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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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Contempt, freedom and responsibility



The imprisonment of MP Ranjan Ramanayake for contempt of court has perturbed the SJB beyond measure. Some Opposition legislators were at their oratorical best recently in Parliament, waxing eloquent as they did on the virtues of freedom of expression and other such democratic rights of citizens and lawmakers. They would have the public believe that Ramanayake’s jail term is too harsh a punishment. True, many were those who expected him to receive a lenient penalty. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Ramanayake should have known better than to run around repeating the statement that had landed him in trouble. Somebody should have warned him.

Those who are currently in the Opposition, shedding copious tears for Ramanayake, derived immense perverse pleasure from the plight of their political rivals who were sent to jail during the yahapalana government. The SLPP politicians are apparently elated at what has befallen Ramanayake, who is their bugbear. However, the general consensus being that the contempt of court laws need revision, the Opposition and the government ought to prevent partisan politics from colouring their standpoints on this important issue and work together.

Ramanayake’s jail term has given rise to a debate on the laws pertaining to contempt of court, and flaws therein. This issue should have been addressed a long time ago. It is unfortunate that an MP had to go to jail for Parliament to take it up. Better late than never, though. Parliament should set about examining the contempt of court laws and take action to rid them of flaws and specify penalties. This issue has to be sorted out once and for all.

Meanwhile, the need to revise the laws anent contempt of Parliament cannot be overemphasised. Parliamentary privileges also deprive people of freedom of expression. Some MPs shamelessly take cover behind their privileges and defame others with impunity. But the MPs raise privilege issues at the drop of a hat. It is being argued in some quarters that the regular courts should not hear contempt of court cases, for one should not hear one’s own case. If so, the same principle must apply to Parliament as well where contempt issues are concerned. Thankfully, some of the draconian powers the legislature was vested with as regards contempt and breaches of privilege have been whittled down, but Parliament still has the power and jurisdiction to punish summarily certain offences.

Judicial officers who hear cases of contempt of court have necessary educational and professional qualifications to carry out their duties and functions. But the same cannot be said of the lawmakers who range from the sublime to the ridiculous. If the very serious charges they level against one another in the House during debates are anything to go by, then there are murderers, fraudsters, chain snatchers, drug dealers and swindlers among them. Some of them have admitted that they benefited from the largesse of the owner of the company involved in the biggest-ever financial crime in this country—the Treasury bond scams; they also went out of their way to defend the bond racketeers. Therefore, how advisable it is to allow the lawmakers with such bad eggs among them to sit in judgment is the question.

There is no gainsaying the fact that lawmakers cannot perform their legislative duties and functions without a certain amount of legal immunity. But restrictions are called for to prevent them from abusing their privileges and legal immunity to defame others, who are left without any legal remedy. Legislators must not have the freedom of the wild ass.

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Syrup promoters in the soup



Monday 25th January, 2021

So, it should now be clear that the Dhammika peniya or syrup, which the Department of Ayurveda has undertaken to test, is no cure for COVID-19. All intelligent people knew it was fake, but others including some government politicians were convinced otherwise. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who swigged the syrup to protect herself against coronavirus, has contracted COVID-19. Several other MPs who ingested it have also tested positive for the virus. The Health Minister is currently at a treatment centre, we are told. We wish her as well as all other patients a speedy recovery, but cannot help wondering why she did not opt for treatment at shaman Dhammika Bandara’s shrine, where a goddess is said to have revealed the COVID-19 cure to him while he was in a trance state.

A previous Rajapaksa government (2010-2015) collapsed as it took the advice of shamans and astrologers seriously and even advanced a presidential election at their behest. Everything it did was astrologically determined. It, however, was not alone in falling for astrological advice, etc., hook, line, and sinker. Its predecessors had even launched military operations according to schedules prepared by astrologers. Most of those offensives ended in disaster. It is said that the launching of operations in Eelam War IV was based on sound military advice; that may be the reason why they succeeded.

The incumbent government is the old Dhammika peniya in a new bottle, as it were, in that it consists of the superstitious elements who were in the aforesaid ill-fated Rajapaksa regime. It has sought to banish coronavirus with the help of some rituals such as dropping pots into rivers. Thankfully, it has stopped short of appointing a minister for superstitious affairs.

Health Minister Wanniarachchi committed something unpardonable by promoting the shaman’s concoction. Wanniarachchi was responsible for triggering mass hysteria by ingesting the peniya at an official event together with some of her SLPP parliamentary colleagues. Thereafter, tens of thousands of people from different parts of the country converged on a village where the shaman distributed the syrup free of charge. They blatantly violated the quarantine laws, but the police looked on. Perhaps, the government let that happen as it wanted public attention distracted from its failure to contain the pandemic and other burning issues such as the soaring cost of living. There may have been many coronavirus infections in that seething mass of humans near the shaman’s syrup distribution centre, and that may be one of the reasons why the pandemic has spread throughout the country.

Nothing could be more disgraceful to a country than to be ruled by a bunch of superstitious politicians who fall for false claims of quacks and deify shamans. The question is whether the Health Minister who promoted a quack’s concoction without any scientific evidence to prove its efficacy and misled the public should be allowed to continue to be in that position.

Some government ministers took on the critics of the Dhammika peniya, calling them traitors. They mixed their brand of patriotism with the untested syrup. They have cut pathetic figures. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena ought to act cautiously hereafter without letting intellectually challenged ministers and MPs use Parliament to promote concoctions touted as remedies for diseases. We are afraid that he, too, has blotted his copybook.

Another fake indigenous physician has claimed to have found a cure for COVID-19. His potion is said to contain hawks’ eggs. If so, the quack must be arrested forthwith, for hawks are a protected species and it is an offence to destroy their eggs. Will the Department of Wildlife get cracking?

Given the sheer number of superstitious politicians in the present government, one can only hope that the new Constitution being drafted will not have a provision for giving superstition the foremost place.

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The galloping stock market



The Colombo stock market has been galloping like nobody’s business these past several days with little or no rational explanation of why this is so in the context of a pandemic-hit business downturn. Among the reasons that have been proffered by brokers and analysts for this surge in confidence of market players, and they have increased substantially in recent months according to the CSE, is that interest rates are plunging. Investors who could earn as much as 12 or 13 percent or more on fixed deposits not so long ago, have to be now satisfied with marginal returns way below the prevailing rates of inflation. They are thus attracted to a stock market which is now performing better than most others in the region.

But the surge on the Colombo market is not supported by foreign or institutional buying which knowledgeable people say is necessary to sustain the current momentum. In fact there has been a steady outflow of foreign funds from Colombo in recent months and there has been no stemming of this flow. Although various authorities have more than hinted that institutions like the Employees Provident Fund and the Insurance Corporation will be back in the market in the short term, this does not appear to have come to pass.

Little wonder. There have been a plethora of allegations about pump and dump and market manipulation that institutional fund managers will be reluctant to open themselves to fresh accusations. This would mean a safe ‘do nothing’ philosophy unless they are ordered to enter the market. We do not know whether there is political or any other directions on what state-controlled entities should do with regard to stock market investment today. But we do know that this has happened in the past. It has been rightly urged that the EPF is only the guardian of the private sector retirement fund it manages, and not its owner. The fund belongs to its members who, together with their employers, make monthly contributions to it as a retirement saving. It must therefore refrain from speculative investments like stock trading is the conservative viewpoint.

The contra-argument has also been adduced. The EPF has long been a captive lender to the government. Government borrowing would naturally ease as the economy grows and there was official thinking within the Central Bank that it made sense to invest in private sector growth areas through the stock market as a long-term strategy. This was done to some degree that was admittedly small. Those who read the annual reports of listed companies, and even their quarterly financial reports listing their top twenty shareholders, will know that that the EPF has substantial stakes in many blue chip companies. There must be a lot of unrealized capital gains in the EPF portfolio where the pluses will outweigh the minuses although the fund cannot always back winners. If its members get an annual dividend ahead of inflation on their individual holdings in the fund, nobody can reasonably complain.

The benchmark All Share Price Index of the CSE has already topped its all time high and the upward momentum continued as this is being written on Friday. Where it will end, nobody can say. It is certainly a good thing for the country that many small investors are entering the stock market which is now retail driven. A completely new class of investors have today entered a field which not so long ago was the exclusive preserve of the rich. Massive turnovers in the billions are being recorded on the CSE every day and stockbrokers who had a lean time as the Easter bomb and the pandemic hit forcing market closure for a long period, would now be laughing all the way to the bank. While the market and its players can bask in the current sunshine, it is very necessary to attract foreign investors back to the CSE. This will undoubtedly be a formidable tasks but a bull run such as that which ongoing can be a factor that can prove persuasive.


Ranjan Ramanayake


The Chairman of the Elections Commission went on public record that Ranjan Ramanayake, the actor politician, who has now begun serving his term of four years rigorous imprisonment will not lose his parliamentary seat for six months. But the attorney general has said otherwise and the elections boss has subsequently stated that what he had expressed is a personal opinion. However that be, the Ramanayake issue remains very much alive in parliament where his Samagi Jana Balavegaya colleague, Harin Fernando sported a black shawl last week and said he will continue to wear it until Ranjan returns. Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, who defended Ramanayake in the Supreme Court also spoke up for the actor saying he was privileged to appear in court “for a clean, honest politician and I’m proud of that.”

The Speaker is yet to rule whether the convicted MP is entitled to attend parliament and promised to announce his decision in three weeks. Readers know that other prisoner-parliamentarians have previously attended sessions, but what will happen in this instance remains an open question in the short term. While most people believe that there is no appeal from a Supreme Court determination and a presidential pardon is the only way out, a contrary view relative to this matter has also been expressed in the context of the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Sri Lanka is a signatory.

In parliament last week Sumanthiran drew attention to the fact that Sri Lanka has failed to enact legislation for contempt of court although some work in that regard had been done. Expressing the view that the term imposed on Ramanayake was unprecedented and exceptionally severe, he drew attention to a serious lacuna in the law which has resulted “in an unprecedented injustice to an honest Member of Parliament.” Ramanayake has consistently refused to apologize for the offence over which he was charged; his parliamentary colleague, Lakshman Kiriella, also last week referred to the conduct of two former chief justices, although under the protection of parliamentary privilege. Such reference had obvious implications in the context of what Ramanayake said.

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