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Editorial

Custodial deaths and extra-judicial executions

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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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Editorial

When incompetence fuels crisis

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Wednesday 29th June, 2022

What was feared has come to pass; the country has run out of oil to all intents and purposes. But the government’s lame excuses are not in short supply. It says it will restore the oil supply on 10 July, and until such time fuel will be issued only for essential services. What guarantee is there that enough dollars will be raised within the next two weeks for fuel imports? Are we being made to wait for Godot? It is very likely that on 09 July the government will ask for two more weeks to make fuel available.

Now that the government has closed the country owing to its inability to make fuel available, the question is whether it has any moral right to stay in power. Its leaders have only demonstrated their incompetence and shamelessness. If they continue to be in power, they will inflict far worse damage on the country. They are already conducting a fire sale of state assets, and all out to deprive the country of its energy sovereignty; they have invited multinational oil companies to commence operations here. Some of them will laugh all the way to foreign banks.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have ordered that dollars be released for fuel imports urgently. Whom is he trying to fool? He cannot be unaware that there aren’t enough dollars for fuel purchases. Is he trying to deflect criticism by issuing such directives? The SLPP government bankrupted the country by stealing public funds, slashing taxes, granting massive pay hikes to some categories of public sector workers, throwing money around in the name of pandemic relief, and using forex reserves to defend the rupee in vain, despite repeated warnings from the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry officials. Various rackets such as the sugar tax scam have also taken their toll on the economy. The country is therefore without enough dollars to pay for essential imports including fuel, and there is no way either the Central Bank or the Finance Ministry could find foreign currency for fuel imports in a hurry simply because the President asks them to do so. Perhaps, the only way to pay for fuel imports immediately is to make the corrupt government politicians who have helped themselves to public funds, all these years, return part of their ill-gotten wealth hidden overseas.

SJB MP Champika Ranawaka has flayed the government for the fuel crisis. He has said the country’s image will have to be repaired before foreign assistance is sought. It will not be possible to overcome the present crisis so long as failed politicians continue to be in top posts, he has said. One cannot but agree with him. He is one of the few Opposition members capable of strategic thinking although he was a member of the failed yahapalana government. He has said he is willing to be actively involved in crisis management if a truly multi-party, interim government is formed with a timeframe set for a general election. He would have been able to take over the Power and Energy Ministry if the SJB had accepted the President’s offer to form a government, last month. He and other SJB MPs should have brought pressure to bear on their leader Sajith Premadasa to form a caretaker government together with other parties. They should do so, at least now. A new interim government may not be able to contain the crisis overnight, but it will help prevent the likes of Basil Rajapaksa from manipulating ministers to compass his ends. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is at the mercy of the Rajapaksa family, which controls the SLPP. The incumbent administration is a collective of self-seeking strange bedfellows who are willing to further the interests of the Rajapaksa family; the sooner it is got rid of, the better. That will be half the battle in managing the crisis.

Meanwhile, the government ought to find ways and means of holding racketeers at bay to ensure that fuel to be imported will be dispensed in an equitable manner. It has to devise a rationing system to prevent hoarding. Otherwise, a part of the next fuel shipment will also end up on the black market via hoarders’ dens, and the ordinary people will be left without petrol, diesel or kerosene.

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Editorial

Lanka’s crisis and NATO leaders

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Tuesday 28th June, 2022

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has proved that it is incapable of controlling the runaway economic crisis, which has taken a turn for the worse with pumps running dry at most filling stations. Neither President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe nor Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera knows when or whether the next fuel shipment will arrive. The country is grinding to a halt for want of fuel. Schools have been closed, and many other state institutions including hospitals are on the verge of closure. The day may not be far off when the food supply chain also collapses, and food riots erupt.

Instead of finding solutions to the power and energy crises, the government has resorted to the divestiture of state assets. It has already agreed to hand over an unspecified number of Ceylon Petroleum Corporation filling stations to the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) if what Minister Wijesekera has recently told the media is any indication. He has admitted that the LIOC influenced the government decision to effect the latest fuel price hike. The Electricity Act has been amended to allow India’s Adani Group to construct a wind power plant. The government has also cut a questionable deal with a US company over the Yugadanavi power station. The country is thus losing control over the power and energy sectors while the Rajapaksas are wrapping themselves in the flag and bellowing rhetoric.

Sri Lanka finds itself in the current predicament, defaulting on foreign debt and begging for dollars because of its NATO (No Action Talk Only) leaders. President Rajapaksa summons experts and treats them to long lectures instead of learning from them. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has become a crisis commentator, as it were; he gives ball-by-ball commentaries with ominous warnings thrown in for good measure. Minister Wijesekera is all at sea, and most other ministers are a bunch of somnambulists. Opposition top guns are laying it on too thick.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa would have us believe that the world is eagerly waiting for the formation of an SJB government to help straighten up the Sri Lankan economy. Speaking at a ‘Project Leopard’ event in March, he declared that three West Asian countries had agreed to supply fuel at concessionary rates to Sri Lanka for two years under a future SJB government. If so, the blame for untold hardships the people are undergoing owing to the fuel crisis should be apportioned to the SJB, for it spurned an opportunity to form a government last month. Premadasa turned down President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s invitation to take over as the Prime Minister. He remained intransigent, demanding that the President step down. Subsequently, he had a change of heart, but the President had already decided to appoint Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. However, it’s never too late, as they say.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has declared over the weekend that his party is capable of saving the battered economy and granting the people much-needed relief. He wants the reins of government offered to the JVP on a platter for that task to be accomplished. It was only the other day that he said his party was ready to join others in making a concerted effort to resolve the ever-worsening economic crisis. At the same time, it is pushing for a general election!

Supposing Parliament resolves to hold a snap general election, will any Opposition party be able to form a strong government? The SLPP is bound to suffer a humiliating defeat, come the next election; it is in fact the political version of a dead man walking, but the possibility of the next Parliament being hung cannot be ruled out. Political instability will continue to elude the country in such an eventuality. IMF assistance will be further delayed in the event of a general election being held before the end of this year. So, the best time for all the parties that claim to be able to help the country overcome the crisis to walk the walk is now. The current administration has failed and has to step down. If the SJB helps others, especially the SLFP and the SLPP dissidents, to form a truly multi-party interim administration, joins it and brings down the promised oil shipments at concessionary prices, besides helping enlist international support, the country will gain tremendously. Soapbox oratory will not do.

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Editorial

When Americans bear gifts

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Ambassador Mahinda Samarasinghe has had an audience with US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office itself. They are reported to have discussed matters of bilateral interest, and the US has pledged to help Sri Lanka. No sooner had the duo met than a high-level delegation representing the US Department of State and the US Department of Treasury flew to Colombo. The members of the delegation include Robert Kaproth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Asia, and Ambassador Kelly Keiderling, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, according to the US Embassy in Colombo. Why is this flurry of diplomatic activity?

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis cannot be the sole reason why President Biden granted an audience to Ambassador Samarasinghe. The US government says its officials will ‘explore the most effective ways for the US to support Sri Lankans in need, Sri Lankans working to resolve the current economic crisis, and Sri Lankans planning for a sustainable and inclusive economy for the future’. They may do so, but it cannot be altruism that has made them fly all the way here. What’s up Uncle Sam’s sleeve?

Speculation is rife in diplomatic circles that Washington has resumed efforts to get Colombo to sign SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement). About two years ago, the US decided to terminate an offer of USD 480 million as development assistance under the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCCC) when Sri Lanka turned it down on the recommendations of a special committee President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed to look into it. Prof. Lalithsiri Gunaruwan, who headed the four-member committee, told this newspaper in December 2020 that the MCCC, if signed, would undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The committee report said that although the US compact was categorised as a development programme, if coupled with ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) and SOFA, it could pose a threat to Sri Lanka. It is against this backdrop that Washington’s renewed interest in supporting Sri Lanka at this juncture should be viewed.

It is being argued in some quarters that the perpetuation of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is advantageous to the western bloc bent on taming China, which has Sri Lankan leaders on a string, and that may be the reason why Colombo is not receiving any more financial assistance for fuel imports. The fuel crisis is making Sri Lanka’s economy scream and people riot. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government was expecting an extension of the Indian credit line for fuel imports, but its hopes have been dashed; it is now willing to do anything for a few million dollars.

Any port in a storm, as they say, and given its sheer desperation for dollars, Sri Lanka may choose to sign any agreement if there is forex in it. It is a case of Hobson’s choice for Colombo thanks to the Rajapaksas, who ruined the economy. The western bloc accused the Chinese of having made Sri Lanka cough up a port by goading it into a debt trap. The country is now apparently in an aid trap, and at this rate it may be left with no alternative but to sign SOFA. One may recall that Ambassador Samarasinghe, who was seen at the White House, the other day, was the Minister of Ports when the Hambantota harbour lease agreement, which was favourable to China, was inked!

The unfolding events lend credence to the Opposition’s claim that the Rajapaksa government systematically ruined the economy and created conditions for the country to become increasingly dependent on the rivals of China, especially the QUAD members, and do their bidding. The opponents of this argument will have a hard time explaining why Basil Rajapaksa, as the Finance Minister, did not care to manage the country’s foreign currency reserves and seek IMF assistance. He even skipped parliamentary sessions after presenting Budget 2022, and did not meet the Central Bank bigwigs for months, according to media reports. He just looked on while the economy was getting into a tailspin, and today a fire sale of Sri Lanka’s strategic assets is on. Maybe he considers his missions accomplished, as his political rivals say.

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