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Editorial

A glimmer of hope?

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Wednesday 21st October, 2020

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reportedly undertaken to effect three significant changes to the 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution besides those the government is required to introduce in keeping with the Supreme Court determination on 20A to obviate the need for a referendum. They pertain to urgent bills, the size of the Cabinet and the constitutional safeguards introduced by the 19th Amendment anent the state auditing mechanism, we are told.

Flexibility is a virtue in democratic politics, and the government ought to soften its stand on 20A further so that more changes could be introduced, at the committee stage, with the concurrence of the party leaders. One can only hope that the final version of the Bill to be put to the vote will be acceptable to all stakeholders.

The Auditor General and his department must not be bound with any political fetters if they are to watch over public assets diligently and ward off threats thereto effectively. No state institution should be removed from the Auditor General’s purview on any grounds. If this country is to lift itself out of poverty, rampant corruption and misuse of public funds have to be eliminated. This is not something attainable without a powerful auditing outfit protected by constitutional safeguards.

President Rajapaksa has reportedly said that the number of Cabinet ministers will not be increased. The size of the Cabinet must not be increased under any circumstances. Instead, it must be downsized if possible. This country does not need more than a dozen Cabinet ministers. We have had 10 Ministers of Education, including nine in the provinces. The same goes for other vital sectors. When the Provincial Councils become functional again, we will have to maintain 45 ministers in the periphery and about 30 at the centre. A President with the people on his or her side need not worry about disgruntled elements within the ranks of his or her government, seeking ministerial posts. President Rajapaksa ought to learn from his elder brother’s experience. President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed jumbo Cabinets and accommodated all political dregs in them, to please them, but what happened to him in late 2014? Most of them turned against him and dislodged his administration.

Urgent Bills by their very nature are antithetical to the principle of people’s sovereignty. If people are sovereign, as the Constitution says, then they must be able to have a say in all Bills that affect their rights, freedoms, property, etc. There has to be an extensive public discussion on every proposed law. The President has reportedly decided to confine urgent Bills to situations arising from disasters, and national security exigencies. This sounds a sensible amendment, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Above all, the need for a constitutional provision to enable the post-enactment judicial review of laws cannot be overemphasised. At present, laws become faits accomplis upon being enacted.

The enactment of a judicially sanctioned Constitution or a constitutional amendment with a special parliamentary majority does not necessarily mean that it conforms to the best practices in democratic governance. The existing Constitution, which passed muster with the Supreme Court and was enacted with an unprecedented five-sixths majority, in 1978, is a case in point. It has since been everyone’s bugbear. The 13th and 18th Amendments also serve as examples.

Meanwhile, it is not only the full-blown resurgence of COVID-19 that has adversely affected the government’s political health, which is apparently failing; its obsession with 20A has also caused its popularity to drop discernibly. The government ought to be mindful of the reaction of the youth, in particular. They welcomed last year’s regime change, which rekindled their hope. They went through a catharsis of sorts and gave expression to their emotions through the medium of art. They took to the streets, wielding brushes, and turned the whole country into an art gallery unlike in the past, when they painted anti-government slogans on wayside walls, took up arms and perished in their thousands, chasing a revolutionary mirage. Worryingly, their enthusiasm has fizzled out over the months. The national health emergency, which necessitated lockdowns and quarantine curfews, may have dampened their enthusiasm, but they have remained active on social media platforms, and their creative posts are no longer complimentary about the President or his government. Their resentment and cynicism are palpable. What has brought about this sea change in their thinking, which was so positive about ten moons ago? Their disillusionment with the system seems to have set in again. This is not a good sign.

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Editorial

A different case

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Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter, Ahimsa, and four others have written last week to Attorney General Dappula de Livera appealing to “protect the life” of former CID Director Shani Abeysekera held in a military-run facility for covid-19 infected persons, having contracted the virus while in remand custody. There is no escaping the fact that our overcrowded prisons, literally bursting at the seams for many years, are a hotbed of covid with both prisoners and officials highly vulnerable to infection. All those who have signed the appeal to the AG are victims of grave and violent crimes under the laws of this country. While Lasantha Wickrematunge, an outspoken editor who had courageously courted death by hitting out at the high and mighty, was brutally clubbed to death in broad daylight in a high security zone, the others say their kin had been abducted and “disappeared.”

What the AG can or will do to protect a now interdicted senior policeman remains an open question. The authorities are very well aware that jailed or detained law enforcers are under grave risk in prison where they are at the mercy of hardened criminals who cannot bear the sight of a cop. In fact, Abeysekera was accorded personal security by the state until November last year when he was removed from the CID. Such arrangements are made on the basis of threat assessments made by specialists in the subject who would have had little difficulty in determining that he was at high risk given the work he was doing. Following his removal from the CID this security was withdrawn and he was interdicted without a charge sheet, according to the appeal now before the AG. What is stated there is easily verifiable.

Persons subject to investigations, including high profile politicians in office, will have many axes to grind against policemen who either investigated or supervised the investigations of matters involving them. Thus it was a matter of no surprise that Abeysekara was removed from his high profile position and subsequently harassed, if not persecuted, after the change of government. Many persons in office have accused him by name of framing them. How true or not such allegations are remain to be established. But there is no escaping the reality that there had been political direction on who was or was not investigated. A high-powered committee is alleged to have operated from ‘Temple Trees’ determining priorities and direction of investigations. Much has been made of the fact that former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran accused of involvement in the bond scam was allowed to return to Singapore, where he is a citizen, without let or hindrance. He has since been out of reach.

That some are more equal than others is a fact of life in this country. How many persons of importance or wealth including politicians, either convicted or in custody, have spent time in the Merchant’s Ward of the National Hospital or in the Prison Hospital? Even people convicted or murder and sentenced to death who had been (or should have been) in Death Row have been beneficiaries of such privileges. Former President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned the young man found guilty of murdering his girlfriend’s sister at the Royal Park apartment complex towards the end of his term. He provided justifications for this act of clemency that many found lame. The beneficiary, conscious no doubt of the possibility of the wheel turning left the country and, as far as we know, had not returned since. It is well known that privileged persons in jail are handled with kid gloves and accorded semi-luxury facilities. We do not know whether there are arrangements in jails for the safety of vulnerable convicts or suspects (eg. policemen) even under special circumstances. With the best will in the world, these would be hard to provide under present congested conditions in prisons.

Bloodhounds set on political opponents are massively vulnerable following changes of government, and Abeysekara probably belongs to that category. It is now nearly 12 years since Lasantha Wicrematunge was bumped off by a group widely believed to be a state-connected hit squad. While some suspects have been identified and bailed, no indictments have been served up to now. His daughter and the other signatories to the letter sent to the AG say that after years of stonewalling, “Abeysekara was one of the few impartial police officers who had the courage to seek justice for our families.” They have also said in their letter “If every public servant has the backbone, integrity and conviction of Mr. Abeysekara, our loved ones would still be alive today. By doing his job and seeking justice for those we lost, Mr. Abeysekara’s own life is now in danger. We owe a debt of honour to speak on his behalf.”

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had said in parliament as this is being written that Abeysekara should be moved to the Infectious Diseases Hospital on humanitarian grounds. It has been reported that his family too have been in contact with the Human Rights Commission regarding his welfare. We hope that the concerned authorities would take note of what has been urged and treat this police officer who has been both highly praised and strongly condemned with due consideration. Who he investigated is not relevant in this context. Travails of investigators, such as he, would be a deterrent to other law enforcers performing their duties without fear or favour especially in sensitive cases. The worst case scenario for most cops properly doing their jobs and rubbing politicos on the wrong side would be a transfer. But this case is different.

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Editorial

Name that evil foreign power!

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Saturday 28th November, 2020

Mystery surrounds some vital aspects of the Easter Sunday attacks although those who carried them out have been identified and their confederates arrested. That a group of National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) terrorists, led by Zahran Hashim, carried out a series of suicide bombings, on 21 April 2019, is known to one and all, but who actually handled them has not yet been found out. The police have confirmed that the NTJ had planned a second wave of attacks on places of Buddhist worship and the Kandy Dalada Perahera. So, if Zahran had been the real terror mastermind, he would not have chosen to die in the first wave of terror without waiting to ensure that his outfit would be able to carry out the second wave of bombings, as we argued in a previous column. Former DIG CID Ravi Seneviratne, has recently told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, probing the Easter Sunday carnage, that someone handled Zahran, and he had to be traced if threats to Sri Lanka’s national security are be neutralised effectively.

Now, no less a person than Maithripala Sirisena, who was the President, at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, has confirmed that there was a foreign hand behind the carnage. On Wednesday, testifying before the PCoI probing the Easter Sunday terror, he declared that there had been a foreign power behind the terror attacks. All information about the terrorist bombings at issue was available to him as the President and Minister of Defence, and his statement must, therefore, be based on credible intelligence. He should name the foreign power; not only the Sri Lankan public but also the whole world have a right to know what that evil force is. It may be responsible for terror strikes in other parts of the world as well.

On an earlier occasion, Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and former Justice Minister, Rauff Hakeem, made a similar statement before the PCoI. He said the NTJ and its leader Zahran were only pawns, and there had been a hidden hand behind the Easter Sunday attacks, which, he said, had been aimed at destabilising the country. Asked by the commission to name names, he did so in camera.

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjtih, however, was the first to state, in public, that the Easter Sunday attacks had been part of an ‘international conspiracy’ to destabilise the country. He said so, in July 2019, addressing a congregation at the Katuwapitiya St. Sebastian’s Church, where as many as 118 people had been killed by an NTJ bomber only three months back.

SLPP MP Mahinda Samarasinghe revealed, in Parliament, the other day, that during the closing stages of Eelam war IV, a foreign power had sought to remove Prabhakaran to safety, and one of its ships had been waiting in international waters, for the mission. He said the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had not given permission for the vessel to enter the Sri Lankan waters. He should have named the country.

Foreign powers move resolutions against Sri Lanka on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, but the Sri Lankan politicians lack the courage to name and shame the countries that tried to save terrorists and were behind the Easter Sunday bombings, according to them.

Now that former President Sirisena has revealed that there was a foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka must seek international assistance to trace the terror mastermind. The UN could be of help in this regard. First of all, let Sirisena be urged to name the foreign power concerned. Having pathetically failed to prevent the Easter Sunday terror strikes, despite intelligence warnings, he should, at least, make public information about the perpetrators of the attacks. He must do so for the sake of the families of those who died on his watch as the President. On the other hand, the act of suppressing information about a crime is a punishable offence.

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Editorial

Virus in hellholes

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Friday 27th November 2020

Former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, who was taken into custody a few weeks ago, has been released on bail. His counsel, asking for bail, brought to the notice of the court that COVID-19 was spreading fast in prisons. Prisoners are a high-risk group. Life is precious, and nobody must be exposed to COVID-19. Bathiudeen’s safety should be ensured. But what about the other suspects, numbering thousands, held in overcrowded remand prisons, and convicts serving sentences?

Prisoners have held protests, claiming that their lives are in danger due to the spread of the pandemic. Their rights must also be respected. Will the suspects currently languishing in remand prisons also be released on bail to save them from the virus? Or, is it that all prisoners and remandees are equal, but politicians amongst them are ‘more equal’?

Bathiudeen was arrested and remanded for violating the Presidential Elections Act, but if the allegation against him—misusing public funds to transport voters in state-owned buses during a presidential election—is anything to go by, then he should be charged under the Offences against Public Property Act, as well. It is a non-bailable offence to violate this particular Act, which the yahapalana government used to have some of its political rivals remanded. Bathiudeen has not yet been prosecuted for destroying forests although the Court of Appeal has recently determined that he cleared a section of the Kallaru forest reserve illegally and ordered him to bear the cost of reforesting the area. He is lucky that the present-day leaders who helped him launch his political career and gave him free rein to do whatever he wanted are wary of pressing for his prosecution over the destruction of forest land. They apparently do not want to open up a can of worms. The rape of the Wilpattu forest began during a previous Rajapaksa government, which benefited from Bathiudeen’s block vote until late 2014, when he decamped and threw in his lot with the common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena.

Bathiudeen evaded arrest, following Attorney General’s order that he be taken into custody and produced in court; he apparently hoped that he would be able to get away like the bond racketeers who went into hiding and obtained an interim injunction staying their arrest warrants. The CID was obviously under pressure not to arrest those elements with political connections, but it became too embarrassing for Bathiudeen’s mentors in the present regime to go all out to prevent his arrest owing to tremendous media pressure.

COVID-19 is spreading in the Sri Lankan prisons as it is not easy to contain the highly contagious coronavirus in overcrowded environments. Precautions should therefore have been taken to prevent its spread. The first wave of COVID-19 ripped through the US prisons, which are much more spacious and have better facilities than the Sri Lankan jails, and left hundreds of inmates dead. Prisoners and their family members staged protests in some parts of the US.

Sri Lanka did not learn from others’ experience; only a committee was appointed some moons ago to find ways and means of easing prison congestion. The Attorney General himself has evinced a keen interest in ensuring the safety of prison inmates. But the situation has taken a turn for the worse, and how the government is planning to make prisons safe is not clear.

Prison overcrowding, however, is not a problem endemic to the developing world. It has come to plague even the developed countries, which have been compelled to experiment with technological solutions. Years ago, some nations including the UK adopted the electronic tagging system, which allows non-violent prisoners to be tagged, released and monitored. Opinion may be divided on this method, but it seems to have worked where it is employed and is worth a shot.

Whatever the methods the government is planning to adopt to make prisons safe, it has to act fast. The clock is ticking.

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