Tuesday 1st December 2020
The Mahara Prison riot has left eight inmates dead and more than 70 others injured. Some of them are in a very serious condition, we are told. Trouble started when about 183 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be taken to treatment centres, on Sunday. Others also wanted to be removed from the virus-ridden jail, and turned aggressive when their demand was not met. The STF was called in to restore order and prevent a mass breakout.
The knee-jerk reaction of the government was to blame the prison riot on an invisible hand. State Minister of Prison Reforms and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, Sudarshini Fernandopulle, speaking in Parliament, yesterday, said a hidden hand had engineered Sunday’s clashes. Minister Wimal Weerawansa said a drug dealer, transferred to the Mahara Prison from Welikada, had distributed narcotics among inmates and instigated violence. Politicians are known to ‘see more devils than vast hell can hold’.
The incumbent government is dogged by a bad reputation anent prisons owing to the 2012 Welikade Prison riot, where 27 persons were killed under a previous Rajapaksa government. Now, the current administration has another huge problem to contend with on the human rights front. Sunday’s incidents are bound be taken up in Geneva, come the next UNHRC session.
However, there’s no gainsaying that some underworld elements are bent on inciting violence in prisons. Their sinister plans must be defeated to make the correctional facilities safe, but a perquisite for doing so is to deny the troublemakers among prisoners opportunities to instigate others to riot. The current surge in COVID-19 infections is fraught with the danger of causing panic in other prisons as well. A tense situation is said to be prevailing in the old Bogambara Prison, where prisoners are brought to undergo quarantine. Protests have been reported from there, and several inmates have already made abortive escape bids. Prisoners were protesting at the Negombo jail at the time of going to press.
Sunday’s prison riot could have been averted if precautions had been taken to prevent the spread of panic among prisoners and remandees. The Mahara Prison, packed to the rafters, with so many COVID-19 infections, was disaster waiting to happen. During the first wave of infections, which the government succeeded in tackling effectively, we argued in this space that prisoners were more vulnerable than others, given the appalling conditions of the Sri Lankan jails. We pointed out that even in the US with much better prisons than Sri Lanka’s there was a high incidence of COVID-19 among the prison population, and prisoners were protesting.
Everybody knew our prisons were ticking time bombs, but, unfortunately, nobody did anything about it. The number of infections among prisoners has crossed 1,100. Prisoners’ concerns about their safety should be appreciated, and urgent action taken to ensure that they are not exposed to the virus.
The Mahara Prison inmates, however, were not blameless; they resorted to violence, carried out arson attacks and attempted a mass breakout. The trail of destruction they have left behind alone is incriminating evidence against them. They cannot claim their fear of COVID-19 in extenuation of what they have done. But it is not yet known whether the force the Prison guards and the police used was proportional to the threat they faced, or whether there were excesses on their part. The government has appointed a committee to investigate Sunday’s riot. The Opposition has demanded that the incidents be probed by a group of independent investigators; one cannot but agree with it.
It is incumbent upon the government to ensure that the Mahara Prison clashes will be thoroughly investigated, the findings of the probe committee made public and justice served while aggressive testing is conducted in all prisons and infected inmates are removed for treatment forthwith. That is the only way to defuse tension in prisons and avert another disaster.
Whether the announced local elections will be held as scheduled on March 9 remains a question that is wide open. The confusion became more confounded last week with the resignation from the Elections Commission of Mrs. P.S.M. Charles and speculation that its chairman, Attorney Nimal Punchihewa, would also resign. This was subsequently denied by Punchihewa himself but that is not the end of the story. The new Constitutional Council, meeting for the first time with the Speaker in the chair ex-officio decided to reconstitute all the so-called Independent Commissions mandated by the Constitution. This, of course includes the Elections Commission and raises the question of how any changes in its composition can affect the local elections for which nominations have concluded and a date set.
Former Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, who enjoyed wide visibility during his tenure, went on record after Charles’ resignation saying that it will not affect the working of the five-member commission with a quorum defined as three. With four members still in office, the number necessary to make up a quorum is available. When the election day itself was decided, only three members were physically present at the meeting and the consent of the two absent member had been obtained, Punchihewa has said. This has not been denied. But the state-controlled Daily News, in its lead story last Tuesday, quoted Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa, a former chairman of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Council, saying that the date of the election must be gazetted in terms of the election law and no gazette had been issued. The date had merely been announced through the media and this was insufficient, he had said.
We do not know whether he was right or not at the time he made the remark or whether there was a subsequent gazette as is probable. Mahanamahewa is on further record saying the names of all five members of the Election Commission were on the gazette calling for nominations and it must be similar with regard to setting a date for the poll. However that be, many would wonder why Mrs. Charles who, having known that the Elections Commission itself was in a “state of flux” (if we may borrow Mahanamahewa’s language), chose to resign at this moment. She, as the country at large well knew that as the Constitutional Council had been constituted, all the Independent Commissions (there are eight of them including the Elections Commission, Human Rights Commission, Police Commission, Public Service Commission etc.) will be reconstituted. So what was the hurry to resign? The terms of all five members of the Elections Commission will soon come to an end.
The Daily News interpreted Charles’ resignation as confirmation of “deep divisions” within the Elections Commission over several issues including the holding of the local elections. It must be remembered that Mrs. Charles is a very senior public official belonging to the special grade of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. She has held high office including Governor of the Northern Province, Director General of Customs, GA Vavuniya when the LTTE held sway and Ministry Secretary. She is a serving SLAS officer. She has resigned in the context of a situation of a government appearing to be afraid, nay terrified, of holding the local elections in the present perilous country conditions. So who can be blamed for suspecting that here is an inspired resignation given that Mrs. Charles herself has publicly given no reasons for her exit.
In this context it may be useful to go back to fairly recent history to Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government of the 1970s when there was a conflict between the legislature and the judiciary. Justice Hector Deheragoda, sitting on the new Constitutional Court chaired by Justice T.S. Fernando along with Justice JAL Cooray resigned from the court then adjudicating on the new Press Council Bill, the first matter to be brought before it. The court was sitting in the then House of Representatives with Mr. Sam Wijesinha, the Clerk of the House, as its Registrar. When the proceedings were ongoing, there was a demand in the chamber of the House that the court should be evicted from its premises. Speaker Stanley Tillakaratne made a remark eliciting a response from Justice TS Fernando that interpretation of the Constitution was a matter for the court and not for the speaker. It was amid this furor that Justice Deheragoda tendered his resignation aborting the continuance of the proceedings.
The government keeps tub thumping that the local elections will cost ten billion rupees the country cannot afford in its current economic predicament. The opposition is brimming with confidence that the results of these elections will signal the end of what many in its ranks delight in calling the “Ranil – Rajapaksa” government. The matter is now before court and the last word will probably be its determination. The affidavit filed before court by the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance/Treasury clearly states the financial predicament the government is placed in. While the determination is awaited the angry debate in the political space on whether or not the elections will be held will continue. There is yet no clear sign of countrywide election activity though nominations have been filed by the mainstream and minor parties as well as independent groups. But ominous threats abound of what’s likely to happen if there is no election.
HRCSL in govt.’s crosshairs
Saturday 28th January, 2023
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has placed itself in the crosshairs of the government by carrying out its duties and functions conscientiously. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera has claimed that his ministry is contemplating legal action against two HRCSL members for having allegedly pressured two of his ministry officials to agree to suspend power cuts until the conclusion of the ongoing GCE A/L examination. He says the two mandarins were threatened with imprisonment, and he has brought the matter to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s attention and made a complaint to the Constitutional Council (CC).
Those who were present at the HRCSL meeting where an agreement was reached to suspend power cuts for the benefit of the students sitting the GCE A/L examination have said nobody was intimidated. Is the government trying to make a case for removing the HRCSL members.
There is reason to believe that the Power and Energy Ministry officials agreed to suspend power cuts at the aforesaid meeting but subsequently went back on their commitment because they incurred the wrath of the government for doing so. One may recall that in June 2022, the then Chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board M. M. C. Ferdinando told the Committee on Public Enterprises that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pressured President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to award the Mannar wind power project contract to India’s Adani Group. Ferdinando said President Rajapaksa had, after a meeting, told him that the latter was under pressure from Modi to ensure that Adani clinched the deal. It was obvious that Ferdinando, an experienced public official, was telling the truth; he had no reason to lie. But he withdrew his statement and resigned when President Rajapaksa took exception to his claim. No action was taken against Ferdinando because the government did not want to open a can of worms. This is how most public officials react under political pressure.
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration’s imperiousness knows no bounds. The Executive is doing everything in its power to keep all other institutions under its thumb. It has made a mockery of the Constitution by meddling with the independent commissions. President Wickremesinghe, who is the leader of the UNP, which is contesting the local government elections scheduled to be held in March, had a meeting with the members of the Election Commission (EC) and asked them to speak with one voice anent the announcement of the mini polls. The President cannot give such directions to the EC, especially when he/she happens to be a political party leader.
All Presidents save D. B. Wijetunga have bolstered the widely-held view that the executive presidency is a threat to democracy. All of them except Gotabaya secured the presidency while being members of Parliament and offered to strengthen the legislature and ensure the independence of the judiciary, but chose to undermine those two branches of government, and other vital state institutions to consolidate their hold on power.
The incumbent government also stands accused of trying to render the EC incapable of having quorate meetings by causing its members to resign as part of its strategy to postpone the local council polls. One EC member has already sent in her resignation letter. The newly-appointed CC has undertaken to reconstitute the independent commissions including the EC. Speculation is rife that the government is trying to have some pliable commissioners appointed so that it will be able to manipulate the EC.
It is hoped that all those who cherish democracy will unite to prevent the government from bulldozing the HRCSL and other independent commissions, which are the bulwarks against tyranny.
Heed their voice
Friday 27th January, 2023
A group of Central Bank (CB) employees, on Wednesday, joined other professionals in protesting against the recently-introduced steep tax hikes. As part of the ongoing Black Protest Week campaign conducted by a collective of professional associations, those workers put up black flags and stood up to the police, who tried to disrupt their demonstration. Some police officers tend to go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with their political masters, and run the risk of being hauled up before court for fundamental rights violations. Some CB workers were seen protesting in Colombo yesterday as well.
The irony of the CB workers’ protests may not have been lost on political observers. The CB is spearheading the government’s efforts to secure a bailout package from the IMF, which has prescribed the huge tax increases at issue. But the CB employees themselves are opposed to that measure, and with reason! How could the government expect other workers to accept its tax policy?
Why professionals are so incensed as to take to the streets against tax increases is understandable. They are not refusing to pay taxes. Everybody agrees that taxes must be paid, for the state needs money to meet its expenditure, but they must be reasonable, and taxpayers need an assurance that their money will not end up in the pockets of politicians or will be used to support the high life of the rulers and their cronies, in some other way. Soaring inflation has taken its toll on their earnings, and needless to say, tax increases have aggravated their financial woes as never before. They have to look after their families and repay loans. What infuriates them more than anything else is perhaps the fact that politicians live in the lap of luxury at their expense and waste colossal amounts of public money, the allocation of more than Rs. 200 million for the Independence Day celebrations to be held early next month being a case in point.
Worse, all executive level employees in this country have had to contend with multiple taxation. Their salaries are taxed; they are affected by the taxes imposed on the Employees’ Provident Fund. When they retire, their terminal benefits are taxed. They have to pay taxes on their interest income as well. Thus, they live to pay taxes, and politicians are living off them.
Another factor that has exasperated professionals is the cavalier attitude of some government politicians who seem to think those who draw higher salaries deserve to be exploited. A Cabinet minister has drawn heavy flak from trade unions for saying something to the effect that anyone who earns Rs. 100,000 or more is ‘not innocent’. Is it that one loses one’s innocence when one begins to earn more than Rs 100,000 after studying hard, acquiring academic and professional qualifications and gaining experience? It is only natural that workers become resentful when they see semi-literate politicians living like Citizen Kane while they and their family members are suffering.
It will be a huge mistake for the government to ignore the voice of the professionals on the warpath and resort to coercion in a bid to neutralise their protests. They are different from the Aragalaya activists, who were dependent mostly on their numerical strength to win their demands.
The Aragalaya protest movement disintegrated owing to crackdowns, and the government has since embarked on a witch-hunt against its leaders. Notorious drug kingpin, Kanjipani Imran, secured bail and fled the country, but student leader Wasantha Mudalige, who was involved in Aragalaya, has been arrested and remanded under the Prevention of Terrorism Act! The government will not be able to deal with the protesting professionals in a similar manner, for they possess trade union power, which they will not hesitate to use if push comes to shove.
It behoves the government to stop playing with fire and get the representatives of the warring professionals around the table without provoking them further. The sooner, the better!
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