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.
Friday 23rd April, 2021
Parliamentary sessions, at times, can be far more entertaining than cable TV programmes like Animal Fight Club. On Wednesday, our honourable MPs almost came to blows during a debate on the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the alleged instances of political victimisation under the previous government. The Opposition accused the government of having adopted an ad hoc method to open an escape route for the SLPP MPs and supporters with court cases against them.
The SJB argued, in Parliament on Wednesday, that all 90 cases mentioned in the PCoI report could not be considered instances of political victimisation as they had been filed by the person, who currently holds the post of Chief Justice, when he was the Attorney General. Its line of reasoning has left us puzzled. The SJB’s argument is apparently based on the assumption that the legality of actions taken by an Attorney General who goes on to become the Chief Justice cannot be challenged. But one may recall that in 2018 the Supreme Court rejected all arguments that the person, who is the current Chief Justice, put forth, in his capacity as the Attorney General, in defence of the then President Maithripala Sirisena, who sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and formed a new government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, before dissolving Parliament, unable to muster a simple majority therein. The UNF government was reinstated, and, interestingly, the following year the Attorney General, whose defence of the presidential actions did not stand up to judicial scrutiny, became the Chief Justice. The rest is history.
That the SJB’s argument at issue is flawed cannot, however, be used to justify the government’s claim that all those against whom the aforesaid cases were filed during the yahapalana government have been politically victimised.
Political victimisation is part of Sri Lanka’s rotten political culture. Many people have been politically victimised under successive governments, and they need redress. The yahapalana government also manipulated the police and the Attorney General’s Department to compass its political ends while claiming to be on a mission to restore the rule of law and usher in good governance. But the fact remains that after every regime change, lawbreakers in the garb of government MPs pretend to be victims of political witch-hunts and some of them succeed in having their cases terminated. The Opposition is, therefore, right in having challenged some decisions of the PCoI on political victimisation although the arguments it has put forth to bolster its position are specious.
Meanwhile, among those affected by political victimisation are two former Heads of the Judiciary—Dr. Shirani Bandaranayke and Mohan Peiris. The impeachment that led to the ouster of Dr. Bandaranayake in 2013 was politically motivated. The then Rajapaksa government got rid of her because it considered her an impediment to its political project which it sought to have legitimised judicially. Two years later, the yahapalana government righted the wrong, but the method it employed for that purpose was wrong. Instead of having Parliament correct what it had done to her, it had President Sirisena reinstate her by ‘vapourising’ Chief Justice Peiris. The presidential decree that Dr. Bandaranayke’s removal was unlawful; the post of the Chief Justice had not fallen vacant and, therefore the appointment of Peiris as the head of the judiciary was null and void ab initio, made an already bad situation worse. The yahapalana government should have taken action against either Peiris or former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who appointed him the Chief Justice or both of them, if it had really believed in its claim that he (Peiris) had been functioning as the Chief Justice unlawfully; that was the only way it could have justified the defenestration of Peiris. There were reports that some yahapalana goons had threatened him to resign.
Justice Minister Ali Sabry recently declared in Parliament that the removal of Peiris as the Chief Justice had been illegal, and promised to take remedial action. This issue, too, should be debated in Parliament.
Carnage and boru shows
Thursday 22nd April, 2021
The Opposition MPs attended Parliament, wearing black, yesterday, when the second anniversary of the Easter Sunday terror attacks fell; their ruling party counterparts wore black armbands, instead. Did they do so as a sign of sympathy and condolence, or by way of a political statement? Christians traditionally wear black while in mourning, but when aggressive men who resort to fisticuffs, at the drop of a hat, wear black, they look minatory. How frightening Parliament would have looked if those with a history of throwing projectiles and chilli powder at their political rivals in the House and even threatening the Chair had also been dressed in black?
The members of both sides did not care to behave themselves at least on the day when the country remembered the victims of the Easter Sunday tragedy. They invaded the Well of the House, yesterday, trading obscenities, according to media reports. What a way to remember the dead!
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) which probed the Easter Sunday attacks has held the yahapalana government including the President (Maithripala Sirisena) and the Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) accountable for the tragedy. Most of the current Opposition MPs were in that administration at the time of the carnage (2019), and, therefore, cannot absolve themselves of the blame for the serious lapses that made the terror strikes possible. The fact that they have left the UNP, which was in power at the time, does not help diminish their culpability.
If the former UNF MPs currently in the Opposition think they can pull the wool over the eyes of the public with the help of gimmicks such as wearing black, they are mistaken. The least they can do to diminish their guilt, if at all, is to tender a public apology for their failure to heed the warnings of attacks and ensure public safety in 2019. Some of the maimed victims have said they have been forgotten, and the former yahapalana MPs are duty bound to take up cudgels for these hapless people they failed to protect.
The government grandees, who made a comeback by flogging the issue of the Easter Sunday terror and promising to punish the perpetrators thereof, also cannot dupe the public by bellowing empty rhetoric and wearing black armbands. They have to fulfil their promise at issue while granting relief to the terror victims. A small girl who suffered injury in the bomb attack on the Zion Church, Batticaloa, on 19 April 2019, is in need of funds to have her eyesight restored. Her family cannot afford the cost of surgery. So, the government MPs ought to reach out and help such victims. Boru shows won’t do.
Most of all, everything possible must be done to ensure that there will be no more terror attacks. There is no guarantee that the country is safe, for the masterminds behind the Easter carnage have not been identified. So long as they are at large, threats will persist and nobody will be safe. The incumbent government is full of politicians who brag that terrorism will not be allowed to raise its ugly head again, on their watch. True, they were instrumental in defeating northern terror, but let them be advised not to be cocky. It is said that terrorists only have to be lucky once, and their targets have to be lucky always.
The general consensus is that the government cannot summon the political moxie to go all out to have the masterminds behind the Easter Sunday attacks traced because it does not want any more problems to contend with on the diplomatic front; it is also accused of having cut secret deals with some politicians with links to extremists to muster a two-thirds majority in Parliament and secure votes at future elections. It will have a hard time trying to prove its critics wrong.
Only a fresh probe into the Easter Sunday tragedy will help find out who handled Zahran and Naufer. If the government fails to reveal the truth, the SLPP will have its MPs occupying the Opposition benches in the next Parliament, fully dressed in black, which, in our book, is the colour of failure and duplicity, where Sri Lankan politicians are concerned.
April carnage and murky waters
Wednesday 21st April, 2021
A series of near-simultaneous terrorist bombings shocked the country on this day, two years ago. More than 250 persons including children perished in the attacks, which also left hundreds of others injured. It is equally shocking that no one has yet been punished for those heinous crimes and the masterminds behind the attacks have not been identified. The government would have the public believe that an extremist preacher named Naufer masterminded the attacks, but there is no credible evidence to prove its claim. True, Naufer indoctrinated the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) cadres and had some influence over Zahran, who led the suicide bombers, but he, too, is believed to have had a handler.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks, has unearthed some valuable information about the incidents, but much more remains to be done. It has held the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the yahapalana government responsible for the serious security lapses that enabled the NTJ terrorists to strike with ease. It has also recommended legal action against several police and intelligence officers who failed to act on repeated warnings. It should have named the members of the yahapalana Cabinet and recommended that they also be prosecuted.
Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith must have struck a responsive chord with all right-thinking Sri Lankans, on Monday, when he said, some political deals that helped the government secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the 20th Amendment may have influenced the outcome of the Easter Sunday carnage probe. ‘He that has an ill name’ is said to be half-hanged; the present-day leaders have earned notoriety for political horse-trading, and it is only natural that they stand accused of having cut secret deals with those with alleged links to the Easter Sunday terrorists.
The government is in a dilemma. Pressure is mounting on it to initiate legal action against Sirisena. The SLFP is likely to pull out of the ruling SLPP coalition if Sirisena is prosecuted; such a breakaway will threaten the stability of the government to a considerable extent and, therefore, the SLPP is not in a position to throw Sirisena to the wolves. How will the government wriggle out of this catch-22 situation?
Legal action can be instituted, on the basis of the PCoI findings and recommendations, against those whose dereliction of duty and criminal negligence helped the NTJ terrorists destroy so many lives, but the country will not be safe unless the real masterminds behind the attacks are traced and dealt with. The PCoI has not dug deep enough in this regard as can be seen from the perfunctory manner in which it has treated the alleged foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The bulky PCoI report has only eight pages on this vital issue, and the views of key witnesses who suspect a foreign hand have been rejected as mere ipse dixits. These witnesses, according to the PCoI report, are Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, former President Maithripala Sirisena, former Minister Rauff Hakeem, former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, former Governor Asath Salley, Mujeebur Rahuman, MP, former Director SIS SDIG Nilantha Jayawardene, former Commandant of the STF SDIG M. R. Latiff, former Chief of Defence Staff Admiral (retd.) Ravindra Wijegunaratne, Senior DIG/CID, Ravi Senevirathne (retired) and former CID Director SSP Shani Abeysekera. So, if a fresh probe gets underway to identify the terror masterminds, the aforesaid witnesses will be able to furnish more information.
The Easter Sunday carnage should be investigated from all angles. The PCoI report says Zahran’s original plan was to attack the Kandy Perahera, but it was advanced due to the detection of explosives in Wanathawilluwa, international factors such as the IS losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and Zahran’s fear that he might be apprehended. It needs to be found out whether there was an attempt to use the NTJ terror to trigger a backlash against the Muslim community and drive the Muslims, especially those in the strategically important Eastern Province, into the hands of the separatists, or other such elements bent on destabilising the country.
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