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Editorial

‘From Hero to Zero’

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Friday 16th July, 2021

What has befallen former South African President Jacob Zuma serves as a warning to all political leaders of his ilk in other parts of the world. He is languishing behind bars for having sought to evade accountability for his questionable actions during his tenure as President. His imprisonment has sparked widespread riots and looting.

In his youth, Zuma made a name for himself as a freedom fighter, taking on the apartheid regime, and even served a prison term for doing so. Having lived in exile for years, he returned home to a hero’s welcome and went on to become the President. It was after his rise to power that his image was tarnished by a spate of allegations of corruption. He cut a rug in public and many questionable deals on the sly. He surrounded himself with some corrupt cronies, whose rackets caused huge losses to the public purse. Allegations of corruption and abuse of power against him were such that he lost the backing of the African National Congress and had to resign before being impeached.

Zuma’s incarceration for 15 months was due to his failure to show up at an inquiry into some corrupt deals during his time in office. He may not have expected such a heavy gavel blow for contempt of court. If only he had prevented his greed from getting the better of him when he was in power and respected the law of the land at least in retirement.

Zuma’s imprisonment has been hailed in some quarters as proof of the robustness of South Africa’s democratic institutions, especially the judiciary. True, not many expected the constitutional court to take such deterrent action against someone like Zuma. But there are others who are convinced otherwise; they are of the view that the riots and pillage are attributable to social inequality, which has come to stay in South Africa despite the end of apartheid about 27 years ago. This argument sounds tenable to some extent in that the real causes of the violence and looting are also economic. The jailing of Zuma apparently acted as the trigger.

It is doubtful whether Zuma’s claim that he is a victim of a conspiracy by some western puppets has struck a chord with the public as such, although he still has some following among the ordinary South Africans, and is remembered for his role in fighting racial oppression in the past. The ongoing economic and social restrictions aimed at halting the spread of Covid-19 have hurt the South African public, and their outrage has spilled over into the streets. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse unless the police backed by the army succeed in reining in looters and arsonists who are having a field day.

Riots raging across South Africa for the seventh day running have left about 100 persons dead had a crippling effect on that country’s economy. Shortages of food and fuel are already being felt, according to media reports. Violence and looting could not have come at a worse time for South Africa; they have acted as super spreader events, and there will be a sharp increase in coronavirus infections, necessitating sterner action to curb the spread of the virus and aggravating the economic woes of the public.

If Zuma had cooperated with the judiciary and faced the corruption probe, he would not have been currently in prison, and his country would not have been facing the worst unrest in decades. There are lessons that leaders in other parts of the world ought to learn from what is happening in South Africa. They must realise that the sky is not the limit where their actions are concerned; they must be prepared to face the consequences of their commissions and omissions, and attempts to evade accountability could lead to disaster.



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Editorial

Lohan Ratwatte: What will be will be

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State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s wild behaviour at the Anuradhapura prison last week has triggered universal condemnation and rightly so. He has tendered his resignation from one of his ministries, Prison Management and Prisoner Rehabilitation, but not from his position at the Ministry of Gems and Jewellery related industries prompting The Island to editorially describe him as a “gem of a minister!” But chuckles apart, the public continues to be kept in the dark about much of this horrific incident. For instance, was his resignation accepted by the president a command performance or did he, admitting culpability for gross misbehaviour, volunteer to resign? Either way more questions arise. If his departure from the prisons portfolio was on demand, why was he not asked to quit his second state ministry? If he volunteered the resignation, why was he not told to go the whole hog and give up gems and jewellery as well because he has amply demonstrated that he is totally unsuitable to hold public office.

Getting Tamil prisoners held in the Anuradhapura Prison under terrorism laws produced before him at the prison, brandishing a revolver at their faces, getting at least two of them to kneel before him and threatening to kill them was preceded by another incident at the Welikada Prison in Colombo where he and a group of friends including a woman, allegedly under the influence of liquor, had paid a late night visit and inspected the gallows. Apparently the authorities there had done nothing to restrain him, adopting the all too common ehei hamuduruwaney approach and letting him have his way. If anybody at Welikada had the guts to stand in his way, the Anuradhapura incident probably would not have happened. Unfortunately only very few public servants today stand up to political authorities and do their jobs without fear or favour. The whole country is paying a price for that. The few instances where public officials do stand their ground in confrontations with politicians are so rare that when that does happen, it’s headline grabbing news. So it was when a woman official of the Wild Life Department resisted an effort to destroy a mangrove.

There is some small consolation that Ratwatte has gone from prisons. Most people would believe that he should have gone into prison but that’s way too much to expect in this Democratic Socialist Republic of ours. Mr. Dew Gunasekera, a former Minister of Prisons and leader of the Communist Party, a constituent of the ruling SLPP, went on record on Friday that a cover-up was underway. Be that as it may, Ratwatte who had initially said that an investigation would reveal the truth, had since come out strongly breaking his silence and claiming he has “stopped the prisons from burning” according to Friday’s Daily Mirror. This report quoted him asking “Am I stupid to threaten prisoners?”, claiming he “never touched Tamil prisoners.” Admitting he had visited the Welikada gallows, he had claimed he had gone alone on an inspection and was not intoxicated. Ratwatte says the truth will be revealed to the president and prime minister. Newspapers well know that there are two sides to every story. But hackneyed as the cliché may be, it is nevertheless true that there’s no smoke without a fire. Both sides have now had their say so let us see how the drama will further unfold.

Much of the blame for the untoward incidents involving politicians can be laid at the door of leaders of most parties. They are too often guilty of running undesirable candidates on their party lists enabling them to get elected. The proportional representation (PR) system of elections that President J.R. Jayewardene imposed on this country through his 1978 constitution better enables undesirables to enter the legislature than under the previous constituency system. There is no gainsaying that there are pluses and minuses under both systems. PR prevents national political parties that have polled 30 and 40 percent of the vote at an election from being totally wiped out in landslides such as those we saw in 1970 and 1977. Of course there are exceptions such as what happened the last time round when the UNP was reduced to zero despite PR. The explanation for that was the Ranil – Sajith split. JRJ used his five sixths majority of 1977 to ensure that nobody got a two thirds majority enabling constitutional amendments in the future. But that has now been proved wrong.

The mere fact that somebody who’s charged in a court of law is discharged or acquitted does not necessarily mean he or she is not guilty. There are many reasons why prosecutions fail – shoddy investigations and prosecution, influencing witnesses, able defence counsel and many more. The conviction rate in Sri Lanka is a mere four to six percent according to published figures but we all know what the crime rate is. It is not only in this country that dicey characters get elected both to Parliament and lower down. India is much worse with as many as 43% of its Lok Sabha MPs having criminal records. The chances are that some kind of committee of inquiry will be appointed to investigate allegations against Lohan Ratwatte. This is akin to the pithy Sinhala idiom horage ammagen pena ahanawa (asking the thief’s mother about his whereabouts). The committee of UNP lawyers who them Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed to investigate the bond scam is recent enough to be remembered. We won’t bet serious money or even petty cash that any government appointed investigation will hold against Ratwatte.

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Editorial

Singer and different UN tune

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Friday 17th September, 2021

State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s violent behaviour inside two prisons has drawn widespread condemnation from the civilised world—and rightly so. The government has stooped so low as to shield him, and in so doing it has brought not only itself but also the entire country into disrepute.

Popular actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake, given to making a melodrama out of everything in life, is serving a jail term for having said something that the judiciary deemed an affront to its dignity; he lost his parliamentary seat as a result. But Ratwatte, who forcibly entered two prisons and held some Tamil prisoners at gunpoint in one of them, on Sunday, is moving about freely, and, worse, remains a State Minister. The least the government can do by way of damage control is to sack Ratwatte and ensure that he will be arrested and prosecuted without further delay, as we argued yesterday. With the likes of him within its ministerial ranks, the government needs no enemies.

Meanwhile, no sooner had Ratwatte’s despicable behaviour come to light than the UN pontificated to Sri Lanka on the need to look after prisoners. UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said that it was the duty of the State to protect the rights of prisoners. “In our work on prison reform and drug rehabilitation, UN Sri Lanka works to strengthen capacities to uphold the rights of all those in custody and condemns any ill-treatment of prisoners,” Singer tweeted on Wednesday. One cannot but agree with her. The state of Sri Lanka is duty bound to protect all prisoners.

If only the UN had shown the same concern for its own workers taken prisoner by the LTTE. At the height of the Vanni war in 2007, the LTTE abducted two UN workers, accusing them of having helped the Tamil civilians flee the areas under its control. The captives were kept in a dungeon, badly beaten and questioned. The UN chose to keep the incident under wraps, and held clandestine talks with the LTTE to secure the release of the victims, but in vain. On 20 April 2007, we reported the capture of the UN workers. The LTTE again held a group of UN personnel and their families as part of its human shield in the Vanni, but the UN did not condemn the outfit or call upon the big powers to intervene to pressure the LTTE to release them. So much for the UN’s concern for human rights and the safety of prisoners! This kind of duplicity on the part of the UN and the world powers has stood in the way of the global efforts being made to protect human rights.

What Minister Ratwatte is reported to have done in the Anuradhapura Prison on Sunday is an act of terrorism. No civilised person can condone such brutality. Similarly, all acts of terrorism must be condemned unreservedly if human rights are to be protected. The TNA is also out for Ratwatte’s scalp. It has every right to do so, and the government must heed its concerns about the Tamil prisoners, whose safety must be ensured. But the TNA owes an apology to the Sri Lankan public for having defended the LTTE and acted as the outfit’s mouthpiece in Parliament as well as elsewhere despite its heinous crimes against civilians. The TNA, which is currently on a crusade to defend human rights, has not even condemned the LTTE for assassinating its own leaders, child abductions, civilian massacres, political killings, running illegal prisons, and the violent suppression of dissent, among other things.

Let it be repeated that the government must strip Ratwatte of his ministerial post immediately, make him face the full force of the law and ensure that the SLPP takes disciplinary action against him. It must also stop fielding murder suspects at elections, accommodating killers in Parliament, pardoning convicted murderers and appointing those who should be behind bars as ministers.

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Editorial

Arrest them!

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Thursday 16th September, 2021

Lohan Ratwatte is reported to have resigned as the State Minister of Prison Management & Prisoners’ Rehabilitation over two separate incidents where he and a group of persons, described as his friends, forced themselves into two prisons and threatened some inmates and made a nuisance of themselves to the prison officers. He, however, will continue to function as the Sate Minister of Gem, Jewellery related Industries. (A gem of a minister!)

It is a criminal offence to enter prisons forcibly, brandish firearms and threaten inmates. The government must explain why Ratwatte and others who were with him at the time of the incidents, have not been arrested, yet. The SLPP leaders came to power, promising to uphold the rule of law and ensure public security. Now, people are not safe even inside heavily-guarded prisons!

Legal action must also be taken against the officers of the Anuradhapura and Welikada Prisons for their inaction. They should have prevented the State Minister from entering their institutions allegedly under the influence of liquor and running amok. The fact that Ratwatte was the State Minster in charge of prisons at the time was no reason for them to allow him in, and let him run around in a frenzied state. Shame on them! How would the brave prison officers have reacted if an ordinary person had tried to gain unauthorised entry into a state pen? He would have been beaten to a bloody pulp.

A few months ago, the government lost no time in having an irate young driver arrested and hauled up before courts for tooting and encouraging others to do likewise in protest against the closing of a road in Colombo to make room for a foreign dignitary, at night. It also orders the police to arrest protesters for violating quarantine laws. So, there is no way it can justify its failure to have the unruly State Minister and his gang arrested.

Crush Health Mafia!

Some Health Ministry officials who take vital decisions on Covid-19 testing and allied matters are doctors working at private hospitals, and therefore there is a conflict of interest on their part, we are told. So, how can the Health Ministry be expected to make the optimal use of its medical laboratories to test inbound passengers at the BIA?

The government would have us believe that it has embarked on a mission to tame the Rice Mafia. The Consumer Affairs Authority has been conducting raids purportedly to achieve this objective. But the Health Mafia preying on the pandemic-hit people, and causing staggering losses to the state coffers, enjoys the freedom to do as it pleases. President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) Ravi Kumudesh has told this newspaper that some high-ranking Health Ministry officials are benefiting from a racket involving private medical laboratories and quarantine centres, but the government has taken no action against them.

The CMLS has rubbished Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath’s claim that the state sector is not equipped to test all those arriving here from overseas. Its personnel were capable of carrying out that task if given a free hand, the CMLS has said, stressing that the number of Covid-19 tests conducted daily could be increased to 100,000 easily with the existing resources if the Health Ministry is willing to do so. Other countries are encouraging home testing by making available Rapid Antigen Test kits at reasonable prices, but the Sri Lankan government has created a situation where its cronies are thriving on testing, the CMLS alleges.

The CMLS informs us that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the Health Ministry to purchase 30 rapid PCR machines to ramp up testing, but some officials halved that number arbitrarily. They have overridden a presidential order with impunity! They must be really powerful!

The CMLS ought to lodge a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption against the Health Ministry officials who are preventing the state-run medical laboratories from functioning at optimal capacity to line their pockets.

The Health Department has the capacity to conduct as many as 4,500 tests a day on inbound tourists and issue reports within 90 minutes, but some officials have prevented the state-run lab at the BIA from receiving samples, which are sent to private hospitals, the CMLS has said. Strangely, the government has chosen to ignore these very serious allegations, making one wonder whether its members are also benefiting from the testing and quarantine rackets.

If the ruling party politicians and cronies are not involved in the health scams, the government should be able to order a probe into the allegations at issue.

This is something that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should take note of because the blame for the testing and quarantine rackets is laid at his door while the crooked health officials are laughing all the way to the bank together with their corrupt chums.

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