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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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SC: Anti-Terrorism Bill needs approval at referendum and 2/3 majority to become law

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Certain sections inconsistent with Constitution

By Saman Indrajith

Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapaksa informed Parliament yesterday that the Supreme Court (SC) has determined that some sections of the Anti-Terrorism Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and, therefore, the Bill had to be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum.

Rajapaksa said that the Supreme Court had determined that the Sections 3, 4, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 72 (2), 75 (3) and 83 (7) of the draft Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution.

The SC has determined that sections 3, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 75 (3) should be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum if they are to become law.

Sections 4 and 72 (2) of the Bill have to be amended as per the SC determination.

Section 83 (7) requires passage by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

However, the SC had stated that it could be passed by a simple majority if the recommended amendments are accommodated, Rajapaksa said.

Opposition MPs say the Anti-Terrorism Bill is being introduced in an election year to repress Opposition parties.They said the proposed law is a threat to democracy itself.

“This Bill is being presented not at a time of terrorism prevailing in the country but during an election period. The Bill has not defined nor analysed what a terrorist is. Anyone can be arrested,” SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said.

The MP said both the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the controversial Online Safety law were meant to quell democracy.

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Harin’s claim that SL is part of India: Govt. says it is his personal opinion

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Manusha accuses Wimal of having taken parts of Fernando’s speech out of context

By Saman Indrajith

Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara told NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa in Parliament to refrain from taking chunks of others’ speeches out of context and misinterpreting them for political mileage.

The Minister said so following concerns raised by Weerawansa over a recent statement by Tourism Minister Harin Fernando on India-Sri Lanka relationships.

Weerawansa said that Minister Fernando had recently stated that Sri Lanka was a part of India. “Was it Minister Fernando’s personal opinion or the government’s official standpoint? Was it the opinion of the Cabinet?”

Chief Government Whip Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said what Minister Fernando had stated was the latter’s personal opinion.

Minister Nanayakkara: “If anyone has read the entire statement made by Minister Fernando this type of question would not have arisen. The Tourism Minister was referring to historical relationships between India and Sri Lanka to ask Indians to visit Sri Lanka.

A distorted version of the speech by Minister Fernando is being circulated on social media. Certain parts have been removed while some words have been introduced to this edited version. Ones should read the statement in its entirety to understand it. We have not discussed this in the Cabinet meeting” Minister Nanayakkara said.

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US backs Lankan journalists vis-a-vis Online Safety law

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Kumar Nadesan, Chairman Board of Directors of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (left) Elizabeth Allen ( Centre) and US Ambassador Chung (pic courtesy US embassy)

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Elizabeth Allen on Monday (19) declared US support for journalists here against the backdrop of enactment of ‘Online Safety Bill’

She spokes about press freedom and related issues at the Sri Lanka Press Institute Press Club.

A statement issued by the US Embassy quoted Allen as having said the U.S. Embassy is all in on supporting your incredible work. Sure, we might bump heads over a story now and then, but above all, we’re your biggest fans. We’re all in on programmes that hone your skills because we believe in your right to pursue journalism freely and fearlessly.

I want to thank you for protecting the rights and freedoms of journalists here in Sri Lanka and around the world, ensuring all citizens enjoy the right to express their ideas and opinions openly and freely. Even in difficult times, you continue to press forward and ask difficult questions. Your commitment to seeking out the truth and shouting it from the rooftops remains a democratic staple, and I truly appreciate what you do.

It’s only fitting that I begin my remarks this afternoon by telling a story that I think is relevant in light of today’s topic about the media’s role in a democracy.

Over a century ago, American media coined the term “muckraker” for journalists who delved into societal issues, exposing corruption.

Although the term carried a somewhat negative connotation, labeling these journalists as mere “gossip mongers,” today, we honor them as the pioneers of investigative journalism.

These muckrakers played a pivotal role in ushering in the Progressive Era, a time of significant social and political reform in American history.

Even President Theodore Roosevelt referred to them as “muckrakers,” criticizing their focus on society’s flaws through figures like Lincoln Steffens, whose work shed light on corruption and spurred a nationwide call for accountability and reform.

Steffens’ book ‘The Shame of the Cities,’ published in 1904, made him renowned for uncovering corruption within American cities, highlighting the nefarious links between political leaders, businesses, and organized crime.

His fearless journalism raised critical awareness about the urgent need for governmental and corporate accountability. Steffens wasn’t acting as a public relations officer for the government; his role was to uncover the truth; however unpleasant it might be.

Faced with the stark realities Steffens presented, American officials and the public were compelled to confront a pivotal question: ‘Is this the kind of country we aspire to be?’ The resounding answer was no.

Steffens’ work didn’t just expose wrongdoing; it sparked a nationwide demand for reform and played a crucial role in fostering a dialogue about the essential role of investigative journalism in ensuring power remains accountable.

This story showcases how freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not just fundamental human rights, they are also vital contributors to a country’s development and growth.

This brings me to my main point: how the global media space supports democracy and fosters peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

In my mind, the correlation is obvious: When a government constricts the rights and freedoms of its citizens, the future and the development of the country will naturally suffer.

Globally, we’re witnessing serious and escalating challenges to media freedom. The United States stands firmly for the freedom of expression, advocating for press freedom both online and offline, and ensuring the safety of journalists and media workers worldwide. Unfortunately, these essential freedoms are under threat globally, including concerns raised here in Sri Lanka.

When governments intensify efforts to withhold information from the public by restricting internet access and censoring content, we must speak up. Notably, when Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed the Online Safety Bill in January, the United States voiced concerns over its potential effects on freedom of expression, innovation, and privacy.

It’s common to hear arguments against unfettered freedom of expression. Critics claim the media is biased, aiming to embarrass governments and undermine public trust. Others worry that without checks, freedom of expression may fuel the spread of misinformation. Some argue that an unchecked press can incite tension and compromise security. And there’s concern that continuous reports on corruption, violence, and political strife can tarnish a nation’s image, deterring investment and hampering development.

However, the media’s bias should lean towards the public’s interest, acting as a guardian to ensure that leaders fulfill their duties. This principle holds in Sri Lanka, the United States, and globally.

The challenge of negative press, often labeled as “fake news” or “biased journalism,” is not new. For generations, governments and the media have navigated a complex, sometimes adversarial relationship. This dynamic isn’t unique to any one nation; in the United States, for instance, presidents from both major political parties have experienced their share of friction with the press. This tension, a hallmark of democratic societies, plays a crucial role in fostering transparency and encouraging effective governance. It’s a familiar scene: politicians and journalists engage in heated exchanges, especially when leaders feel their actions are misrepresented, leading to accusations of inaccuracies and biased reporting.

The press’s duty is to deliver facts as they stand, shedding light on the government’s achievements as well as spotlighting areas where policies or programs fall short. This transparency not only informs the public but also strengthens the nation as it encourages constructive action and improvement.

And suppressing voices only complicates matters further. Attempting to conceal issues rather than addressing them is akin to hiding a broken tool rather than fixing it. True progress comes from collaborative dialogue, even if it means embracing the messiness of public discourse.”

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