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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

Get down to brass tacks

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Saturday 13th August, 2022

The government’s high-octane performance is really amazing although the Opposition has accused it of doing nothing by way of problem solving. It has already solved many problems since the appointment of the new President and the new Cabinet, and is in the process of tackling many others.

The UNP has overcome many problems, thanks to the current dispensation. It has come in from the cold, at last. It was in penury following its disastrous electoral loss in 2020, but is showing signs of recovery. Some of its seniors who were in hiding after defaulting on bank loans to the tune of billions of rupees have crawled out of the woodwork. Their problems, too, have been solved.

 The SLPP also had numerous problems; it faced the prospect of being ousted. But the government has solved all of them. The Rajapaksa family is out of danger; it is calling the shots in the government, again. The SLPP MPs who fell out with their party bosses, and were sidelined, are back in the Cabinet.

Some ambitious Opposition politicians have realised their dream of becoming ministers. Having crossed over to the government, they no longer have any problems to contend with, and can now make up for lost time to their heart’s content. Many more ministerial posts are expected to be created when the 22nd Amendment Bill with provision for the appointment of a jumbo Cabinet is steamrollered through Parliament, and the problems that most MPs are facing will be solved in the event of a national government being formed. At this rate, all the problems of the UNP, the SLPP and others who are willing to switch their allegiance to the government will be solved once and for all.

But the problems that the people are beset with remain unsolved, nay they are worsening. There’s the rub. The foreign currency crunch continues, and precious little is being done to ensure a steady forex inflow, which is the be-all and end-all of economic recovery. The fuel crisis is far from resolved; rationing is no solution however efficient it may be. The economy is thirsting for oil. Extremely high petroleum prices have led to an increase in production costs and the prices of essential goods and services. Inflation is soaring. Bread now costs as much as cake did about two years ago. People continue to skip meals. Doctors are complaining of drug shortages in the state-run hospitals. The school system is not fully functional yet due to transport issues. The Ceylon Electricity Board has jacked up electricity prices unconscionably, and the Water Board is expected to follow suit soon. Tax increases are said to be in the pipeline. Businesses are closing down due to escalating production costs and for want of imported raw materials. Many people have lost their jobs. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse when the adverse effects of the conditions for the IMF bailout packages kick in. The government does not seem keen to address these issues. The Opposition is all at sea.

The government and the Opposition have been busy talking instead of making a collective effort to pull the country out of the present economic mire. They are blowing hot and cold on the formation of an all-party government, which has come to mean different things to different people. The Opposition insists that the proposed joint administration should be an interim one, but the SLPP has some other plans; it wants to cling on to power by sharing ministerial posts with the Opposition. If President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLPP and the Opposition are serious about joining forces for the sake of the country, they ought to stop wasting any more time on endless talks, get down to brass tacks, set goals and formulate a definitive plan to reach them in the shortest possible time.

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Editorial

Aragalaya goes home

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The goal of the Galle Face protest or the Aragalaya was to send the Rajapaksas home. On 09 May, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa went home. On 09 June, Basil Rajapaksa went home, and on 09 July President Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to go home. On 09 August, the Aragalaya went home, as cynics say! The incumbent government, which is a Rajapaksa regime in all but name, is cock-a-hoop, thinking that its strongarm tactics have helped bring public protests under control; it is now reverting to old ways.

The fact that the JVP, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), and their allies and sympathisers including former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka failed to bring large crowds to Colombo on 09 August for the ‘final battle’ has given the lie to their claim that they deserve the credit for the success of the 09 July uprising, which led to the ouster of President Rajapaksa. If it is true that they were instrumental in bringing so many people for the march on the President’s House, will they explain why they miserably failed on 09 August?

Similarly, the failure of the ‘final battle’ launched by the JVP, FSP and others has disproved the government’s claim that all those who took part in the previous protests are anarchists sympathetic to some ultra-radical political groups, and therefore the use of military force against them is justifiable. Now, it has become clear that most protesters who thronged the city on 09 July were resentful people, and some organised groups with hidden political agendas used public anger to compass their political ends. Hence the need to separate the irate public from troublemakers, and resolve the issues that make the ordinary public take to the streets.

The Galle Face protest movement started off as an agitation similar to the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest in the US, and was leaderless at the beginning; one may recall that the JVP, which had no control over the protest initially, warned that such an uprising would spell disaster for democracy. Thereafter, the JVP, the FSP, etc., gained control of the Aragalaya systematically. The UNP also had a considerable presence at the protest site, as former UNP MP Ashu Marasinghe has admitted. The protest gathered momentum with thousands of angry people, mostly youth, joining it, and some businesses and expatriate Sri Lankans providing assistance; most well-wishers of the protesters remained anonymous. There appeared signs of the Galle Face protest losing steam in early May, but the SLPP goons carried out a savage attack on it, giving it a new lease of life and triggering a wave of retaliatory violence, which was carried out in a systematic manner; organised arson attacks and other crimes were similar to the ones carried out in the late 1980s.

Perhaps, the Galle Face protest would not have snowballed into a mass uprising, much less led to the ouster of President Rajapaksa, but for the aggravation of the economic woes of the public. Oil and gas supplies came to a halt, and inflation continued to gallop, driving the people to protest.

When Ranil Wickremesinghe became the President, fuel and LP gas supplies resumed all of a sudden, and an effort to form an all-party government got underway, infusing the public with some hope. People have chosen to act with restraint, as a result. This, we believe, is the reason why the 09 August protest flopped. But, worryingly, the promised political change as well as economic relief remains a will-o’-the-wisp, and if the government fails to maintain a continuous fuel supply, bring down the cost of living, and form an interim, all-party government, pressure is bound to build up in the polity again and find expression in mass uprisings despite the ongoing hunt for the self-proclaimed protest leaders. Rulers are always left without any defence when a tsunami of public anger makes landfall.

Another ruse

The government has made the mistake of causing an affront to the intelligence of the people who are calling for a radical political change and tangible economic relief. Instead of trying to live up to their expectations, it is planning to appoint a jumbo Cabinet and lure Opposition MPs into joining it so as to retain its hold on power until the expiration of the current parliamentary term.

One of the main criticisms that Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena and their Yahapalana allies levelled against the Rajapaksa government ahead of the 2015 presidential election was that it maintained a massive Cabinet at the expense of the public to engineer crossovers. They introduced the 19th Amendment, limiting the number of Cabinet members to 30 and that of other ministers to 40, but made a mockery of their bona fides by craftily inserting a section to remove that limit in case of the formation of a national government. Dissident SLPP MP Gevindu Kumaratunga has told Parliament that the original 22nd Amendment Bill unveiled by the government initially did not contain any provision for expanding the Cabinet, but it has been smuggled into the Bill submitted on Wednesday! Thus, the government has unwittingly shown its hand. The people will be burdened with a jumbo Cabinet, again!

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration is apparently labouring under the delusion that it could cling on to power with the help of crossovers, and coercion will help overcome anti-government protests. Unfortunately, it has, in its wisdom, chosen to test the people’s patience again and is playing with fire, instead of making a serious effort to defuse tensions in the polity by eliminating the causes of public discontent, and making life less miserable for the ordinary public.

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Editorial

Gallup polls and G-strings

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Thursday 11th August 2022

The results of an opinion survey, released recently, indicate that JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is leading where the public approval ratings of the candidates who vied for the presidency in Parliament last month are concerned. Dissanayake leads the survey on trust in leaders to do the right thing to resolve the economic crisis, with 48.5%, followed by Ranil Wickremesinghe (36.6%), Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa (29.1%) and Dullas Alahapperuma (23.7%).

The outcome of the aforesaid opinion poll is likely to make the JVP believe that it stands a better chance of shoring up its image and improving its electoral performance if it remains independent of the grand alliance thought to be in the making, and acts as the Opposition. If all other parties represented in Parliament join forces with the SLPP to form a unity government officially, then the post of the Opposition Leader will have to go to the JVP; that is the basis on which TNA leader R. Sampanthan became the Opposition Leader in 2015.

However, it is not advisable for anyone to go solely by opinion/polls survey results in making vital decisions, for public opinion could be as elusive as the weather; forecasts thereof could go wrong, and some politicians who disregard this fact have found themselves up the creek without a paddle. What befell Keith James Locke, a New Zealand Green Party member, may serve as an example. In the run-up to the 2005 election, he was so confident of victory in his electorate because of Gallup polls predictions favourable to him that he undertook to run across Epsom, in the buff, if his rival won. Unfortunately for him, the pollsters’ predictions went wrong, and he lost! Under pressure from the media and his political rivals, he carried out his promise; he made a dash across the Auckland suburb, wearing a G-string with bodypainting depicting a full suit!

Even in the US, where pollsters employ advanced methods to gather data and analyse them, the Gallup polls results went wrong as regards the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Polls forecasters confidently placed Hillary Clinton’s chance of winning at between 70% to 99%! But Donald Trump came from behind to beat her. It may be argued that Clinton won the popular vote, but the fact remains that Trump secured the presidency. Pollsters also failed to predict the outcome of the British general election in 2015.

One may recall that in Sri Lanka, too, something similar happened at the 2015 presidential election. All secret opinion surveys commissioned by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government ahead of that election predicted a landslide win for the sitting President, but his main rival, Maithripala Sirisena proved to be a dark horse. Rajapaksa did not know what hit him. Even Sirisena may not have expected to pull off such an upset victory.

Sri Lankan pollsters may be familiar with the idea of ‘shy Trumpers’, which came into being during the 2016 US presidential election; many Americans did not want to identify themselves as the supporters of Trump, during surveys, due to his undesirable behaviour but approved his policies and voted for him. Likewise, there may not be a dearth of ‘shy Rajapaksers’ in the Sri Lanka polity, and the beleaguered Family may be planning a comeback a la Bongbong Marcos of the Philippines. This may be the reason why they enabled two non-SLPP members, Wickremesinghe (UNP) and Dinesh Gunawardena (MEP) to secure the presidency and the premiership respectively and function as placeholders, while enjoying life, until the time is opportune for the Family members to crawl out of the woodwork.

President Wickremesinghe has likened his unenviable task to that of Grusha, who carries a baby across a collapsing rope bridge, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. That, we believe, is an understatement of his daunting mission; he is carrying a much heavier burden—a full-grown, former ruggerite, who is the son of not just a former Governor but an ex-President, no less!

As for surveys and statistical analysis of public opinion, it behoves politicians to tread cautiously. Prudence demands that they keep an ear to the ground, and factor in all political developments and trends in making crucial decisions, instead of being carried away by survey results.

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