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Academics demand the immediate release of Hejaaz Hizbullah and Ahnaf Jazeem

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‘Their continued detention is an attack on the rights of lawyers and the rule of law’

Nearly 100 academics have issued a statement on the continued detention of Hejaaz Hizbullah and Ahnaf Jazeem, who were arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) more than a year ago.

They have said decades of majoritarian politics, and the more recent descent towards authoritarianism and militarization, have eroded the foundations of our democracy and have numbed us to the violence in our daily lives and de-sensitised us to how sections of our citizenry are targeted.

The members of the academic community representing a cross section of universities in Sri Lanka, demanded the immediate release of the two detainees and called attention to the fact that their arrests have taken place in a context of unrelenting anti-Muslim mobilizations that are tearing our social fabric apart.

“We are deeply worried about the continuing deterioration of the criminal justice system and the institutional decay it more broadly signals, as these developments are also symptomatic of a gradual hollowing out of the democratic bases of society. We, therefore, call for a halt to undemocratic actions by government actors, a repeal of the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) and other laws that are contrary to the principles of democracy, and ask that the public demand accountability”, they said.

“We call on the greater academic community to broaden this struggle to ensure that we fulfill our mandate and exercise our academic freedom in the pursuit of democracy and justice for all”.

At the outset, the statement noted that on April 14, 2020, human rights and constitutional lawyer Hizbullah was arrested by the CID and detained under Section 9 of the PTA for over 10 months. At the time of arrest, his alleged crimes were “aiding and abetting” one of the Easter Sunday bombers. It later transpired that he represented the family in two land cases. He is now being charged with speech related offences under Section 2(1)(h) of the PTA and Section 3(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. These are based on statements made by minors to the CID, which the children maintain they were coerced and threatened to make, it said.

On May 16, 2020, the Police Counter Terrorism Investigation Division (CTID) arrested Jazeem, a poet and teacher from Mannar, on allegations that his book Navarasam contained “extremist ideas” and that he taught “extremism” to students. A review of the poems by an “expert panel” of psychiatrists, some with university affiliations, makes vague claims about the potential of the book to incite violence, hatred, and suicidal thoughts, it said.

Their report fails to provide the basis or justification for these judgments and even says that there were two discrepant sets of translations (Sinhala and English from the original Tamil) at their disposal, which fact should have called the entire operation into question. Contrary to the allegations of the CTID, recent translations reveal that the poems were deeply critical of violence, it further said.

Hizbullah’s arrest and continued detention is an attack on the rights of lawyers and the rule of law. Jazeem’s arrest and continued detention without charge represents, in addition, an attack on the freedom of expression and pluralism, and a broader war on ideas, it stressed.

As can be seen from the progress of the two cases, the rights of Hizbullah and Jazeem have been clearly violated, and questionable tactics have been and continue to be used to manufacture the cases against them. In custody, their basic needs for health and safety have been neglected, it asserted.

Continuing, the statement said: “The incarceration of Hizbullah and Jazeem occurs in the backdrop of highly organized anti-Muslim mobilizations designed to stigmatize and isolate Muslim communities. Violence and intimidation continue, bolstered by the government’s complicity in these acts in the name of “national security”. In March 2021, the Minister of Public Security announced plans to shut down 1,000 madrasa schools and ban the burqa.

“A month later, the Cabinet approved the ban on all forms of face veils in public spaces, and, in May, the Deputy Director of Customs announced that any Islamic religious texts brought to the country must be cleared by the Ministry of Defence. These actions further criminalize one for being Muslim and are an assault on our democratic freedoms.

“Anti-Muslim sentiments guide the state COVID-19 response as well. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, the Ministry of Health adopted a mandatory cremation policy for the COVID dead, despite WHO guidelines to the contrary. The policy was backed by “experts”, including those from universities, citing unsubstantiated public health concerns, with crass disregard for the strongly followed religious tradition among Muslims of burying their dead.

“Today, burials are permitted, but restricted to a Muslim-populated area – Ottamavadi, Batticaloa – signalling that only Muslims must contend with the albeit unlikely threat from their dead. The burial issue was only one of the more flagrant of attempts to weaponise the pandemic against Muslims.

“The state machinery, through statements and actions of doctors, PHIs, politicians, military personnel, and state-controlled media pushed a narrative of Muslims as super-spreaders.

“These trends are not new. They are a continuation of heightened violence against Muslims that spans a decade. Starting in 2012, organized attacks on mosques and demonstrations against Muslims, including an anti-Halal campaign, culminated in horrific acts of violence, including the Aluthgama and Digana riots. In parallel, highly politicized campaigns have targeted Muslim individuals; for instance, Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen was arrested on false allegations of forced sterilization, and activist Ramzy Razeek was detained for condemning the anti-Muslim witch-hunt post Easter Sunday bombings.

“Unlike the zeal with which these cases are pursued, state institutions responsible for ensuring public safety have failed to prevent anti-Muslim violence, and no one has been held accountable so far.

“The targeting of Muslims occurs in a context of increasing authoritarianism and militarisation which have served to weaken democratic institutions. We have witnessed the remanding of former Director, CID, Shani Abeysekera, who had investigated high-ranking officials and politicians, author Shaktika Sathkumara, for purportedly anti-Buddhist writings, and many others. The PTA is wielded as a tool of politicization and arbitrary power, alongside the Emergency Regulations and the ICCPR Act.

“They are deployed in majoritarian campaigns against minorities, to attack those opposed to the regime in power, and crush dissent, casting doubt on state institutions and the judicial system.

“Academics are mandated to exercise and safeguard free speech and expected to confront and question the excesses of those in power. As members of public higher educational institutions, we must support and amplify the voices of the marginalized. Having learned from the devastation caused by uneven justice, majoritarian politics, and racist rhetoric, and knowing the insecurity and fear that some of our citizens live with on a daily basis, we must resist these attacks. We believe that allowing these actions to continue with impunity implicates us all”.

 

Signatories:

Prof. Upul Abeyrathne, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Asha Abeysekera, University of Colombo, Dr. Indi Akurugoda, University of Ruhuna, Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi, University of Peradeniya, Shani Anuradha, University of Peradeniya, Dr. S. Arivalzahan, University of Jaffna, Dr. Fazeeha Azmi, University of Peradeniya, Prof. A. S. Chandrabose, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa, University of the Visual & Performing Arts, Dr. Visakesa Chandrasekaram, University of Colombo, Dr. Kumar David, formerly University of Peradeniya, Ruwanthie de Chickera, Visiting Lecturer, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Erandika de Silva, University of Jaffna, Prof. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, University of Colombo, Dr. Kanchuka Nayani Dharmasiri, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Priyan Dias, University of Moratuwa, Avanka Fernando, Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, Dr. Michael Fernando, formerly at the University of Peradeniya, Kasun Gajasinghe, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Dileni Gunewardena, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Camena Guneratne, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Prof. Farzana Haniffa, University of Colombo, Dr. D. Hemachandra, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Siri Hettige, University of Colombo, Ms. Tracy Holsinger, Visiting Lecturer, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Dr. Rajan Hoole, formerly University of Jaffna, Kaushalya Jayasinghe, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Prabhath Jayasinghe, University of Colombo, Maleen Jayasuriya, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Wijaya Jayatilaka, formerly University of Peradeniya, Dr. Pavithra Jayawardena, University of Colombo, Prof. Jeyaratnam Jeyadevan, University of Jaffna, Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar, University of Jaffna, Prof. Pavithra Kailasapathy, University of Colombo, Dr. Anuruddha Karunarathna, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Chandana Kulasuriya, formerly at the Open University of Sri Lanka, Supoorna Kulatunga, University of Peradeniya, Prof. N. Savitri Kumar, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Ramya Kumar, University of Jaffna, Prof. Shamala Kumar, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Vijaya Kumar, University of Peradeniya, Prof Amal S. Kumarage, University of Moratuwa, Kaushalya Kumarasinghe, formerly the Open University of Sri Lanka, Ms. Hasini Lecamwasam, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Saumya Liyanage, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Dr. Sudesh Mantillake, University of Peradeniya, Ranga Manupriya, Visiting Lecturer, UVPA & University of Moratuwa, Dr. Prabha Manuratne, University of Kelaniya, Mrs. Kosalai Mathan, University of Jaffna, Dr. Mahim Mendis, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Dr. S. N. Morais, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Dr Rumala Morel, University of Peradeniya, Dr. M. Z. M. Nafeel, University of Peradeniya, Ms. Kethakie Nagahawatte, University of Colombo, Dr. F. M. Nawastheen, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Ms. Sabreena Niles, University of Kelaniya, Prof. F. Noordeen, University of Peradeniya, Dr. M. A. Nuhman, formerly University of Peradeniya, Prof. Arjuna Parakrama, University of Peradeniya, Sasinindu Patabendige, University of Peradeniya, Nipuni Sharada Pathirage, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Hasitha Pathirana, University of Kelaniya, Dr. Pradeep Peiris, University of Colombo, Prof. Asoka Perera, University of Moratuwa, Dr. Kaushalya Perera, University of Colombo, Prof. Sasanka Perera, formerly of University of Colombo, Nicola Perera, University of Colombo, Ruhanie Perera, University of Colombo, Dr. Saman Pushpakumara, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Rupika Rajakaruna University of Peradeniya, Prof. Harshana Rambukwelle, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Dr. Ramasamy Ramesh, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Romola Rassool, University of Kelaniya, Rizmina Rilwan, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Athulasiri Samarakoon, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe, University of Colombo, Dr. T. Sanathanan, University of Jaffna, Ms. R. T. M. Senanayake, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Hiniduma Sunil Senevi, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka, Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva, University of Peradeniya, Navaratnam Sivakaran, University of Jaffna, Ms. Anusha Sivalingam, University of Colombo, Dr. N. Sivapalan, University of Jaffna, Prof. Hettigamage Sriyananda, The Open University of Sri Lanka, Prof. Vasanthi Thevanesam, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Darshi Thoradeniya, University of Colombo, Prof. Deepika Udagama, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Ramila Usoof-Thowfeek, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, University of Colombo, Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe, University of Colombo, Thiyagaraja Waradas, University of Colombo, Prof. Maithree Wickremesinghe, University of Kelaniya, Dr. Shermal Wijewardene, University of Colombo, Saminadan Wimal, University of Jaffna, Dr. Dileepa Witharana, The Open University of Sri Lanka.



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SLFP tells major partner how to resolve crisis

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Kotelawala Bill rallying point for Opposition

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has offered to support the proposed Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Act if the government met its four conditions primarily meant to ensure KNDU remained within the State University system.

The SLFP, in a missive dated Aug 3 addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made the following amendments to the KNDU Bill, namely (i) the KNDU should be under the University Grants Commission (UGC) (ii) those outside the military to be admitted on the basis of Z-Score rankings (iii) taking into consideration undergraduates had to pay for receiving education at the KNDU and making arrangements to provide them with loans payable later and (iv) civilians should be in the majority in the unversity governing bodies.

The SLFP parliamentary group consists of 14, including one National List member, Dr. Suren Raghvan. The SLPP with 116 seats on its own enjoys a simple majority in Parliament.

Office of former President Maithripala Sirisena yesterday (4) made available a copy of its letter to the President signed by Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, MP, Chairman of the SLFP committee that inquired into the simmering KNDU controversy.

The SLPP decision to go ahead with KNDU Act has triggered protests in Colombo and several other areas, including Jaffna.

Acknowledging the pivotal importance in addressing issues pertaining to University level education, particularly those who couldn’t enter State universities seeking entry into Universities even in developing countries, the SLFP has recommended the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to examine the issue at hand within a specific period would be the most suitable measure. However, if the government wanted to move the matter expeditiously in Parliament, the SLFP believed the above mentioned four amendments should be included.

Lawmaker Siyambalapitiya told The Island that the party consulted the SLFP parliamentary group as well as several other stakeholders before reaching consensus on the KNDU Act. MP Siyambalapitiya said that the SLFP expected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to pay special attention to the suggestions made.

Senior Vice President of the SLFP Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa told The Island that if there had been proper mechanism for consultations among constituents of the SLPP led alliance issues such as the KNDU Bill could have been easily avoided. Prof. Piyadasa emphasized that those in political authority should have consulted all constituents before it finalised the KNDU Bill and presenting it to Parliament. Responding to another query, Piyadasa pointed out why SLPP should do away with the practice of taking major decisions without consulting constituents. The academic cited the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Oct 2020 and the passage of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill as two glaring examples.

Prof. Piyadasa pointed out how some sections of the Opposition exploited mishandling of the KNDU issue to such an extent that now trade unions affiliated to political parties brought dozens of groups under one banner. They had managed to cleverly mix teachers’ salary issue with the KNDU controversy, Prof. Piyadasa said, alleging the government allowed the situation to get out of hand. Tuesday’s violent protest on the road leading to Parliament highlighted the deterioration of the situation and the failure on the part of the government to address the issue at hand, prudently.

Prof. Piyadasa said that the government couldn’t ignore concerns expressed by the Government Medical Officers’ Association and the Association of Medical Specialists in that regard. Pointing out the government could easily resolve the issue by following the SLFP’s recommendations, Prof. Piyadasa said urging the government to respond to the developing situation swiftly and decisively.

Referring to a spate of statements issued by the Defence Ministry in that regard, Prof. Piyadasa said that the government should seek the backing of all political parties represented in parliament to expand capacity of State Universities.

He said that the SLFP recently discussed the matter with breakaway JVP faction, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP). Except perhaps for some pursuing agendas of their own, vast majority of lawmakers wouldn’t back the proposed KNDU Bill in its present form, Prof. Piyadasa said.

Piyadasa emphasized unnecessary trouble caused by the government’s shortsighted strategy couldn’t be resolved by resorting to police crackdowns.

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Shouting match over arrest and detention of MP

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By Saman Indrajith

Parliament was plunged into turmoil yesterday over the arrest and detention of MP Rishad Bathiudeen, while President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in the Chamber. 

Chief Opposition Whip Kandy District SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella, raising a point of order, said that MP Bathiudeen had been detained for nearly 100 days without being charged. “MP Bathiudeen has not been given a charge sheet. The police have not even informed the Speaker of this arrest and detention of the MP. His case had been postponed four times. This is against British parliamentary traditions. This amounts to the breach of privileges of the MP. We demand that the MP should be set free.”

 Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena: I have been informed of the arrest of MP Bathiudeen.

 Chief Opposition Whip Kiriella: On what grounds? 

The Speaker: For an investigation.

Chief Opposition Whip Kiriella: It cannot be accepted as a reason for the arrest. On what grounds the arrest has been made?

(MPs of government side shouts at the Chief Opposition Whip) 

Chief Government Whip Highways Minister Johnston Fernando: Time was when we too were taken into custody. No reasons were given. The then Speaker did not speak a word when we were taken into custody. Where had that tradition been then?

 Chief Opposition Whip Kiriella: This is a matter of importance for each and every MP. This is applicable to all of us. This could happen to you one day. There have been several Presidents in the country, but no MP was detained under any of them in this manner. 

Leader of the House Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena: There is an investigation against MP Bathiudeen. Another probe has also been initiated by the police. Those investigations have to be conducted properly. There is no meaning in shouting here while there are investigations pending against MP Bathiudeen.

(SJB MPs shout against the government while the Speaker was trying to bring the House in order)

 MP Rishad Bathiudeen: Ninety-two days have lapsed since I was taken into custody. There were investigations only for five days. I am being detained in a dark room for 24 hours. There is no reason for my arrest. I am telling the President of this country, Sir, there is no reason for my arrest. There was an additional secretary by the name of Balasubramaniyam in my ministry. I am told that I was arrested over a telephone conversation that Balasubraniyam had with somebody.

Chief Government Whip Minister Johnston Fernando: MP Bathiudeen mentioned one Balasubramaniyam. Balasubramaniyam has fled the country. You should know that.

 

 

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Several policemen injured as IUSF-led protesters topple police barricades

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Maharagama OIC’s fingers badly mangled

By Saman Indrajith

Several policemen had been injured on Tuesday when undergraduates, led by the Inter-University Students Federation, toppled barricades set up to prevent them from marching on the road leading to Parliament.

Among the injured is OIC of the Maharagama police, Chief Inspector H.H. Janakantha, who was operated on at the Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital. Three of his fingers in his hand were badly mangled. He was first taken to the Medical Centre in the parliamentary complex but later transferred to the Jayewardenepura hospital.

 The protesters wrested the barricade from policemen who were attempting to hold back the protesters.

The Maharagama OIC was among additional policemen summoned from nearby stations to strengthen the security of Parliament and the high security zone.

The protesters led by the IUSF started from several places to march towards Parliament around noon to protest against the proposed Kotelawala National Defence University Bill. The main march started from the Ayurveda Roundabout in Borella. The march created heavy traffic between the Ayurveda roundabout and Battaramulla during the lunch hour traffic.

The protesters could not be stopped at the Parliament Roundabout, and they proceeded up to the Jayanthipura entrance to the Parliament premises. They pulled down barricades but the police managed to stop them at that point. The IUSF activists set a coffin labelled ‘the death of free education’ on fire at the main entrance to Parliament. The protesters dispersed about one hour later after IUSF convener Wasantha Mudalige and Prof. Mahim Mendis of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations made speeches against the KNDU (Kotelawala National Defence Univeristy) Bill. 

 

 

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