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Missing persons issue won’t go away; serious effort required to address concerns – HRCSL

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“Prez wants to fast-track the process. Ready to meet protesting mothers’

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Genuine post-war national reconciliation will not be possible unless grievances of those who had suffered during the war and after were addressed, Harsha Kumara Navaratne, a member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) says.

Emphasizing the responsibility on the part of the government as regards concerns of all communities, Navaratne asserted that the alleged disappearances of persons who had been handed over to the military by their families soon after the war was brought to a conclusion remained a contentious issue.

Prominent civil society activist Navaratne said so during a brief discussion with The Island on Tuesday (6) at the HRCSL, R.A. de Mel Mawatha, Colombo 4. Except the Chairman of the HRCSL Dr. Jagath Balasuriya, a former lawmaker, other members of the five-member outfit namely Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara and Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan, joined the discussion.

Nihal Chandrasiri, Director – Research & Monitoring (Actg.), HRCSL was also present.

Referring to accountability issues as well as confidence building measures, Navaratne said the HRCSL was told during a meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to fast-track the process.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa named the new HRCSL team on Dec 10, 2020 in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

Navaratne said that the HRCSL discussed the issue at hand with those who had visited the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council on several occasions since the end of the war in 2009 to explore ways and means of reaching a consensus on disappearances/missing persons issue.

The HRCSL has been established in terms of HRC Act No 21 of 1996 with the first commission named in 1997 during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. The incumbent commission is the seventh.

Responding to another query, Navaratne said that an organization consisting of women who continue to insist on the disappearance of their loved ones was adamant the government addressed the issue without further delay. “They are quite angry over the failure on the part of the authorities to inquire into cases raised by them. They say the previous government didn’t take tangible action regarding six files handed over to the Office of Missing Persons,” Navaratne said.

According to the one-time head of civil society organization Sewa Lanka, the same set of files had been made available to the UNHRC, inquiring into alleged wartime atrocities. Asked whether some sort of understanding with the women’s grouping working closely with a section of the international community pursuing war crimes inquiry, was possible, Navaratne explained how they pushed for international intervention in that regard.

Navaratne said he advised the women that their push for ICC (International Criminal Court) intervention was not realistic therefore whatever the shortcomings that affected the community, they should work closely with the government on the matter.

Navaratne is likely to leave the HRCSL later this year to take up duties as the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Ottawa. The government recently named Navaratne to the top post in our Embassy in Canada.

Navaratne claimed that Western governments didn’t really appreciate Sri Lanka’s response to human rights accusations. The outgoing HRCSL member said so when The Island sought his explanation why the Western powers refused to assist Sri Lanka to identify the missing persons by sharing available information. The Island pointed out that quite a number of persons who had been reported killed and missing during the conflict and after were actually living abroad under assumed names. Navaratne acknowledged that Sri Lanka hadn’t been successful in convincing Western governments to share information as regards those who received their foreign nationality or living within their borders under different status.

Commenting on various figures quoted by different parties regarding the dead, wounded and missing, Navaratne said that a thorough inquiry could establish the truth.

A UN fact finding mission in a report released in March 2011 alleged 40,000 civilians perished in the final phase of the Vanni offensive. However, the UN claim has been disputed by Lord Naseby on the basis of confidential wartime dispatches from the UK High Commission in Colombo to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Naseby made the revelation in Oct 2017 in the House of Lords.

The HRCSL hasn’t taken up this issue with the UK though it engages in consultations with the British High Commission in Colombo. The current HRCSL held a zoom conference with British High Commissioner in Colombo Sarah Hulton early last month.

Navaratne said that the Bishop of Jaffna recently advised him to arrange a meeting between representatives of the affected community and the President without the presence of politicians to discuss the issue at hand.

Dr. Nimal Karunasiri said that the government’s response to the raging Covid-19 epidemic hadn’t taken into consideration the right of the people to obtain a treatment they were comfortable with. Dr. Karunasiri explained how the failure on the part of those responsible to take Ayurveda and Homeopathy into consideration in the government’s overall response violated the basic rights of the people. The HRCSL member said that in the absence of desired constitutional changes to make the 1972 Republican Constitution meaningful, archaic laws were still operative. Dr. Karunasiri explained how the entire Covid-19 management process came under the control of the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) due to archaic laws. According to him, in addition to the health sector, various other spheres had been affected and undermined for want of modification to suit post-independence Sri Lanka.

The DHGS hasn’t responded to HRCSL’s request for vaccination map to be submitted by or before June 15. The HRCSL Chairman Dr. Balasuriya has made the request on May 28.The HRCSL called for vaccination map amidst allegations of serious shortcomings in the ongoing inoculation drive.

The HRCSL said that the DGHS hadn’t responded though approval was granted for a separate request for meetings with small groups of people representing the civil society.

The HRCSL emphasized the responsibility of the government and institutions given specific tasks such as the HRCSL and OMP to meet the challenging objectives.

The previous government set up OMP in terms of an understanding reached in Geneva. Navaratne said that the six files handed over by the affected women to the OMP remained with the outfit.

Since the last general election in Aug 2010, new members have been appointed to the OMP.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is upset with the composition of the OMP. Tamil sources questioned the appointment of retired IGP Jayantha Wickremaratne as the OMP Chairman.



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Police detain Bathiudeen’s wife, father-in-law and another suspect over domestic aide’s death

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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.

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Contamination fears propel Lanka Sathosa to recall Chinese-made canned fish stocks

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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”.

 

 

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United States gives Sri Lanka 500,000 coronavirus rapid tests

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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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