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Easter Sunday probe: Former HR Chief sets the record straight

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…contradicts Sirisena’s claim of dead LTTE cadre’s family member on HRCSL staff

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Former Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Dr. Deepika Udagama strongly refuted former President Maithriapala Sirisena’s claims that during her tenure as the HRCSL Chief a family member of a dead LTTE cadre was accommodated in the setup. Dr. Udagama emphasized that she had never heard of that particular allegation before. There was absolutely no basis for accusations or claims she had been summoned by the former President over the alleged inclusion of a member of the dead LTTE cadre’s family on the staff.

 The Island sought explanation to several issues in the wake of media reports pertaining to the recent P CoI proceedings. Former President Maithripala Sirisena, in response to P CoI queries, directed serious allegations in respect of the HRCSL conduct and also questioned the former Chairperson’s responsibilities as the then Chairperson.

The following are the questions

(Q)   The former President alleged that the inclusion of a family member of a dead LTTE cadre in the HRCSL caused serious problems. Did HRCSL accommodate any such person? If so, can you reveal the name of the dead LTTE cadre and the circumstances he/she died?

(A) First, I wish to point out that my responses are based on the assumption that the media reports you refer to have correctly reported the statement made by the former President as there has been no denial from the former President’s office.

I served as the Chairperson of HRCSL from the end October, 2015 – August, 2020. During that period I am not aware of any such person being recruited by the Commission. Where the staff was concerned, in fact, during the entire period of my tenure it was not possible to hire a single staff member due to administrative complications stemming from first, the absence of a Scheme of Recruitment (SOR) and secondly, the complicated procedural and other delays and difficulties in recruiting staff after approval was obtained by the relevant authorities for such a Scheme. Where the Commissioners are concerned, as I am sure that you are aware, the President appoints all Commissioners and the Chairperson on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council per provisions of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Again here, I am not aware of any Commissioner being the family member of a dead LTTE cadre.         

 (Q) Did the President summon you for a meeting/sought an explanation over the inclusion of a dead LTTE cadre’s relative?

(A) No. In fact, it would be very problematic if anyone in government ‘summoned’ a Chairperson or a member of an independent commission.  We were never summoned. However, we did receive invitations from the Office of the President on a couple of occasions for discussions with President Sirisena. On one such occasion, I recall it was in early 2017, the Chair and all Commissioners were invited for a meeting with the President. We were not informed in advance what the discussion was about.

At the meeting, President Sirisena expressed his displeasure about a report HRCSL had sent the UN Committee against Torture in October, 2016. We explained that the report was submitted at the request of the Committee when it was due to examine Sri Lanka’s periodic report under the UN Convention against Torture. As Sri Lanka had legally accepted the Convention, the State was legally bound to provide periodic reports to explain how it was meeting legal obligations undertaken to prevent and punish torture. We explained that it was standard practice of all UN human rights treaty bodies to invite the national human rights institution and also civil society to submit parallel reports. It was also pointed out that the statistics of torture indicated in the HRCSL report were of complaints of torture received annually by the Commission; just as much as police crime statistics are of complaints of crime recorded by the police and not of adjudicated cases of crime, the Commission too traced patterns of violation via the number of complaints it received.

HRCSL consistently pointed out that during the tenure of the previous government political freedom, freedom of expression, association and assembly vastly expanded and that serious forms of violations such as enforced disappearances were not reported. However, it was pointed out that custodial violations have been a problem for decades and it had to be seriously addressed.

(Q)   The former President accused the HRCSL of depriving SL military opportunity to serve under UN Command

(A) The Commission’s observation was that the UN welcomed the deployment of well-trained officers of the Tri Forces and police from Sri Lanka for its Peacekeeping operations. Pursuant to a resolution adopted by the General Assembly, all troops deployed for peacekeeping have to be subject to human rights vetting. The vetting process, undertaken by HRCSL at the invitation of the UN and the previous government, experienced initial difficulties until it was streamlined as it was an entirely novel process. Pursuant to the adoption of a Standard Operating Procedure in 2018 with the concurrence of the Tri Forces, police, HRCSL, UN and GOSL, vetting of officers has progressed well.  It is not possible to agree that the routine report submitted by HRCSL to the UN Committee against Torture diminished opportunities for our troops.

 In fact, the Sri Lanka Army affirmed that it has the ‘highest confidence in the HRCSL that it does its utmost to expedite this HR screening processes in a Statement issued on March 28th 2019 which was carried in all media. In fact, in that Statement, the Army said ‘the task of screening is not that easy since the HRCSL, apart from the duties it has to perform according to its prime mandate, have to scrutinize thousands of applications as all three services and the Police are engaged in UN peacekeeping,’ It was further said that, ‘Sri Lankans, should be proud that the UN selected the HRCSL, Sri Lanka’s own organization, to carry out the domestic mechanism in the HR screening process.’

 (Q)Would you volunteer/seek an opportunity from P CoI to respond to accusations directed at the HRCSL

(A) I do not see how the reported statement made by the former President before the PCoI is relevant to the matter under investigation.

(Q) Can you briefly explain the President’s role and that of the Constitutional Council in the appointment of HRCSL (members of Independent Commissions) and finally

(A) My response to your first question addressed this issue.

(Q) Do you think HRCSL contributed in any way leading to the political crisis that may have facilitated the Easter attacks?

 (A) If anyone makes that accusation against the HRCSL, it is hard to comprehend the logic behind it. How could protection of people’s rights lead to such a crisis? I thought the previous government was commended for establishing independent commissions and for the improved human rights situation. The answer is certainly not. 

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Covid-19 vaccination programme: MPs not in priority group; President, armed forces chiefs in ‘third category’ 

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

State Minister for Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle yesterday (25) said that members of Parliament were not among those categorised as priority groups expected to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Fernandopulle said so in response to The Island query whether parliamentarians would receive the vaccine scheduled to be delivered by India this week. Asked to explain, Dr. Fernandopulle said that health workers, armed forces and law enforcement personnel engaged in Covid-19 prevention operations would be given priority.

“Lawmakers haven’t been listed under priority groups. However, some members may get the vaccine if they are accommodated in the over 60 years category and those suffering from diabetes, heart disease, cancer et al,” the State minister said.

In addition to State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, several lawmakers, representing both the government and the Opposition had been afflicted over the past several weeks. SLPP lawmaker Wasantha Yapa Bandara (Kandy district) is the latest victim. Health minister Pavitradevi Wanniarachchi was among over half a dozen lawmakers tested positive.

Army Commander General Shavendra Silva told Derana yesterday morning Sri Lanka would receive approximately 500,000 to 600,000 doses from India. Responding to a spate of questions from Derana anchor Sanka Amarjith, Gen. Silva explained the measures taken by the government to ensure a smooth vaccination programme. The Army Chief who also functions as the Chief of Defence Staff revealed India had paid for the consignment obtained from the UK.

Later in the day, The Island sought an explanation from the Army Chief regarding the President, Service Commanders, Secretary Defence given the vaccination along with frontline health workers et al, the celebrated battlefield commander said: “Will be in third priority group.”

Asked whether the student population would be accommodated at an early stage of the vaccination programme, Dr. Fernandopulle said that those under 18 years of age, pregnant and lactating mothers wouldn’t be included at all as such groups hadn’t been subjected to trials. Education Secretary Prof. Kapila Perera wasn’t available for comment.

Dr. Fernandopulle emphasized the pivotal importance of following health guidelines strictly in spite of the launch of the vaccination programme. “We shouldn’t lower our guard under any circumstances,” Dr. Fernandopulle said, urging the population to be mindful of those unable to receive the vaccination due to no fault of theirs. As those under 18 years of age had been left out of the vaccination programme, a substantial section of the population would be denied the protection, the State Minister said.

Sri Lanka is also expected to procure vaccines from China and Russia in addition to the doses from India. Health Secretary Maj. Gen. Sanjeewa Munasinghe wasn’t available for comment.

Sri Lanka launches the vaccination programme with the total number of positive cases nearing 60,000 with nearly 50,000 recoveries. The government recently re-opened the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) following a pilot programme that brought over 1,200 Ukrainians in dozen flights through the Mattala International Airport.

Dr. Fernandopulle said that the government was ready to launch the vaccination programme as soon as the first consignment arrived from India.

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Tennis balls filled with drugs thrown into Kandakadu Covid-19 treatment centre

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By Norman Palihawadane

Two tennis balls filled with drugs had been thrown into the Covid-19 treatment centre at Kandakadu, Police Spokesperson DIG Ajith Rohana said.

The contraband was found on Saturday by the Army officers attached to the facility.

DIG Rohana said the two tennis balls containing cannabis, heroin and tobacco, had been handed over to the Welikanda Police.

A special investigation has been launched into the incident, the Police Spokesperson said. Such incidents had been previously reported from Welikada, Negombo and other prisons, but it was the first time contraband containing narcotics had been thrown into a Covid-19 treatment centre, he added.

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All cargo clearances at Colombo port now through electronic payments

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The Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) has introduced a system where payment for imports could be made via the Internet. This allows port users to make payments from their homes or offices to clear goods from the Port of Colombo.

The SLPA has said in a media statement that the new special facility will enable port users to make their port payments easily without hassle.

At present, all terminals of the Port of Colombo are run according to a strategic crisis management plan.

 

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