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Eyebrows raised over inordinate delay in seeking Indian help



SLPA’s only tug ineffective; ‘Hercules’ in epic evacuation mission

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Controversy surrounds the inordinate delay on Sri Lanka’s part to seek Indian assistance for fighting the fire onboard Singaporean flagged X-Press Pearl anchored 9.5 nautical miles northwest of the Colombo port.

Sri Lanka sought Indian assistance on the afternoon of 25 May, five days after the Captain of the container carrier MV X-Press Pearl requested SLN support to douse the fire.

The SLN has responded to the distress call on the afternoon of 20 May.

The fire erupted on the night of 19 May 19 at a time the vessel operated by the world’s largest feeder operator, X-Press Feeders was in anchorage.

The examination of available information revealed that the SLN requested for Indian backing to fight the major conflagration as well as pollution control after a huge blast on the vessel, which had a raging fire among some of the containers on its deck for more than four days.

Well informed sources said that the blast ripped through the stack of containers at 4.30 am, on May 25th. Sources said that the blast deprived the firefighters whatever chance they had in bringing the situation under control.

Responding to The Island queries, sources explained by the time Indian assistance was sought, the battle was clearly lost.

Sources pointed out that by the time Sri Lanka sought Indian intervention, the brand new vessel had been abandoned with the 25-member crew comprising 25 Philippine, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals evacuated by the firefighters. The evacuation coincided with the fire overwhelming the firefighters, sources said, acknowledging Sri Lanka obviously lacked the capacity to undertake such a daunting challenge.

Evacuation of all-foreign crew had been carried out by tug ‘Hercules’ chartered by Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Sources said that in spite of the huge risk, the ‘Hercules’ crew carried out the evacuation, successfully, under extremely difficult conditions and they were brought ashore. By the time, Indian assistance had been sought, the ship was even listing and some of the containers on its deck had fallen overboard, sources said.

Inquiries revealed that the SLPA lacked the strength to engage in such a firefighting exercise. The SLPA tug ‘Megha’ in spite of being dispatched to the scene of the fire on May 20th hadn’t been able to make a difference. The vessel hadn’t been properly equipped therefore the SLPA had no option but to withdraw it and send two tugs ‘Hercules’ and ‘Posh Hardy’ on May 21 and May 22, respectively.

The Island learns that the SLPA had taken those tugs on long lease from Sri Lanka Shipping Company in 2018. However, another tug ‘Posh Husky’ also taken on long lease from the same company hadn’t been in a position for deployment due to what some sources called ‘equipment issues.’

Subsequently, two other tugs, ‘Mahawewa’ and ‘Aries’ owned by Sri Lanka Shipping Company had been deployed as the situation rapidly deteriorated. Two foreign tugs, ‘Posh Teal’ and ‘Shalwar’ that had arrived here on the night of May 22 and May 23 morning, respectively failed to bring the situation under control either. They belonged to world renowned ‘Salvors.’

By the time Indian assets arrived in Sri Lankan waters the firefight had been lost and the operation transformed to a pollution control mission. Sources said that the country hadn’t experienced a similar situation since independence though the SLN with Indian Coast Guard backing managed to control a fire onboard oil tanker ‘New Diamond’s carrying more than a quarter of a million tonnes of crude oil off the East coast in early September 2020.

Sources said that in spite of successive governments vowing to transform Colombo harbour to a maritime hub a genuine attempt hadn’t been made to achieve that privileged status. The fire onboard ‘New Diamond’ and the ongoing inferno off the Negombo coast exposed the failure on the part of the SLPA to build up its own firefighting capacity.

When Indian assets, Coast Guard vessels Vaibhav, Vajra and Samudra Prehari and tug ‘Water Lilly’ dispatched by Director General Shipping there, in addition to Dornier aircraft for aerial reconnaissance had been on their way, the firefight had been lost, sources said. According to a statement dated May 25th issued in the evening by the Indian High Commission in Colombo, having received Sri Lanka’s request in the afternoon, Dornier aircraft reached Colombo at 4 pm on the same day and the first vessel was to reach the scene by 7 pm.

X-Press Pearl carried 1,486 containers with 25 tons of Nitric Acid, several other chemicals and cosmetics from the port of Hazira, India on 15th May 2021.

Speculation is rife that those responsible, including the X-Press Pearl crew hadn’t made a proper assessment of the situation therefore failed to take tangible measures, on time.

The initial SLN deployment on May 20th afternoon comprised Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) SLNS Sagara, Sindurala and a Fast Attack Craft (FAC).

According to an SLN statement, the ill-fated vessel had arrived at the location (9.5 nautical miles northwest) on the 19th of May and was awaiting its entry into the Colombo harbour.

Inclement weather hampered operations, sources said, pointing out that the government had to address the issue as it was battling both fast spreading Covid-19 pandemic and floods.

Regardless of inclement weather the Air force on two days dropped dry chemical powder on the vessel.

Sources said that Sri Lanka should acquire firefighting capability. Perhaps, following the end of the war, 12 years ago some of the SLN vessels could have been properly equipped to meet emergency situation, sources said. The SLPA should apprise the environment and take whatever tangible measures as such expertise and strengths couldn’t be procured overnight, sources said.

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People to get fuel price shock soon



The Cabinet sub-committee on the cost of living had decided to increase fuel prices, Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila told the media yesterday (11) in Colombo. He said that the date of the price hikes  would be revealed soon.

The Minister said that if they announced the date, it would lead to long lines at filling stations and it would have disastrous consequences during the pandemic.

“We know that things are hard for everyone, that is why we didn’t increase fuel prices for 21 months. But the government can no longer bear the losses. The oil prices in the world market have been increasing. By the end of 2020, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) had accumulated a loss of RS. 331 billion. Each year we spend three billion dollars to import oil,” he said.

Gammanpila said that the main sources of income for the country had been affected due to the pandemic and foreign investments and tourism had stopped and a large number of Lankans working abroad had returned, decreasing remittances.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Office on May 20 said that a ministerial subcommittee discussed the sharp increase in crude oil prices compared to 2019 and 2020.

The PM chaired the meeting in the Committee Room 8 in Parliament. The Cabinet subcommittee discussed ways and means of addressing the problems caused by the crude price hike.

The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. (RK)

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HRC asks IGP to explain how he intended to stop deaths of suspects in police custody



Report called by June 13

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Human Rights Commission has sought an explanation from IGP C.D. Wickremaratne as regards continuing deaths in police custody.

In a letter dated June 8, 2021, HRC Chairman Dr. Jagath Balasuriya has raised the recent deaths in police custody with the focus on two incidents involving Panadura and Batticaloa police.

HRC Acting Director Research and Monitoring Nihal Chandrasiri told The Island that the June 8 dated letter was the latest missive addressed to the IGP regarding this particular issue since the formation of the new HRC following the last general election in August 2020.

Chandrasiri made available to The Island, a copy of Dr. Balasuriya’s letter addressed to IGP Wickremaratne.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in late Dec 2020 named former lawmaker Balasuriya as the Chairman of the HRC comprising· Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara, Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan and H.K. Navaratne Weraduwa.

Chandrasiri said that the HRC first took up deaths in police custody in the wake of the killing of Dinithi Melan alias Uru Juwa, who had been arrested by the Nawagamuwa police, and Dharmakeerthi Tharaka Perera Wijesekara alias Kosgoda Tharaka in the second week of May 2021.

Civil society activist attorney-at-law Senaka Perera told The Island that continuing deaths in police custody should be examined against the backdrop of a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka delivered that the extra-judicial killing of a suspect in police custody violated the right to life, in spite of the absence of an explicit right to life clause  in the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

According to Dr. Balasuriya’s letter, reportage of the deaths of Chandana Vidushan and Ali Khan in the custody of the Batticaloa police and Panadura (North) police, respectively, prompted the HRC to take up the matter with the IGP. Declaring that the HRC has initiated an inquiry in terms of Section 14 of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya said that inquiries revealed both victims suffered cruel and inhuman treatment in the hands of the police, leading to their deaths?.

Expressing serious concern over what he called the absence of safety and security of those in police custody, Dr. Balasuriya has pointed out to the IGP relevant sections of the Constitution, in addition to Supreme Court rulings in respect of such matters and two letters dated Oct 21, 2020 and  March 17, 2021 that dealt with the issue at hand.

Asserting that continuing deaths in police custody resulted in deterioration of public confidence in law and order, such incidents underscored the threat to what he called public freedom. Having reminded the IGP that the HRC intervened in terms of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya has requested the IGP to submit a report to him of measures he intended to introduce to prevent deaths in police custody by or before June 13.

In the wake of several killings in police custody, Romesh de Silva, PC, recently moved the Court of Appeal on behalf of convicted heroin dealer Gampola Vidanalage Samantha Kumara alias Wele Suda held at maximum security Boossa prison. President’s Counsel successfully argued against the police taking Wele Suda into their custody.  

President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President’s Counsel Saliya Pieris has appeared in the Court of Appeal on behalf of Janith Madushankar alias Podi Lassi. Having brought to the notice of justices, Sobitha Rajakaruna and Dhammika Ranepola, the most recent killings in police custody of ‘Uru Juwa’ and ‘Kosgoda Tharaka,’ Peiris sought the court’s intervention to ensure his client’s safety and security.

The lawyer has requested that the court direct the IGP to transfer his client from the custody of the CID to another unit.



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Health trade union alliance claims their strike a success



By Rathindra Kuruwita

Senior health officials including doctors benefited from the current health crisis, Health Services Trade Union Alliance (HSTUA) President Saman Rathnapriya said yesterday commenting on the trade union action resorted to by a number of health sector unions, excluding the GMOA.

Rathnapriya maintained that the strike was a success and non-health sector unions  too had supported them because what he called unfair increases in allowances received by doctors affected the entire state sector. The allowance given to doctors had been increased by 78%, from Rs. 41,220 to Rs. 78,120, however other categories had not received any increase in their allowances, he said.

“Our union action was a success, but we are not happy we had to do this. Nurses and other staffers have not received any increase in their allowances although they too are contributing greatly in the fight against COVID-19. The Health Ministry is unnecessarily creating issues by giving a colossal allowance increase to the doctors,” Rathnapriya said.

College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) President Ravi Kumudesh said that the doctors held top positions in the Health Ministry and for many years they had been ignoring the salaries and allowances of other employees.

“They not only mistreat us but create new issues, testing our patience. Throughout this pandemic you can see this. They get all the perks and have even their family members vaccinated. They are taking advantage of the fact that we are exercising patience in view of the pandemic,” Kumudesh said.

Kumudesh added that the union action had not affected the anti-COVID-19 programme, cancer, maternity and paediatric hospitals, etc.

“We are not doing this to inconvenience the people. We are trying to ensure that the Health Ministry does not create additional problems,” he said

President of All Ceylon Management Service Officer’s Union, Udeni Dissanayake said that they too supported the trade union action because the actions of the GMOA would have an adverse impact on the entire state sector.

Doctors had received certain perks in recent years, and they had contributed to salary anomalies and inequality of remuneration across the board, he said.

“Doctors were treated with great respect in our culture, and this is being eroded by the actions of the GMOA. They have been receiving allowances increased and after a while those of similar standing in other sectors, too, ensure that they get hikes, but those in the lower grades do not see any increase. Although we are not a health sector union, we fully support this action for two reasons. One is that the cause is just and the other is that the impact of the allowance hike given solely  to the doctors will soon be felt by us,” Dissanayake said.

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