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Custodial deaths and extra-judicial executions



Asked by a journalist about a death in a government hospital many decades ago, the then Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Health laconically replied: “People die, it can’t be helped.” We were reminded of this last week when General Kamal Gunaratne, the Defence Secretary visited the Dalada Maligawa on being promoted to his new rank a few days ago. As is common on these occasions, several microphones were thrust at his face when he emerged after the religious observances and he answered a few media questions. One of these related to the death in police custody of a man named Nishantha Kumarasiri, 37, some days previously who was shot dead by his guards while he was allegedly attempting to strangle one of them.

The general was as laconic as the Ceylon Civil Service bureaucrat of long ago. “There is nothing that can be done. The law is common to all. Such things happen in enforcing the law. This is only one such instance.” This was his reply to the question which began with an assertion that such incidents occur because insufficiently protected suspects are taken about by the authorities in the course of investigations. Gunaratne said that some kind of security is provided to such suspects. He added that the victim was a dangerous criminal who had attacked an informant who had tipped-off the police about five-kilo cache of ganja. The attack was extremely brutal and intended to terrify society (and prevent similar tip-offs) so much so that the victim’s legs were chopped off and one limb taken away.

What was obviously implied was that the suspect deserved what he got. The whole world well knows that a legal principle almost universally accepted is that an accused is presumed innocent until he is proven guilty. It is equally well known that law enforcers, not only in Sri Lanka but also in many parts of the world, often deal out summary justice. They are guilty of extra-judicial executions that are not uncommon. But this cannot be a justification for such acts perpetrated on suspects in custody. Foreign Minister and Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardene, recently answering a parliamentary question on custodial deaths here in the absence of his colleague from whom the question was asked, said there were 32 such deaths in the past eight months. These figures, no doubt, are most alarming. We do not know whether the deaths that occurred at the recent Mahara prison riot were included in Gunawardene’s numbers.

The authorities at first claimed that the riot and resultant death of prisoners was due to a brawl among them. In fact, State Minister Lohan Ratwatte, responsible for prisons and prisoner rehabilitation, is on public record saying that none of those killed had suffered gunshot injuries. He declared that there was no basis for the accusation that they had been shot dead. Subsequent developments have established that Ratwatte had been economical with the truth. Post-mortem examinations have revealed that several of the 11 dead had succumbed to gunshot wounds. A video of the rioting released by the authorities that was widely telecast did not include any scenes of shooting. Obviously embarrassing details had been edited out. The Latin dictum, suppresso veri, suggestio falsi, says it all. The courts prevented the cremation of the dead bodies attempted without autopsy on the grounds that they were covid positive patients. This would have prevented the truth being established.

Readers will remember that many recent custodial deaths were of suspects believed guilty of heinous crimes. “They deserve it” would be a natural reaction. It is common knowledge that torture is widely used by law enforcers and the security apparatus to elicit information from persons in custody. Even the JVP’s founder-leader, Rohana Wijeweera, guilty of unleashing two bloody insurrections upon the people of this country, died in custody under most suspicious circumstances. Then Deputy Defence Minister (in the Premadasa regime) Ranjan Wijeratne announced Wijeweera’s death in custody saying that he and another JVPer, Herat, were taken to a location to retrieve some documents. Herat opened a drawer to get some papers, pulled out a gun and attempted to shoot Wijeweera. Both suspects were shot dead by guards. Few bought the story, but it prevailed. The killing and the subsequent ending of the JVP’s second adventure (the first was the 1971 insurrection after which the party entered the political mainstream with Wijeweera even running for president) was widely welcomed countrywide. The people were sick and tired of JVP terror that had brought the country to the brink of anarchy. Crackers were lit when news of Wijeweera’s death broke. The whole country, long in the grip of JVP terror, heaved a collective sigh of relief and normalcy was quickly restored.

The reality that extra-judicial executions are a fact of life in this country (as probably in many others) is something we cannot escape. The percentage of successful prosecutions in Sri Lanka is as woefully low as four to six percent according to data in the political domain. One of the country’s most successful criminal lawyers, the late Dr. Colvin. R. de Silva who later in his career shone in the Appeal Court, once famously said that many criminals are walking free because witnesses chose to improve on the facts. Exaggerations and falsification of evidence enable good lawyers to destroy the credibility of witnesses and the facts of which they have spoken are rejected by the courts. In this context public opinion is divided on whether extra-judicial killing is warranted. As in Wijeweera’s case and several others, custodial death has been widely welcomed. But this does not make it right.

Whether the concerned authorities can or will ever even make an effort to correct the situation is an open question. Decent law-abiding citizen will not normally endorse police third degree on suspects. But if it is a matter of recovering goods stolen from them, their attitude would be different. However that be, custodial deaths whether in the prisons or in the hands of the police have now reached alarming proportions. The Defence Secretary’s blasé reaction to the Veyangoda killing is a clear indication of the way that papadam crumbles on this score in Sri Lanka.

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SL in vortex of despair



Saturday 17th April, 2021

The Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill has run into stiff resistance. The proposed law, which has even led to dissension within the ranks of the SLPP, is fraught with the danger of Sri Lanka being left with no control over the Colombo Port City, legal experts warn, insisting that the Bill has to be approved by the people at a referendum in addition to being passed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament to become law.

The Opposition has got something to hold onto. Besides political parties, several key organisations including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka have come forward to move the Supreme Court against the controversial Bill. This is a worrisome proposition for the government, which has many other problems to contend with.

External pressure is also mounting on the government over the Chinese project. The US has already said the Colombo Port City may end up being a money-laundering haven. The US, India and other enemies of China are shedding copious tears for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, which, they say, China is subjugating to its economic and geo-strategic interests. But is China alone in doing so? India has been furthering its interests at the expense of Sri Lanka; it has even had the latter’s Constitution forcibly amended and Provincial Councils set up. Sri Lanka cannot even protect its territorial waters against rapacious Indian poachers; under pressure from New Delhi, it has to release the culprits taken into custody.

It is only natural that India and the US have not taken kindly to the mega Chinese ventures in Sri Lanka. But if they and/or the other partners of the strategic alliance they represent had cared to help this country instead of bullying it, China would not have been able to consolidate its position here.

The US and India stand accused of having had a hand in the 2015 regime change in this country. In fact, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has publicly stated India’s spy agency, RAW, was instrumental in ousting him as the President in 2015. India and the US may have expected the yahapalana government to get tough with China and scrap the Port City project. They were disappointed when that administration, having initially suspended the project, allowed the Chinese to build their artificial island bigger, on a 99-year lease, and, worse, leased the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years. The yahapalana regime received no financial assistance from its foreign well-wishers and, out of sheer desperation, banked on Chinese support like its predecessor.

The Bill at issue, if enacted, would turn the Port City into part of China’s territory in all but name, according to legal experts. Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, PC, critically examines the Bill, in his column published on this page today. SLPP MP and former Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has said what the proposed law seeks to achieve will be worse than the Hambantota Port deal. There arguments are compelling. It, however, needs to be added that if Sri Lanka had given in to US pressure and signed the MCC compact complete with SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), etc., in return for USD 450 million from Washington, it would have faced a far worse situation.

The hostility of the US and its allies has driven Sri Lanka into the arms of their mutual enemy, China. If the US and India had helped Sri Lanka rebuild its post-war economy and desisted from their human rights witch-hunt in Geneva, they would not have created conditions for Beijing to endear itself to Colombo in this manner.

If the US, etc., want to counter what they call Chinese expansionism, they have to win over the nations that are dependent on China for funds and protection. They must stop harassing these countries.

The enemies of China have warned Sri Lanka that it will become a Chinese colony, and they, too, would have to take part of the blame for such a fate ever befalling this country.



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Free-market and socialism



Friday 16th April, 2021

Former Finance Minister and newsmaker, Ronnie de Mel, has attracted media attention, again, at the age of 96. He is reported to have said, during a recent conversation with Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, that the Sri Lankan economy should be repositioned with a tilt towards socialism. He has also stressed the need for equitable growth, and other such pro-poor measures in keeping with the tenets of Buddhism.

It is being argued in some quarters that de Mel, who presented 11 budgets consecutively under the better-dead-than-red J. R. Jayewardene government, has faced about, but going by what he is heard saying in a video clip of the aforesaid conversation, which is accessible on the Internet, one can see that he only opines how capitalism can emerge stronger and remain relevant, especially in this country. Speaking boastfully about the epochal economic change the country underwent in 1977, he says there is a pressing need for another such momentous event for the Sri Lankan economy to come out of the doldrums.

Ironically, there was no love lost between de Mel and the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, while they were in the JRJ government as the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister respectively, but the former is now of the view that the latter’s son, Sajith, is the only hope for the country!

We had two epoch-defining elections as regards the national economy. In 1970, the SLFP-led United Front (UF) government, which secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament, adopted a statist approach to economic management and threw in its lot with the socialist bloc in a bipolar world. It took things to an extreme in experimenting with its autochthonous politico-economic model. The state’s vise-like grip on the economy retarded the growth of the private sector much to the resentment of the capitalist bloc. Many arguments have been put forth in defence of this kind of state control over the economy, stringent regulations, etc., under that regime; they are not without merit, but the UF government became hugely unpopular, as a result. In 1977, the UNP, made a stunning comeback and formed a government with a five-sixths majority in the House with de Mel as the Finance Minister and upended the UF’s economy policies, triggering an open-market tsunami as it were; that revolutionary change led to the evisceration of many vital state institutions. Both regimes failed to maintain a balance, and their economic reforms, therefore, did not yield the desired benefits for the country. If only they had heeded the classical, oxymoronic adage, festina lente (‘make haste slowly’).

Those who expected capitalism to flourish following the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) only cherished a delusion. Capitalism has been in crisis; this situation is mostly due to the fact that the capitalist state has to carry out two mutually contradictory functions—accumulation and legitimisation. The process of legitimisation basically requires maintaining social harmony, which cannot be achieved unless the ill-effects of the unbridled capital accumulation are mitigated for the benefit of the ordinary people. Hence attempts by the capitalist state to give its policies a socialist flavour with social welfare and pro-poor schemes. (The JRJ government went so far as to call this country a ‘Democratic Socialist Republic’, in the Constitution it introduced. (Emphasis added.) It is against this backdrop that former Finance Minister de Mel’s aforesaid advice to the Opposition leader should be viewed.

Besides, critics of capitalism inform us that the current free-market model has led to a triple crisis for capitalism—financial instability, lack of environmental sustainability and political unpopularity. “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative,” H. G. Wells has said. This aphorism applies to economic models as well. Even the US has had to make dramatic course corrections over the decades. Some of these measures run counter to its unsolicited advice to the rest of the world; Washington opted for a massive bailout package to save the American banks, etc., during the 2008 financial meltdown, which marked a turning point in capitalism and modern economic theories. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which emerged in 2011, was another manifestation of the crisis of the capitalist state; the protesters who took to the streets were young Americans enraged by intolerable economic inequalities.

President Donald Trump had no qualms about openly practising protectionism to boost the US industries at the expense of other nations, especially China, through controversial tariff hikes. His successor, Joe Biden continues with, more or less, the same policy. All US Presidents have been closet protectionists.

Biden has recently got a 1.9-trillion-dollar stimulus package approved by the Congress to jump-start the economy, facilitate the ongoing Covid-19 vaccination drive, and grant relief to the pandemic-hit Americans. These measures are part of the legitimisation process aimed at bringing about social harmony.

One can only hope that the present-day political leaders and economic policymakers will take note of the fact that one of the main architects of the Sri Lankan version of market economy has owned that things are far from copacetic for capitalism in its present form; the key takeaway for the incumbent government from de Mel’s advice to Sajith, in our book, is the need to ensure equitable growth, which, however, is not attainable through occasional cash handouts and politically-motivated poverty alleviation projects.

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Happy New Year!



Tuesday 13th April, 2021

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year is the time when ordinary people have their fill of merrymaking, and traders and pawnbrokers laugh all the way to the bank. The much-talked-about need to preserve traditions associated with the national festival for posterity is only an excuse for the annual splurge.

What is being celebrated is essentially a harvest festival. In days of yore, people toiled away for months and produced a surplus, part of which was set aside for the New Year festivities. They did not have to worry about the rest of the year as they had enough food stocks. Today, there is no such surplus production, and most people spend borrowed money on New Year celebrations only to regret later when the festive hangover gives way to sobering reality.

Today, harvesting makes only moneylenders and the middleman happy. The farming community is caught in a debt trap. Loan sharks prey on them with impunity. Harvesting is followed by debt-servicing, and farmers either cannot pay back their loans or are left with little or nothing after debt repayment; they have to borrow more for consumption and cultivation purposes, and never will they be able to break this vicious circle unless the state makes a meaningful intervention. Avurudu provides them with some respite from suffering. The same is true of most other people as well.

The koha is said to be conspicuous by its absence, this year. Is it fed up with looking for trees to perch on, given the rate at which the country is being denuded? Its cry which is considered the herald of the traditional new year is, in fact, a desperate mating call. One wonders whether its cry is not heard these days because it has opted for remaining silent by way of family planning, as it were, on account of serious habitat problems.

Health experts have been trying to knock some sense into the public, but in vain. People have thrown caution to the wind, and are behaving as if the pandemic were a thing of the past. They seem to consider Avurudu to be something worth dying for. Shops are chock-a-block, and nobody cares two hoots about the physical distancing rule. People jostle inside clothing stores as if they had never worn clothes before. They also strip bare the racks of grocery stores as if they had never seen food, all these years. Adult males religiously flock around liquor outlets as though their very survival were dependent on the bottle that cheers.

Yesterday, India reported 168,912 COVID-19 infections overnight and overtook Brazil as the second-worst hit country in the world. Unless precautions are taken during the current festive season, Sri Lanka may find itself in the same predicament as its big neighbour.

Politics has apparently taken precedence over the COVID-19 protocol although the health authorities fear that a surge of infections is on the horizon. The government seems reluctant to have the health regulations strictly enforced lest such action should not find favour with the public, who had to be immured in their homes during the festive season, last year. The Provincial Council elections are also expected before the year end. Hence the distribution of cash handouts by the government, which is playing Santa months ahead of Christmas.

The national economy and productivity will take another severe beating due to holidays. Workplaces will remain closed until early next week. It takes, at least, one whole week to reboot the country after the New Year celebrations. Economists should figure out how much the country loses owing to numerous holidays.

Perhaps, it was only last year that Sri Lankans celebrated Avurudu meaningfully. They confined themselves to their homes due to strictly enforced lockdowns, which may have caused numerous difficulties, financial or otherwise, but members of most families huddled together as never before; this is what Avurudu is all about.

We wish our readers a very happy New Year!

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