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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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Cabraal: Prez appoints members to Port City Economic Commission

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By Shyam Nuwan Ganewatta

The President of the country would always appoint members to the Colombo Port City Economic Commission, entrusted with running of that city under the proposed CPCEC Bill, State Minister of Money & Capital Market and State Enterprise Reforms, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, yesterday, told the media, in Colombo.

State Minister Cabraal said that most critics of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill had not even read it.

“Sri Lankans don’t need to obtain a visa to enter the Port City as some claim. The Port City will be administered by the Colombo Port City Economic Commission and the Bill we have presented details how the area will be governed,” Cabraal said responding to a question posed by a journalist.

The State Minister said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had asked him to counter the misinformation and fake news that was being spread about the Bill. Once people have read and understood the Bill, most who criticise it would have to change their tune, the Minister said.

 

Journalists also questioned the State Minister on the allegations levelled by MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakse. The State Minister said that Rajapakse had not even asked a question about the Bill during the Parliamentary Group meetings.

“As I said earlier, the Port City will be administered by Colombo Port City Economic Commission. All members are appointed by the President. The Chairman of the Commission too is appointed by the President. The President can get rid of them anytime he wants,” Cabraal said.

The State Minister added that no one would be allowed to withdraw money or assets from Sri Lanka and invest in the Port City. “This is a special economic zone. We need to attract foreign direct investments. We need to have ease of doing business in this zone and we have to make it an important financial hub in the region.”

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Two hotels to be built obstructing elephant corridor in Sinharaja – MONLAR

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Forest land being cleared for the construction of a hotel

By Rathindra Kuruwita

The Bowitiyatenna elephant corridor, used by elephants in Sinharaja to travel to Dellawa – Walankanda forest had been obstructed by two businessmen by clearing a section of the forest to build hotels, Sajeeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) said.

“One hotel is being constructed in the Dolekanda Grama Niladari area after clearing seven acres of forest land. The Kalawana Divisional Secretariat has approved the construction of the hotel ignoring environmental regulations. Right now, forests are being cleared, land is being prepared and buildings are being constructed using heavy equipment.”

Another hotel was being built at the Bowitiyatenna Elephant Corridor, situated in Godakawela Divisional Secretariat area by a businessman from Godakawela. He has cleared around eight acres of forest land, the environmentalist said.

The two hotels were obstructing the elephant corridors used by the remaining two elephants in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Now, the the people of Rambuka, Thanawela, Ellagama, Handiyekade, Kajugaswatte, Pothupitiya, Kopikella and Cypresswatte would have the elephans marauding their villages, the environmentalist said, adding that the residents of those villages would lose property and lives due to the hotels being constructed by obstructing the elephant corridors.

“Most of the forest areas surrounding the Sinharaja are to be annexed to the Forest Reserve because they are an important part of the forest network. These unscrupulous businessmen and politicians supporting them are attempting to carve out as much land as possible before these areas receive protected status. They are also doing their best to delay the declaration of these lands as protected areas.”

Chamikara said that the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) had the power to take action against those who carried out such illegal activities.

According to Section 23 (a.) (a.) of the National Environmental Act, when a project is carried out without environmental clearance, the CEA can produce such people before a magistrate’s court. If found guilty, a person can be fined up to Rs. 15,000 or imprisoned up to two years or subjected to both.

Chamikara said: “According to Article 27(14) of Chapter VI of the Sri Lankan constitution the state shall protect, preserve and improve the environment for the benefit of the community.” However, the CEA seems to have no interest in taking action against those who are building these hotels illegally. This is CEA’s attitude to almost all major environmental destruction that seems to be taking place these days.

“The government is silent when the Sinharaja forest is degraded and elephant corridors are closed by businessmen. The right to land seems to be a right reserved only for businessmen. We have the right to oppose these under article 28. (f) of the Constitution which states that we have a fundamental duty ‘to protect nature and conserve its riches.’ Article 28. (e) states that we also have a fundamental duty ‘to respect the rights and freedoms of others.’ Thus, we, the citizens have the right to oppose the illegal use of natural resources by powerful businessmen. If we do not oppose these moves as citizens, powerful businessmen will take over all our natural assets like they are doing at Sinharaja.”

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RDHS predicts Coronavirus spike in Jaffna over the weekend

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By Dinasena Ratugamage

There might be a spike in COVID-19 cases in Jaffna this weekend, A.

Kethiswaran, Regional Director Health Services told the media yesterday. Dr. Kethiswaran made the prediction after 26 new cases were detected in Jaffna.

A large number of COVID-19 cases had been reported from Jaffna in the past few weeks. Thus, the people should adhere to health guidelines. If people did not follow the guidelines, there would be a spike in cases and then some places would have to be locked down, he said.

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