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Detention of terror suspects, justice for Easter Sunday victims and arrest of web journalists on agenda    

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HRCSL Chairman Dr. Jagath Balasuriya addressing civil society representatives (pic courtesy HRCSL) 

 

HRCSL-civil society powwow 

 

By Shamindra Ferdinando 

A civil society group has raised the issue of the detention of persons arrested during the conflict and post-war period in terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with the newly constituted Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL). Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. 

Most of the suspects had fought for the LTTE and some had engaged in clandestine terror missions in the South, including political assassinations, former Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, MP said. During his tenure as the Justice Minister, he insisted that there were no political prisoners or secret detention camps in the country. SLPP MP Rajapakse yesterday (22) emphasised that the current situation in the country couldn’t be compared with what was under the yahapalana administration. The change of government in Nov 2019 had completely changed the situation, the MP said.

The discussion at the HRCSL office took place on June 8 on the invitation of Dr. Jagath Balasuriya, Chairperson, HRCSL.  

Appreciating an opportunity received by the civil society to make representations, Dr. Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council told The Island several issues, including the imprisonment of persons under the PTA and difficulties in obtaining bail for them, torture, the killing of persons in police custody, arrest of web journalists, the abuse of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) Act, which provides for arrest without bail, surveillance of civil society groups and the exploitation of Free Trade Zone workers during the pandemic. The issue of arrests made in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks was also raised.  

Dr. Perera underscored the importance of a dialogue between the civil society and the HRCSL though they might not be agreeing on many contentious issues.  

The first meeting between the HRCSL and the civil society took place after the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) questioned the rationale behind the appointment of former Cabinet Minister Balasuriya as the HRCSL Chairperson. Would Balasuriya, whose son Tharaka represented the SLPP in Parliament be able to genuinely address human rights issues, asked SJB lawmaker Mujibur Rahman. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in late Dec 2020, appointed the HRCSL comprising Jagath Balasuriya, Dr. M. H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara, Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan and H. K. Navaratne Weraduwa.  

Dr. Deepika Udagama served as the previous head of the HRCSL.  

Dr. Perera said that they had received an assurance from the HRCSL that the issues raised by the civil society had been taken up with the government. He quoted HRCSL members as having said that they expected a positive response from the government. 

Dr. Perera said that during the discussion, the HRCSL had referred to reforming of the PTA and the issues raised by families of missing persons and persons suffering from prolonged periods of detention without recourse to judicial processes. “They also explained how they had set about strengthening the administration of the HRCSL such as clearing the backlog of cases and empowering officials who had been given acting appointments and making them permanent,” Dr. Perera said. 

In his brief address to the gathering, Dr. Balasuriya assured that the HRCSL would act independently though being appointed by the President. Appealing to those present to trust the HRCSL, Dr. Balasuriya assured the civil society they would use their positions to protect and uphold human rights in the country.  

Pointing out that the civil society had a positive engagement with the HRCSL, Dr. Perera said that the recent Court of Appeal decision in the Shani Abeysekera case had given them confidence that the HRCSL would act in a similar spirit to uphold the truth, the rule of law and human rights for the good of the country and all its people. 

Dr. Perera said that the HRCSL intended to conduct separate meetings with small groups of activists due to the continuing threat posed by the raging Covid-19 epidemic. The second meeting scheduled for yesterday (22) was postponed.

The HRCSL has begun meeting civil society organisations. 

Nihal Chandrasiri, Director – Research & Monitoring (Actg.), HRCSL said that talks with national level groups had been initiated as they could not hold the planned two-day national workshop with the participation of the representatives of regional and national-level civil society organisations in May 2021. 

Those present at the June 8 meeting were Dr. Jehan Perera (National Peace Council), Attorney-at-law Lakshan Dias and Philip Dissanayake (Right to Life Human Rights Centre), Chamila Thushari (Dabindu Collective), Prabodha Rathnayake (Rights Now), Ms. Ranitha Gnanarajah (Centre for Human Rights & Development), and Rev. Fr. Mahendra Gunatilleke (Caritas Sri Lanka – SEDEC).  

The HRCSL was represented by Dr. Jagath Balasuriya, Commissioners Harsha Nawaratne, Anusuya Shanmuganathan, Nimal Karunasiri, Mrs. Hema Dharmawardena – Additional Secretary, HRCSL,  Nihal Chandrasiri, Director – Research & Monitoring (Actg.), Mrs. Menaka Herath – Director- Education & Special Programmes, HRCSL, and Ms. Sulari Liyanagama, Director – Inquiries & Investigations (Actg.).  

The Island could not clarify matters relating to the actual number of people held under PTA according to information available with the HRCSL as its spokesperson Nihal Chandrasiri did not answer his phone.  

Rev. Fr. Mahendra Gunatilleke, in his presentation, raised the issues pertaining to the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. The Church representative pointed out the inordinate delay in bringing those responsible for heinous crimes before justice. The Rev Father expressed concerns over the situation against the backdrop of the Catholic Church pressuring the government to take punitive measures and implement the Presidential Commission of Inquiry report on the Easter Sunday carnage. 

 

 



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Police detain Bathiudeen’s wife, father-in-law and another suspect over domestic aide’s death

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Former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen’s wife, father-in-law and another suspect have been detained for interrogation in connection with the death of the 16-year old domestic aide.

“They are being held for 72 hours for further questioning”, police said.

The suspects taken into custody were identified by police as that 46-year old Sheyabdeen Ayesha, her father  70-year-old Mohammed Sheyabdeen and the broker who brought the girl to work as a domestic aide in Bathiudeen’s house.

The victim, a resident of Dayagama Estate off Talawakelle, was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital on July 3 with severe burn injuries. She died on July 15.

Police have already recorded the statements of more than 20 persons in connection with the girl’s death.

Police have also questioned two women aged 22 and 32 from the Dayagama area, who earlier served as domestic workers at the former Minister’s house.

One of the women had claimed she was sexually harassed by Bathiudeen’s brother-in-law from 2015 to 2019 at the former Minister’s residence in Colombo.

Subsequently, police also arrested the 44-year old Sheyabdeen Ismadeen, brother-in-law of the former Minister.

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Contamination fears propel Lanka Sathosa to recall Chinese-made canned fish stocks

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After procurement from Colombo port for Rs. 50mn

by Suresh Perera

A substantial stock of “confiscated” canned fish Lanka Sathosa procured from the Colombo port at a cost of around Rs. 50 million has been recalled from the market following public complaints that the Chinese-manufactured products were unfit for human consumption.

The five 20-foot container loads of 425g ‘Kitchen King’ Mackerel canned fish of the Scomber japonicus species, which were lying in the Colombo port as “abandoned cargo” after forfeiture by the Customs in October last year, was purchased by Lanka Sathosa recently to be sold at a concessionary price through its chain of supermarkets.

“We have now withdrawn the whole stock from our supermarket shelves as there were customer complaints that the canned fish was not fit for consumption”, says Lanka Sathosa Chairman, Rear Admiral (Retd) Ananda Peiris.

The products were injected into the market after clearance by the Food Control Unit of the Health Ministry following quality testing by the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI), he said.

“As there’s a shortage of canned fish in the marketplace, we promptly distributed the stocks to our supermarkets island-wide to be sold at Rs. 290 each. We have now asked the outlets not to sell them to customers because of the quality issue that has emerged”, the Chairman noted.

“We have no option now other than to return the consignment and seek a refund from the Ports Authority”, he said.

Onions, potatoes, lentils and other food commodities, which are either confiscated by the Customs or remain uncleared by importers, are generally procured by Lanka Sathosa to be sold at concessionary prices to customers, Peiris explained.

“In terms of a Cabinet decision, the consignments are auctioned only if we don’t procure them”.

The stock of canned fish had been forfeited as the owner had not cleared it for three months, he said.

“Lanka Sathosa appears to have opened a can of worms as the 9,200 packs of canned fish had arrived aboard a vessel, which sailed into Colombo on October 29 last year, a source knowledgeable of the operation, said.

Listing out the relevant reference and batch numbers of the consignments, the source said the Chinese products were manufactured on 09/10/2020 with a 09/10/2023 ‘expiry date’.

This means the stocks had been in the Colombo port for the past nine months, and had turned rancid despite a 2023 ‘expiry date’, the source asserted.

Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) officers had raided the Lanka Sathosa outlet at Moneragala following complaints that canned fish was being hoarded.

“We found stocks in storage, but was told by officers there that instructions were received to withhold the sale of the ‘Kitchen King’ products until they were re-labeled”, CAA’s Executive Director, Thushan Gunawardena said.

As the importer was not in favor of Lanka Sathosa marketing the products under its original brand name, a sticker was affixed to obscure it, Peiris clarified.

Under Section 10 of the Consumer Protection Act, re-labeling a product constitutes an offence, Gunawardena pointed out.

Acting on a complaint, public health inspectors have taken a sample of the canned fish from the Mawanella outlet for testing, the Lanka Sathosa chief further said.

Responding to questions raised by the CAA, the SLSI said its officers had collected samples from the five containers following requests by the Ports Authority and Lanka Sathosa.

As the original importer had not submitted any documents to the SLSI so far, the need for sample collection didn’t arise, it said.

The CAA has further queried whether the SLSI was aware of the purpose the test results were required at the time samples were received.

The SLSI has clamped down on the import of substandard canned fish with an intolerable level of arsenic, particularly from manufacturers in China.

In a news report headlined “SLSI cracks the whip on substandard Chinese canned fish imports”, The Sunday Island of March 21, 2021 quoted the institution’s Director-General, Dr. Siddhika Senaratne as saying that fish harvested for canning has a high arsenic content as the sea in China is heavily polluted and dirty due to lax environmental laws.

“It is true that there is a scarcity of canned fish in the market because supply cannot meet the demand. However, this does not mean we should allow our people to be poisoned through arsenic-laden imports”, she was quoted saying in the news report.

With the SLSI stipulating a maximum arsenic tolerance standard of 1.0 milligram per kilogram of fish, a filtering mechanism is now in place to shut out substandard imports, she assured at the time.

Asked whether the consignment of Chinese canned fish procured by Lanka Sathosa was earlier detained due to its high arsenic content, Dr. Senaratne declined comment saying she’s “not allowed to talk to the media”.

“The DG wouldn’t want to be dragged into another controversy”, an official remarked, referring to the furore over her claim of toxins in foodstuffs, which she, however, declined to identify at the time.

At a time canned fish imports from China have been off the shelves since SLSI’s rigid monitoring of tolerable arsenic levels began, industry players expressed consternation on how a stock, which had been lying in the Colombo port for months, was suddenly given the nod for procurement by Lanka Sathosa.

With the scarcity of canned fish products in the market pushing up demand, will an importer abandon his consignments unless there was something rotten somewhere?, they asked.

“It is too far-fetched to imagine that they got the documentation wrong as these importers are seasoned campaigners in the game”.

It is apparent that Lanka Sathosa had not done its homework before jumping at the idea of procuring the consignment because Chinese-made canned fish had remained virtually out of bounds for many months because of fears of contamination, they said.

Importers didn’t want to risk their investments as a high arsenic level meant the consignments were either destroyed or ordered to be re-exported, they added.

“That’s why local products now dominate the market with a brand from Thailand also no longer available”.

 

 

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United States gives Sri Lanka 500,000 coronavirus rapid tests

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The United States had donated 500,000 Rapid diagnostic tests to Sri Lanka worth Rs. 300 million to help the country fight Coronavirus, the US Agency for International Development said.

“By enabling rapid detection of the virus, these tests donated by the American people will save lives and protect public health in Sri Lanka,” USAID Mission Director to Sri Lanka and Maldives, Reed Aeschliman said in a statement.

“This donation builds on previous U.S. support to the Sri Lankan government’s pandemic response and reflects our strong, long-standing partnership.”

US has also given 1.5 million moderna vaccines to Sri Lanka.

The tests are simple to use and enable fast, decentralized access to direct testing. They do not require additional equipment or specialized laboratory access, which helps achieve high testing coverage.

The United States has also given of 200 ventilators to Sri Lanka’s health system.

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