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Editorial

Chilling stats and inaction

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Friday 19th February, 2021

Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana has alerted the public to an alarming increase in killer road accidents recently. During the past seven days, as many as 23 people have died in road mishaps, he says. Prangs, near misses and the attendant chaos on roads have become the order of the day, again. This may be taken as an indication that the country has returned to normal earlier than expected. During the pandemic-related lockdowns and travel restrictions, there was a sharp drop in road fatalities, which began to increase gradually as the country limped back to normalcy.

Road accidents snuff out more lives than coronavirus does in this country. Deaths due to road mishaps average eight a day. Not even the war destroyed lives at this rate. The National Council for Road Safety has revealed that 2,641 fatal road accidents caused as many as 2,829 deaths in 2019, when 10,691 mishaps occurred. There were 776 pedestrians, 1,162 motorcyclists, 282 drivers, 405 passengers and 204 cyclists and 10 others among the victims. There is a war of sorts against the runaway virus, which must be stopped, but there has been no such national effort to prevent road accidents. Why?

What action have the police taken to minimise road accidents and fatalities. The practice of revealing chilling statistics, from time to time, will not help prevent such tragedies however necessary it may be to raise public awareness. Hiru TV yesterday highlighted the danger motorists and pedestrians are exposed to at Rilawala, Kahatuduwa on the Colombo-Horana road. More than ten accidents happen at this busy intersection a month, according to witnesses, but the police have not done anything to make the place safe for motorists and pedestrians. All it takes to prevent such mishaps is to install signal lights or deploy traffic policemen there. Neither the traffic police nor the Road Development Authority nor the Pradeshiya Sabha concerned nor any other state institution seems to care.

The traffic police are maintained with public funds to make roads safe. They have to prevent road mishaps and ease traffic congestion. Instead, they patiently wait on the roadside until traffic laws are violated so that they can fine errant motorists. At some intersections in the city, there are posses of policemen hiding behind wayside lampposts and trees to nab those who drive through a red light, endangering their lives as well as others’. The presence of a single policeman is sufficient to ensure the safety of road users at some junctions, provided it is made conspicuous so that it will have a deterrent effect on reckless motorists.

Many newly carpeted roads in suburban areas are without sidewalks, and vehicles move extremely fast on them, posing a danger to pedestrians. Such roads run through even bustling townships, and speeding trucks and buses knock down many pedestrians and motorcycles daily. What one gathers from the numerous accidents shown on television daily is that vehicles, especially buses, trucks and motorcycles move like bats out of hell with the police doing precious little to control them. Why can’t cameras be installed to nab speedsters?

If the high-performance speedsters, as it were, are identified with the help of cameras and awarded tickets or hauled up before courts regularly, there will be a significant decrease in accidents. This method works well on expressways, where, as cynics say, drivers’ speeding skills are recognised at exit points, where the police courteously present them with detailed spot fine statements; why it is not employed elsewhere is the question. The government will be able to recover the cost of installing cameras in next to no time as the country is full of motorists who try to break the sound barrier.

Today, we carry an article on road accidents, which reveals that last year, the Stockholm Declaration adopted by the Third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety focuses on speed management besides strengthening of law enforcement to prevent speeding––the leading cause of road fatalities––and mandating a maximus speed of 30 km/h, in places where road users and vehicles have to move in a planned manner. One may argue that in Colombo and its suburbs, vehicles cannot exceed the aforesaid speed limit except around midnight, but the lowering of speed limits will work in areas like busy townships through which arterial roads run.

A Presidential Task forces has been appointed to battle COVID-19. The need for such a national effort to tackle the scourge of road accidents as well cannot be overemphasised.



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Editorial

Judges in the dock

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Friday 5th March, 2021

Judges do not take kindly to utterances that amount to contempt of court. They go all out to make the offenders concerned regret having made such statements. This, we have seen both here and overseas. But there are situations where judges themselves get into hot water for their unguarded remarks that irk the public beyond measure. Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde is under heavy fire for having asked an accused rapist if the latter would marry his victim, a schoolgirl, to avoid jail. Bobde’s suggestion is a textbook example of adding insult to injury.

Women’s rights activists in India have launched a signature campaign, urging Chief Justice Bobde to resign. Their protest is gathering momentum, and consternation is understandable; India has a very high rate of rape. They accuse their Chief Justice of having proposed something that is tantamount to condemning the victim to a lifetime of rape at the hands of her tormentor.

One cannot but agree with the protesting Indian women. It is doubtful whether any rape victim in her proper senses will ever want to spend the rest of her life with her tormentor. As for the aforesaid Indian girl, her rapist even threatened to burn her alive and kill her brother if she made a complaint against him. How can a girl live with such a monster? If the desperado had been allowed to get away with his brutal crime by marrying the victim, that would have set a very bad precedent. Such leniency would have rendered Indian women even more vulnerable. That would also have sent the wrong message to desperate men that they can marry women they dream of simply by sexually assaulting them!

What the Indian CJ should be asked is how he would have reacted if the victim had been his own daughter; would he have accepted the rapist as his son-in-law?

Callous disregard for rape victims’ feelings is apparently universal. It is reported from even supposedly enlightened societies that pride themselves on respecting women’s rights. CJ Bobde’s predicament reminds us of a Canadian Federal Judge—Robin Camp—who had to resign in 2017 for having asked a 19-year-old rape victim why she had not kept her legs together to prevent rape. Adding insult to injury, he told her ‘sex and pain sometimes go together.’ What a revelation!

Instances of rape victims suffering many indignities at the hands of lawyers abound in this country so much so that many girls and women, who suffer sexual assault, choose to suffer in silence. Unfortunately, this issue has gone unaddressed much to the benefit of rapists.

The female lawmakers in the current Parliament have sunk their political differences and come forward to safeguard the rights of Sri Lankan women, we are told. They have reportedly requested the Speaker to appoint a special Select Committee to address gender-based offences against women. Female local government members have also launched a similar initiative. They complain of harassment in their councils, where their male counterparts do not even allow them to speak freely. These female politicians can rest assured that they have the unstinted support of all right-thinking citizens. After all, women account for more than one half the country’s population. It is they who toil in factories, on estates and in West Asian deserts to help keep the national economy afloat. At least 50 percent of seats in Parliament, the Provincial Councils and the local government institutions should be allocated for women.

The members of the women’s caucus in Parliament ought to campaign for ensuring that women who become victims of rape, etc., are treated humanely in courts. Ideally, there should be separate courts to hear such cases. They are sure to have the ear of Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who has evinced a keen interest in giving the existing legal system a radical shake-up. They will also be able to convince President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the pressing need to hear rape cases expeditiously with the rights of the victims being protected.

We hope that the brave Indian women who have taken on their CJ will succeed in their endeavour.

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Editorial

A strange case of distrust?

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Thursday 4th March, 2021

The Presidential Secretariat has reportedly told Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera, that 22 volumes of the final report submitted by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks cannot be released as they contain sensitive information pertaining to national security. So, the AG has been left with no alternative but to divine what is in these 22 volumes which he cannot do without.

The argument that the state prosecutor should be denied access to some volumes of the report at issue for reasons of national security, in our book, does not hold water. In fact, we consider it an affront to the dignity of the AG. Is it that the State cannot repose trust in its own AG as regards national security?

The AG knows how to handle sensitive information, doesn’t he? On the other hand, there was no such thing as national security, so to speak, during the period covered by the presidential commission probe, and that was the reason why the NTJ terrorists were able to snuff out so many lives with ease. After all, that was what the SLPP kept telling us when it was in the Opposition. Luckily, the LTTE did not try to make a comeback during the yahapalana government. There were no regular National Security Council (NSC) meetings, and those who were responsible for safeguarding national security were all at sea so much so that they did not take seriously warnings of impending terror attacks which could have been prevented. Even some outsiders were privy to what transpired at the NSC meetings, which they were allowed to attend because they were close to the then President Maithripala Sirisena! The state intelligence outfits were in total disarray with their key officers facing a political witch-hunt. The CID was doing full-time political work to all intents and purposes, and the Terrorism Investigation Division was accused of conspiring to kill the President! So, how come any information about what happened during that period is considered too sensitive to be divulged even to the AG?

What the AG is required to do anent the cases he files is not akin to keyhole surgery; he has to see the whole picture before filing action. He should be able to ascertain whether the facts, on the basis of which legal action is to be instituted against those named in the report, can be backed by irrefutable evidence if the cases he is going to file are to have a solid foundation. He and his legal team need to study all volumes of the commission report if they are to know where they stand.

The AG has to build strong cases to prove that the accused are guilty. Unless all information contained in the PCoI report is studied properly, the cases to be filed may not stand up to judicial scrutiny. The defence may be able to drive a coach and horses through them. One can only hope that no surreptitious attempt is being made to open an escape route for the high-profile government members who are likely to be hauled up before courts for their serious lapses that made the Easter Sunday carnage possible.

The AG, we repeat, should be given unhindered access to the PCoI report so that he will be able to proceed with prosecutions properly.

The government finds itself in a dilemma. Unless it takes action against the former leaders and their bureaucratic lackeys for their failure to prevent the terror attacks, it is likely to face a considerable electoral setback, come the next election, but at the same time, it is not in a position to go the whole hog to ensure that the culprits are brought to justice; it runs the risk of suffering a split in the event of former President Sirisena being prosecuted for security failures that led to the Easter Sunday tragedy, on his watch. The SLFP has already indicated that it might pull out of the SLPP coalition in such an eventuality. But nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of justice. An oft-quoted legal maxim is ‘Fiat Justitia, ruat caelum’, or ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’. As regards, the Easter Sunday attacks, one may say, ‘Let justice be done though governments fall.”

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Editorial

Govt. learning from UNHRC

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Wednesday 3rd March, 2021

There is obviously no love lost between the incumbent Sri Lankan government and the UNHRC, but the former seems to have taken a leaf out of the latter’s book. It has adopted the practice of using reports to scare and tame its political opponents.

In what looks a counterattack on the political front, the Rajapaksa government has decided to release the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed allegations of corruption and irregularities under the yahapalana government from 14 Jan. 2015 to 31 Dec. 2018. The then President Maithripala Sirisena appointed this commission to settle political scores with the UNP. He sought to take moral high ground and show his political enemies, especially the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in a bad light. The final report of the Easter Sunday PCoI, which Sirisena appointed to deflect criticism and pin the blame for failing to prevent the carnage on others, has boomeranged. The SJB is using it against not only Sirisena but also the present government, of which he is a member. The government seems to think the release of the PCoI report on corruption under the yahapalana government will help it silence the SJB, whose grandees were Cabinet ministers in the previous administration accused of being involved in various corrupt deals. One may recall that allegations of corruption were also levelled against several SLFP notables in the yahapalana Cabinet, and they are now in the present administration. Will the SLPP open up another can of worms by releasing the PCoI report at issue?

Most of the Opposition politicians who pretend to be paragons of virtue have a lot to answer for as regards frauds and corruption under the previous dispensation if the testimonies of high-profile witnesses who appeared before the PCoI on corruption are anything to go by. These politicians are now in overdrive, bashing the government for its failure to reveal the masterminds of the Easter Sunday attacks. It will be interesting to see their reaction to the government decision to release the PCoI report on corruption. Will they dare the SLPP to do so expeditiously and call for a parliamentary debate thereon? They should be able to do so if they are as confident as they claim to be that they were above board while they were in power.

If the government thinks it can mitigate the fallout of the flawed PCoI report on the Easter Sunday carnage by using the PCoI report on corruption to silence the political Opposition, then it is mistaken because not all its critics are its political rivals. Some SJB and UNP politicians attacking the SLPP may chicken out lest they should be prosecuted for corruption, etc., on the basis of the PCoI report, but there is no way the government can allay the fears of the public and counter protests by the Catholics who bore the brunt of the Easter Sunday terror. The Catholic Church has declared a Black Sunday protest (07 March), and its agitation campaign is likely to continue. Its consternation is understandable. Nobody is safe until the masterminds of the carnage are identified and dealt with, for they can carry out more attacks.

There was absolutely no need for a presidential probe to identify those whose lapses had led to the Easter Sunday tragedy. Their identities were already known and legal action could have been taken against them, but such a course of action will not help ensure that there will be no terror attacks. The need for a presidential probe arose as nobody knew who had actually masterminded the carnage and they had to be identified and neutralised.

The yahapalana leaders and their lackeys in the military and the police are no longer a problem because they are not in charge of national security. But the masterminds of the terror strikes are still at large. There’s the rub. The government ought to fulfil its election pledge to probe the carnage thoroughly, identify the masterminds thereof instead of trying to silence its critics politically.

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