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Mirihana mayhem: NGO wants torture allegations probed

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Sri Lanka Collective Against Torture (SLCAT) has said that every allegation of torture of persons, arrested at Mirihana, should be investigated and those responsible held accountable. Affected persons should be provided services for recovery and compensation, SLCAT said in a statement issued yesterday.

The following is the text of the statement: “People had gathered at Mirihana to exercise their basic civic right to highlight the devastating impact of the economic crisis which has led to countrywide power outages and a fuel shortage which has impacted essential services and the supplies of food and medicines.

During the last several weeks, at least three deaths of people, who stood in line waiting for LP gas deliveries or fuel supplies were recorded, and scuffles broke out as people clamoured to access essential supplies.

Emerging video footage of the protest shows, what appears to be, excessive and unprovoked use of force by the police against peacefully protesting persons, bystanders and journalists. For instance, there is footage of police following/chasing persons, who appear to be residents of the area in which the protest was being held and beating them. It has been reported that the use of rubber bullets and tear gas has caused injuries and had an adverse health impact on protestors and bystanders, including children, who accompanied their parents. The government justifies the use of force by pointing to the destruction of public property, but video footage indicates police disregarded acts of violence when they were taking place, although they were present at the site, such as a bus being set on fire. This gives credence to allegations that persons who were not protestors infiltrated the protests and caused violence to which law enforcement turned a blind eye.

By the morning of 1st April 2022, several arrested persons alleged they were beaten in police custody due to which they had sustained injuries. Some detained persons were noted having visible fresh injuries, including baton inflicted welts across their backs and experienced difficulty walking. Despite this, for more than 12 hours they were not provided medical care, which could constitute torture and appears to be part of the punishment inflicted on them (protestors) for participating in the protest. At the time of issuing this statement, close to half the number of persons arrested were hospitalised and could not be physically produced before court.

We reiterate that torture is forbidden under international human rights law, as well as Sri Lankan law, including the Constitution. It is also the right of detained persons to have access to a lawyer, which is in part to protect them from torture or inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment while in custody. Despite this, detained persons were prevented from consulting with lawyers, even nearly 24 hours after they were arrested, which violates their due process rights.

As part of its strategy to legitimize its crackdown on dissent, the government branded the protestors “extremists”, and thereafter a government minister referred to the protests as acts of terrorism, which illustrates a clear attempt to stifle people’s right to expression, peaceful assembly and association. These acts of the government have to be viewed in the context of the deterioration of the rule of law, which is exacerbated by the declaration of a state of emergency by the government on 1 April 2022 that provides wide powers to the executive to curtail rights. These developments raise grave concerns about the potential crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly and dissent, particularly in light of the history of the abuse of emergency powers by the executive in Sri Lanka. The denial by the police they arrested social activist Anuruddha Bandara on 1 April 2022, who was located hours later on 2 April 2022 by the Human Rights Commission at the very police station which denied he was arrested, is a case in point. The police have stated he has been arrested under Section 120 of the Penal Code, a vague and overbroad provision on ‘causing disaffection’ that has been used by successive governments to curtail freedom of expression and stifle dissent.

When officers of the state justify their actions on the basis of national security or protecting public order, they have the onus of proving the precise nature of the threat and security risk. The security and well-being of citizens, in particular their right to challenge their elected representatives and hold them accountable is part of ensuring the security of the country.

When this right is threatened, it undermines social cohesion and harmony. We reiterate that the right to dissent and peacefully protest to hold the government accountable and demand their rights is the inherent right of every citizen. This right must be respected by the government.

The SLCAT called for:

1. Every allegation of torture should be investigated and those responsible held accountable. Affected persons should be provided services for recovery and compensation.

2. Persons arrested and detained against whom there is no evidence of any involvement in unlawful activity should be discharged.

3. The government to respect the right of citizens to engage in peaceful protest and the right of the media.

4. The police to abide by legal standards governing the use of force, i.e. legality, necessity and proportionality.

5. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to conduct investigations into allegations of torture and issue at least its initial findings in an expeditious manner.

6. The government to publicly apologise for the treatment of protestors and by-standers at the incident of 31st March 2022 at Jubilee Post junction.



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Weerawansa’s wife sentenced to RI

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Lawyers appearing for Shashi Weerawansa, MP Wimal Weerawansa’s wife, yesterday (27) appealed against a Colombo Magistrate’s Court decision to sentence their client to two years rigorous imprisonment.Colombo Chief Magistrate, Buddhika Sri Ragala found her guilty of submitting forged documents to obtain a diplomatic passport circa 2010. The Colombo Magistrate’s Court also imposed a fine of Rs. 100,000 on Mrs. Weerawansa. If the fine is not paid she will have to serve an extra six months.

Additional Magistrate Harshana Kekunawala announced that the appeal would be called for consideration on 30 May.The case against Mrs. Weerawansa was filed by the CID after a complaint was lodged on 23 January 2015 by Chaminda Perera, a resident of Battaramulla.

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Unions predict end of energy sovereignty

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

A government decision to allow all privately-owned bunker fuel operators to import and distribute diesel and fuel oil to various industries was a rollback of the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry and another severe blow to energy sovereignty of the country, trade union activist of the SJB Ananda Palitha said yesterday.Earlier, Minister of Power and Energy, Kanchana Wijesekera Tweeted that ‘approval was given to all the Private Bunker Fuel Operators to Import and provide Diesel and Fuel Oil requirements of Industries to function their Generators and Machinery. This will ease the burden on CPC and Fuel Stations provided in bulk’.Commenting on the decision, Palitha said that according to the existing law those companies only had the power to import, store and distribute fuel for ships. Those companies did not have the authority to distribute fuel inside the country, Palitha said.

“Only the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) can distribute fuel inside the country. There is a controversy about the licence given to the LIOC as well. If the government wants other companies to import fuel, it needs to change the laws. The Minister does not have the power to make these decisions. A few months ago the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration used to rush Bills that adversely affected the country through Parliament. Now, since they don’t have a majority in parliament, they are using the Cabinet to make decisions that are detrimental to the country’s interests.”

Palitha said that the controversial government move would further weaken the CPC, and that the ultimate aim of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government was to make the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) purchase fuel from private distributors. With a weakened CPC and a CEB under the mercy of private companies, the Sri Lankan state would have little control over the country’s energy sector, he warned.

“The CEB already can’t pay the CPC, and therefore how can it pay private companies? It will have to sell its assets. This is another step in the road to fully privatise the energy sector. When this happens no government will be able to control inflation or strategically drive production through fuel and energy tariffs. The people will be at the mercy of businessmen and the government will only be a bystander,” he said.

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Modi government moves to ‘solve’ Katchatheevu issue

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The Narendra Modi government is mulling restoring the traditional rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen in Katchatheevu, an uninhabited island of 285 acres, sandwiched between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Bay, with the BJP hoping the move could lift its political fortunes in the southern state.The government will push Sri Lanka to implement “in letter and spirit” the 1974 agreement reached between Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then prime ministers of India and Sri Lanka, on the island.This will have to be done by withdrawing the “Executive Instructions” issued in 1976 without questioning Sri Lanka’s “sovereignty” over Katchatheevu, sources aware of the internal discussions in the BJP told the Indian newspaper, Deccan Herald.

Sources added that the discussions were “ongoing” at “various levels” including reaching out to Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka. The recent visit of TN BJP chief K Annamalai to Sri Lanka is also part of the outreach. Many feel the instructions issued in 1976 “superseded the provisions of the legally valid” pact between India and Sri Lanka, thus making Katchatheevu a subject of dispute in the Palk Bay.While the 1974 agreement gave away Katchatheevu, which was part of the territory ruled by the Rajah of Ramanathapuram, to Sri Lanka, the 1976 pact drew the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal.

“We cannot disturb the agreement signed in 1974. We are now finding ways and means to implement the agreement in letter and spirit. All we plan is to ask Sri Lanka to invoke Article 6 of the Katchatheevu pact. If Sri Lanka agrees, the issue can be sorted through Exchange of Letters between foreign secretaries of both countries,” a source in the know said.Another source said the time is “ripe” to push forward on the issue. “With fast-changing geopolitical situation in the region, we believe Sri Lanka will slowly come around and accept the rights of our fishermen,” the source said.

“The opinion within the party is that time is ripe to push this cause, with Sri Lanka beginning to realise that India can always be relied upon, given PM Ranil (Wickremesinghe) is pro-India.”

Articles 5 and 6 of the 1974 agreement categorically assert the right to access of the Indian fishermen and pilgrims to Katchatheevu and state that the “vessels of Sri Lanka and India will enjoy in each other’s waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed therein”.

However, fishermen from India were prohibited from fishing in the Sri Lankan territorial waters around Katchatheevu in 1976 following the signing of an agreement on the maritime boundary. The battle for fish in the Palk Bay has often ended in Indian fishermen being attacked by Sri Lankan Navy for “transgressing” into their waters.The BJP, which is yet to make major inroads in Tamil Nadu, feels a “solution” to the long-standing issue will give the party the much-needed momentum ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and provide a chance to get into the Tamil psyche. Political analysts feel that it might also allow the BJP to needle the DMK and the Congress by pointing out that it has restored the rights “surrendered by them,” to Tamil fishermen

Senior journalist and Lanka expert R Bhagwan Singh said: “If BJP succeeds in its efforts, it will certainly help the saffron party in the coming elections.”

But a source said the move will “take time”. “We don’t want to rush and create an impression we are forcing Sri Lanka. We will take it slow. We will take every stakeholder into confidence and reach an amicable settlement with Sri Lanka. All we want to do is restore traditional rights of our fishermen,” the source said.CM Stalin also raised the issue at an event on Thursday, telling Modi that this is the “right time” to retrieve Katchatheevu.

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