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New Democrat MP of Tamil background faced 'political intimidation' in Sri Lanka

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OTTAWA - A New Democrat MP of Tamil heritage says she experienced "political intimidation" during a private visit to her native Sri Lanka, but that authorities stopped short of trying to kick her out of the country.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Rathika Sitsabaiesan said she was warned by Sri Lankan officials that she could be arrested and deported.

Canadian officials were scrambling on New Year's Eve to determine the veracity of reports that Sitsabaiesan, a Toronto-area MP, had been placed under house arrest.

Sitsabaiesan said in the statement that she had received word from the Canadian High Commission in Colombo that there was in fact no Sri Lankan arrest warrant in her name.

Sitsabaiesan, 32, came to Canada with her family at the age of five and was elected to the House of Commons in 2011 in the Toronto-area riding of Scarborough-Rouge River.

She played a prominent role in New Democrat efforts to persuade the Conservative government to boycott a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Sri Lanka last November. Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not attend, citing the Sri Lankan government's human rights record. However, Deepak Obhrai, a parliamentary secretary, did represent Canada at the Colombo meeting.

The New Democrats and others have called for the Asian country's government to submit to an investigation of alleged war crimes during the lengthy civil war between the military and Tamil insurgents seeking an independent homeland.

"My experiences since arriving in Sri Lanka are a reminder that defending principles of human rights is not easy, but I continue to believe that it is only through open dialogue and freedom of expression that people can ultimately achieve healing and reconciliation," Sitsabaiesan said in the statement.

She added that she now looks forward "to exploring and learning more about the country of my birth."

New Democrat MP Paul Dewar, who has spoken to Sitsabaiesan, said Wednesday his caucus colleague had been followed and closely monitored by Sri Lankan authorities during her stay.

"Her intention was to visit the country of her birth, and to visit friends and family," said Dewar, the party's foreign affairs critic.

"As soon as she arrived it became clear that the authorities were keeping a close tab on her. And then she started to receive warnings that she should be careful of whom she speaks to, where she goes.

"This is a pattern we've seen with the Sri Lankan government."

Two Green Party MPs — one from Australia, the other from New Zealand — had their passports confiscated in November just before a planned news conference in Sri Lanka to describe human rights abuses they were told of during their trip.

Dewar said authorities showed up at Sitsabaiesan's hotel Tuesday night to try to meet with her but she did not respond.

Officials were concerned that Sitsabaiesan, who is in the country on a visitor's visa, had met with a Sri Lankan MP and had visited an orphanage, Dewar said. The visits involved family, he added, noting the local MP was a cousin.

Sitsabaiesan should not be prevented from seeing a family member who happens to be active in politics, he said.

"That's why we wanted to be very public about what she was doing, whom she was meeting with. And that we didn't believe, and she doesn't believe, that this is in any way shape or form outside of what the conditions were for her visa."

Officials at the Canadian High Commission were in touch with Sitsabaiesan again Wednesday and learned that she had not been interviewed by Sri Lankan authorities about her visa, said Caitlin Workman, a Foreign Affairs spokeswoman.

Dewar said the Sri Lankan government is concerned about people seeing what is going on in the country and is therefore curtailing access. "If someone who's a member of Parliament is being followed and restricted, just think of what happens every day to Sri Lankans of Tamil origin."

Sitsabaiesan intends to stay until Saturday when her visa expires, he said.

Dewar added that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird had contacted him to say he was aware of what was going on, "and we certainly appreciate that support."

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