we are saying is we were under persecution in this country ... We fled as refugees," Ranjith, who is Sinhalese, said in a statement issued via his lawyer Lakshan Dias.
Dias said he could not share information on how or why Ranjith was being persecuted without his client's permission.
Other passengers told Reuters they had been trying to reach New Zealand, not Australia, to seek jobs for a "better life".
Asked by reporters in Colombo if he was concerned the 41 would be mistreated by Sri Lankan authorities, Morrison said: "No, I'm not."
(Additional reporting by Jane Wardell in SYDNEY; Writing by Shyamantha Asokan in NEW DELHI; Editing by Douglas Busvine)