ECONOMYNEXT – The overall human rights situation in Sri Lanka continued to deteriorate in 2020, the UK’s annual report on human rights and democracy said.
Titled ‘Human Rights and Democracy: 2020 Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report‘, the document noted an alleged increase in surveillance and intimidation of civil society, limited or no progress with regard to accountability, militarisation and other issues.
“The government of Sri Lanka delivered free and peaceful parliamentary elections despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and maintained low numbers of COVID-19 cases compared to global figures. However, there was increased surveillance and intimidation of civil society, constraints placed on communities practising religious burial rites, a number of lengthy detentions without charge, and several setbacks on post-conflict accountability and reconciliation,” it said.
Noting Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolutions 30/1, 34/1, and 40/1 on post-conflict transitional justice, accountability and reconciliation, the UK report said there was no progress shown by Sri Lanka despite the government announcing its commitment to a domestic mechanism for reconciliation and accountability.
“The UK made clear its commitment to reconciliation and accountability in statements delivered on behalf of the Core Group on Sri Lanka at the HRC in February, June and September,” the report said.
In June 2021, the core group, comprising, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Malawi, Montenegro and the UK, expressed concern over what it called the lack of progress with regard to human rights, the rights of religious minorities and other issues highlighted in resolution 46/1.
The UK report, dated July 8, 2021, said Sri Lanka’s commitment to accountability was further called into question in March 2020 when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned and released former Army Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, who was convicted in 2015 for the murder of eight civilians (including children) in Jaffna in 2000.
Ratnayake, who was attached to the long range reconnaissance patrol of the army, was sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court in June 2015 for his alleged involvement in the Mirusuvil massacre in 2000. The former soldier, who was the first accused in the case, was found guilty of the murder of eight civilians including three children.
He was pardoned by President Rajapaksa on March 26, days after an island-wide curfew was declared to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Amnesty Intentional, too, said in May last year that in pardoning Ratnayake, the COVID-19 pandemic was exploited as an “opportunity to reverse justice”
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report further said the President continued to appoint controversial military figures accused of war crimes to government roles, while civilian functions such as the Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations were brought under the control of the Ministry of Defence. In October, the government passed the 20th amendment to the constitution, which the report said extended executive power over appointments to the judiciary and independent institutions, and reversed several important institutional checks and balances.
“In March, the President dissolved parliament ahead of elections, which were then twice postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Although the government went on to deliver peaceful and democratic elections in August, the delay resulted in a lack of parliamentary oversight between March and August. The government instead formed several presidential ‘taskforces’ without parliamentary scrutiny, including to oversee the COVID-19 response,” the report further said.
The report was also critical of the government’s widely condemned move in March 2020 to cremate Muslim victims of COVID-19 against the wishes of the community with little or no scientific basis to the decision. World Health Organisation guidelines had also permitted burials.
“This particularly affected Muslim and some Christian communities, for whom burial is an essential rite. In December, the Supreme Court dismissed several petitions that challenged this policy. The outbreak of COVID-19 also led to an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, fuelled by hate speech and disinformation suggesting that Muslims were ‘carriers’ of COVID-19 and were violating prevention measures.
In June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern over the clampdown on freedom of expression, noting an announcement made by the police in April to arrest those critical of the Government’s COVID-19 response,” the report said.
The report also made references to allegations that judicial medical officers and police had conducted invasive intimate examinations on LGBT+ persons without their consent, following which the Justice Minister Ali Sabry gave instructions to halt and investigate the practice.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been a running theme in international pronouncements on Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The European parliament moved a resolution on June 10 calling for its release.
The UK report on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation in 2020, too, noted that the government of Sri Lanka continued to use the PTA, despite a renewed pledge at the 43rd session of the UNHRC to review the legislation.
“In April, prominent human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah was arrested by Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department under the PTA. Hejaaz was detained without charge or presentation before a court. International rights groups noted an increase in intimidation, surveillance and online abuse, including threats to lawyers, journalists, families of disappeared persons and individuals working on human rights and anti-corruption.”
Riots in Sri Lanka’s prisons in late 2020 were also highlighted in the report.
“In November, unrest at Mahara prison over COVID-19 concerns resulted in the death of eleven inmates and injury of over 150. A committee appointed to investigate the unrest concluded that the inmates’ demands had been reasonable, and autopsies revealed that all inmates had died of gunshot wounds. In November, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the Inspector General of Police to highlight an increase in deaths in custody, and released a prison study which noted that the treatment of prisoners fell below international standards,” it said.
The UK will continue to press for progress on human rights, gender equality and protections for minorities and vulnerable groups in 2021, the report further said.
“We shall continue to invest in ambitious programs which support conflict-affected communities, promote the role of civil society, facilitate social cohesion, and underline the critical importance of post-conflict reconciliation and accountability,” it added.
Police detain Bathiudeen’s wife, father-in-law and another suspect over domestic aide’s death
Former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen’s wife, father-in-law and another suspect have been detained for interrogation in connection with the death of the 16-year old domestic aide.
“They are being held for 72 hours for further questioning”, police said.
The suspects taken into custody were identified by police as that 46-year old Sheyabdeen Ayesha, her father 70-year-old Mohammed Sheyabdeen and the broker who brought the girl to work as a domestic aide in Bathiudeen’s house.
The victim, a resident of Dayagama Estate off Talawakelle, was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital on July 3 with severe burn injuries. She died on July 15.
Police have already recorded the statements of more than 20 persons in connection with the girl’s death.
Police have also questioned two women aged 22 and 32 from the Dayagama area, who earlier served as domestic workers at the former Minister’s house.
One of the women had claimed she was sexually harassed by Bathiudeen’s brother-in-law from 2015 to 2019 at the former Minister’s residence in Colombo.
Subsequently, police also arrested the 44-year old Sheyabdeen Ismadeen, brother-in-law of the former Minister.
Contamination fears propel Lanka Sathosa to recall Chinese-made canned fish stocks
After procurement from Colombo port for Rs. 50mn
by Suresh Perera
A substantial stock of “confiscated” canned fish Lanka Sathosa procured from the Colombo port at a cost of around Rs. 50 million has been recalled from the market following public complaints that the Chinese-manufactured products were unfit for human consumption.
The five 20-foot container loads of 425g ‘Kitchen King’ Mackerel canned fish of the Scomber japonicus species, which were lying in the Colombo port as “abandoned cargo” after forfeiture by the Customs in October last year, was purchased by Lanka Sathosa recently to be sold at a concessionary price through its chain of supermarkets.
“We have now withdrawn the whole stock from our supermarket shelves as there were customer complaints that the canned fish was not fit for consumption”, says Lanka Sathosa Chairman, Rear Admiral (Retd) Ananda Peiris.
The products were injected into the market after clearance by the Food Control Unit of the Health Ministry following quality testing by the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI), he said.
“As there’s a shortage of canned fish in the marketplace, we promptly distributed the stocks to our supermarkets island-wide to be sold at Rs. 290 each. We have now asked the outlets not to sell them to customers because of the quality issue that has emerged”, the Chairman noted.
“We have no option now other than to return the consignment and seek a refund from the Ports Authority”, he said.
Onions, potatoes, lentils and other food commodities, which are either confiscated by the Customs or remain uncleared by importers, are generally procured by Lanka Sathosa to be sold at concessionary prices to customers, Peiris explained.
“In terms of a Cabinet decision, the consignments are auctioned only if we don’t procure them”.
The stock of canned fish had been forfeited as the owner had not cleared it for three months, he said.
“Lanka Sathosa appears to have opened a can of worms as the 9,200 packs of canned fish had arrived aboard a vessel, which sailed into Colombo on October 29 last year, a source knowledgeable of the operation, said.
Listing out the relevant reference and batch numbers of the consignments, the source said the Chinese products were manufactured on 09/10/2020 with a 09/10/2023 ‘expiry date’.
This means the stocks had been in the Colombo port for the past nine months, and had turned rancid despite a 2023 ‘expiry date’, the source asserted.
Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) officers had raided the Lanka Sathosa outlet at Moneragala following complaints that canned fish was being hoarded.
“We found stocks in storage, but was told by officers there that instructions were received to withhold the sale of the ‘Kitchen King’ products until they were re-labeled”, CAA’s Executive Director, Thushan Gunawardena said.
As the importer was not in favor of Lanka Sathosa marketing the products under its original brand name, a sticker was affixed to obscure it, Peiris clarified.
Under Section 10 of the Consumer Protection Act, re-labeling a product constitutes an offence, Gunawardena pointed out.
Acting on a complaint, public health inspectors have taken a sample of the canned fish from the Mawanella outlet for testing, the Lanka Sathosa chief further said.
Responding to questions raised by the CAA, the SLSI said its officers had collected samples from the five containers following requests by the Ports Authority and Lanka Sathosa.
As the original importer had not submitted any documents to the SLSI so far, the need for sample collection didn’t arise, it said.
The CAA has further queried whether the SLSI was aware of the purpose the test results were required at the time samples were received.
The SLSI has clamped down on the import of substandard canned fish with an intolerable level of arsenic, particularly from manufacturers in China.
In a news report headlined “SLSI cracks the whip on substandard Chinese canned fish imports”, The Sunday Island of March 21, 2021 quoted the institution’s Director-General, Dr. Siddhika Senaratne as saying that fish harvested for canning has a high arsenic content as the sea in China is heavily polluted and dirty due to lax environmental laws.
“It is true that there is a scarcity of canned fish in the market because supply cannot meet the demand. However, this does not mean we should allow our people to be poisoned through arsenic-laden imports”, she was quoted saying in the news report.
With the SLSI stipulating a maximum arsenic tolerance standard of 1.0 milligram per kilogram of fish, a filtering mechanism is now in place to shut out substandard imports, she assured at the time.
Asked whether the consignment of Chinese canned fish procured by Lanka Sathosa was earlier detained due to its high arsenic content, Dr. Senaratne declined comment saying she’s “not allowed to talk to the media”.
“The DG wouldn’t want to be dragged into another controversy”, an official remarked, referring to the furore over her claim of toxins in foodstuffs, which she, however, declined to identify at the time.
At a time canned fish imports from China have been off the shelves since SLSI’s rigid monitoring of tolerable arsenic levels began, industry players expressed consternation on how a stock, which had been lying in the Colombo port for months, was suddenly given the nod for procurement by Lanka Sathosa.
With the scarcity of canned fish products in the market pushing up demand, will an importer abandon his consignments unless there was something rotten somewhere?, they asked.
“It is too far-fetched to imagine that they got the documentation wrong as these importers are seasoned campaigners in the game”.
It is apparent that Lanka Sathosa had not done its homework before jumping at the idea of procuring the consignment because Chinese-made canned fish had remained virtually out of bounds for many months because of fears of contamination, they said.
Importers didn’t want to risk their investments as a high arsenic level meant the consignments were either destroyed or ordered to be re-exported, they added.
“That’s why local products now dominate the market with a brand from Thailand also no longer available”.
United States gives Sri Lanka 500,000 coronavirus rapid tests
The United States had donated 500,000 Rapid diagnostic tests to Sri Lanka worth Rs. 300 million to help the country fight Coronavirus, the US Agency for International Development said.
“By enabling rapid detection of the virus, these tests donated by the American people will save lives and protect public health in Sri Lanka,” USAID Mission Director to Sri Lanka and Maldives, Reed Aeschliman said in a statement.
“This donation builds on previous U.S. support to the Sri Lankan government’s pandemic response and reflects our strong, long-standing partnership.”
US has also given 1.5 million moderna vaccines to Sri Lanka.
The tests are simple to use and enable fast, decentralized access to direct testing. They do not require additional equipment or specialized laboratory access, which helps achieve high testing coverage.
The United States has also given of 200 ventilators to Sri Lanka’s health system.
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