Saturday 13th February, 2021
What has befallen the precious assets of this country, under successive governments, reminds us of Nanda Malini’s beautiful song, ‘Ratakarawanta nam masuran ethiwa kete’ (which roughly put into English means ‘if the country is to be run with enough funds in the coffers’). It is replete with heavy sarcasm and biting satire. Urging the rulers to sell all national assets and treasures to raise funds needed for governing the country, it says, among other things, Sigiriya can be quarried and Sinharaja rainforest felled to obtain timber regardless of public protests. One may have thought a few decades ago, when this song was first sung, that the lyricist, Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne, had employed hyperbole to infuse it with dramatic effect to deliver its powerful message, but, today, one is convinced otherwise.
Sinharaja is already facing rape. Land grabbers are encroaching on it with impunity. Environmental groups and the media have exposed this racket, but the racketeers always have the last laugh. As if the damage the world heritage site has suffered at the hands of politically-backed encroachers were not enough, the government has, in its wisdom, permitted the construction of a road through some parts of it. Worse, some ruling party politicians have sought to vilify the protesting environmentalists as a nuisance and impediment to development! They have thus sent the wrong message to their henchmen, who are now grabbing sections of the Sigiriya sanctuary. This forest is home to a wide range of flora and fauna including elephants. The racketeers’ modus operandi has been to grow food crops inside the sanctuary before fencing off the areas they have encroached on. This, they have been doing unopposed during the last several weeks. The media has published pictures of their illegal operations, but no one in authority has taken any action against the destruction of the sanctuary; officials are reportedly passing the buck.
The Sigiriya land grab has aggravated the human-elephant conflict. With their natural habitat shrinking, wild elephants invade villages frequently, posing a danger to humans and running the risk of being shot dead or killed by hakkapatas (improvised explosive devices hidden in fruits or covered with sticky rice). Unless the racketeers are stopped and brought to justice urgently, they will be emboldened to begin quarrying the Lion Rock before long!
Environmentalists complain of a move to have a road built, dividing the Knuckles Mountain Range, according to a report we publish today. A proposal to this effect is to be presented to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak event in the near future, we are told.
What is happening around Sigiriya has vindicated the environmentalists who predicted that racketeers in the guise of cultivators would capture forest lands. According to media reports, there is a tug-of-war between the Forest Department and the Divisional Secretariat concerned over the land grab. Nobody seems to be responsible for protecting the sanctuary. This sorry state of affairs has come about due to a controversial gazette which removed the so-called residual forests from the purview of the Forest Department and placed them under the Divisional and District Secretariats, which lack expertise and the will to protect forests. Ordinary administrators are scared of overweening, corrupt politicians responsible for destroying forests. One should not be so naïve as to think the Forest Department is perfect. But the protection of forests requires specialised, dedicated personnel like professional foresters.
The government sought to justify the issuance of the aforesaid gazette by claiming that it would benefit the landless farmers who were unable to dull the pangs of hunger, but the environmentalists and the media pointed out that it would help racketeers rape forests. What they feared is now happening. The situation is sure to take a turn for the worse with more and more politicians and their backers moving in to grab forest lands.
One can only hope that the other places mentioned in Nanda Malini’s song—Sri Dalada Maligawa, Sri Mahabodhi, Sri Pada, etc.,—will be safe from the pseudo-patriots in positions of power.
Judges in the dock
Friday 5th March, 2021
Judges do not take kindly to utterances that amount to contempt of court. They go all out to make the offenders concerned regret having made such statements. This, we have seen both here and overseas. But there are situations where judges themselves get into hot water for their unguarded remarks that irk the public beyond measure. Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde is under heavy fire for having asked an accused rapist if the latter would marry his victim, a schoolgirl, to avoid jail. Bobde’s suggestion is a textbook example of adding insult to injury.
Women’s rights activists in India have launched a signature campaign, urging Chief Justice Bobde to resign. Their protest is gathering momentum, and consternation is understandable; India has a very high rate of rape. They accuse their Chief Justice of having proposed something that is tantamount to condemning the victim to a lifetime of rape at the hands of her tormentor.
One cannot but agree with the protesting Indian women. It is doubtful whether any rape victim in her proper senses will ever want to spend the rest of her life with her tormentor. As for the aforesaid Indian girl, her rapist even threatened to burn her alive and kill her brother if she made a complaint against him. How can a girl live with such a monster? If the desperado had been allowed to get away with his brutal crime by marrying the victim, that would have set a very bad precedent. Such leniency would have rendered Indian women even more vulnerable. That would also have sent the wrong message to desperate men that they can marry women they dream of simply by sexually assaulting them!
What the Indian CJ should be asked is how he would have reacted if the victim had been his own daughter; would he have accepted the rapist as his son-in-law?
Callous disregard for rape victims’ feelings is apparently universal. It is reported from even supposedly enlightened societies that pride themselves on respecting women’s rights. CJ Bobde’s predicament reminds us of a Canadian Federal Judge—Robin Camp—who had to resign in 2017 for having asked a 19-year-old rape victim why she had not kept her legs together to prevent rape. Adding insult to injury, he told her ‘sex and pain sometimes go together.’ What a revelation!
Instances of rape victims suffering many indignities at the hands of lawyers abound in this country so much so that many girls and women, who suffer sexual assault, choose to suffer in silence. Unfortunately, this issue has gone unaddressed much to the benefit of rapists.
The female lawmakers in the current Parliament have sunk their political differences and come forward to safeguard the rights of Sri Lankan women, we are told. They have reportedly requested the Speaker to appoint a special Select Committee to address gender-based offences against women. Female local government members have also launched a similar initiative. They complain of harassment in their councils, where their male counterparts do not even allow them to speak freely. These female politicians can rest assured that they have the unstinted support of all right-thinking citizens. After all, women account for more than one half the country’s population. It is they who toil in factories, on estates and in West Asian deserts to help keep the national economy afloat. At least 50 percent of seats in Parliament, the Provincial Councils and the local government institutions should be allocated for women.
The members of the women’s caucus in Parliament ought to campaign for ensuring that women who become victims of rape, etc., are treated humanely in courts. Ideally, there should be separate courts to hear such cases. They are sure to have the ear of Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who has evinced a keen interest in giving the existing legal system a radical shake-up. They will also be able to convince President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the pressing need to hear rape cases expeditiously with the rights of the victims being protected.
We hope that the brave Indian women who have taken on their CJ will succeed in their endeavour.
A strange case of distrust?
Thursday 4th March, 2021
The Presidential Secretariat has reportedly told Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera, that 22 volumes of the final report submitted by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks cannot be released as they contain sensitive information pertaining to national security. So, the AG has been left with no alternative but to divine what is in these 22 volumes which he cannot do without.
The argument that the state prosecutor should be denied access to some volumes of the report at issue for reasons of national security, in our book, does not hold water. In fact, we consider it an affront to the dignity of the AG. Is it that the State cannot repose trust in its own AG as regards national security?
The AG knows how to handle sensitive information, doesn’t he? On the other hand, there was no such thing as national security, so to speak, during the period covered by the presidential commission probe, and that was the reason why the NTJ terrorists were able to snuff out so many lives with ease. After all, that was what the SLPP kept telling us when it was in the Opposition. Luckily, the LTTE did not try to make a comeback during the yahapalana government. There were no regular National Security Council (NSC) meetings, and those who were responsible for safeguarding national security were all at sea so much so that they did not take seriously warnings of impending terror attacks which could have been prevented. Even some outsiders were privy to what transpired at the NSC meetings, which they were allowed to attend because they were close to the then President Maithripala Sirisena! The state intelligence outfits were in total disarray with their key officers facing a political witch-hunt. The CID was doing full-time political work to all intents and purposes, and the Terrorism Investigation Division was accused of conspiring to kill the President! So, how come any information about what happened during that period is considered too sensitive to be divulged even to the AG?
What the AG is required to do anent the cases he files is not akin to keyhole surgery; he has to see the whole picture before filing action. He should be able to ascertain whether the facts, on the basis of which legal action is to be instituted against those named in the report, can be backed by irrefutable evidence if the cases he is going to file are to have a solid foundation. He and his legal team need to study all volumes of the commission report if they are to know where they stand.
The AG has to build strong cases to prove that the accused are guilty. Unless all information contained in the PCoI report is studied properly, the cases to be filed may not stand up to judicial scrutiny. The defence may be able to drive a coach and horses through them. One can only hope that no surreptitious attempt is being made to open an escape route for the high-profile government members who are likely to be hauled up before courts for their serious lapses that made the Easter Sunday carnage possible.
The AG, we repeat, should be given unhindered access to the PCoI report so that he will be able to proceed with prosecutions properly.
The government finds itself in a dilemma. Unless it takes action against the former leaders and their bureaucratic lackeys for their failure to prevent the terror attacks, it is likely to face a considerable electoral setback, come the next election, but at the same time, it is not in a position to go the whole hog to ensure that the culprits are brought to justice; it runs the risk of suffering a split in the event of former President Sirisena being prosecuted for security failures that led to the Easter Sunday tragedy, on his watch. The SLFP has already indicated that it might pull out of the SLPP coalition in such an eventuality. But nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of justice. An oft-quoted legal maxim is ‘Fiat Justitia, ruat caelum’, or ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’. As regards, the Easter Sunday attacks, one may say, ‘Let justice be done though governments fall.”
Govt. learning from UNHRC
Wednesday 3rd March, 2021
There is obviously no love lost between the incumbent Sri Lankan government and the UNHRC, but the former seems to have taken a leaf out of the latter’s book. It has adopted the practice of using reports to scare and tame its political opponents.
In what looks a counterattack on the political front, the Rajapaksa government has decided to release the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed allegations of corruption and irregularities under the yahapalana government from 14 Jan. 2015 to 31 Dec. 2018. The then President Maithripala Sirisena appointed this commission to settle political scores with the UNP. He sought to take moral high ground and show his political enemies, especially the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in a bad light. The final report of the Easter Sunday PCoI, which Sirisena appointed to deflect criticism and pin the blame for failing to prevent the carnage on others, has boomeranged. The SJB is using it against not only Sirisena but also the present government, of which he is a member. The government seems to think the release of the PCoI report on corruption under the yahapalana government will help it silence the SJB, whose grandees were Cabinet ministers in the previous administration accused of being involved in various corrupt deals. One may recall that allegations of corruption were also levelled against several SLFP notables in the yahapalana Cabinet, and they are now in the present administration. Will the SLPP open up another can of worms by releasing the PCoI report at issue?
Most of the Opposition politicians who pretend to be paragons of virtue have a lot to answer for as regards frauds and corruption under the previous dispensation if the testimonies of high-profile witnesses who appeared before the PCoI on corruption are anything to go by. These politicians are now in overdrive, bashing the government for its failure to reveal the masterminds of the Easter Sunday attacks. It will be interesting to see their reaction to the government decision to release the PCoI report on corruption. Will they dare the SLPP to do so expeditiously and call for a parliamentary debate thereon? They should be able to do so if they are as confident as they claim to be that they were above board while they were in power.
If the government thinks it can mitigate the fallout of the flawed PCoI report on the Easter Sunday carnage by using the PCoI report on corruption to silence the political Opposition, then it is mistaken because not all its critics are its political rivals. Some SJB and UNP politicians attacking the SLPP may chicken out lest they should be prosecuted for corruption, etc., on the basis of the PCoI report, but there is no way the government can allay the fears of the public and counter protests by the Catholics who bore the brunt of the Easter Sunday terror. The Catholic Church has declared a Black Sunday protest (07 March), and its agitation campaign is likely to continue. Its consternation is understandable. Nobody is safe until the masterminds of the carnage are identified and dealt with, for they can carry out more attacks.
There was absolutely no need for a presidential probe to identify those whose lapses had led to the Easter Sunday tragedy. Their identities were already known and legal action could have been taken against them, but such a course of action will not help ensure that there will be no terror attacks. The need for a presidential probe arose as nobody knew who had actually masterminded the carnage and they had to be identified and neutralised.
The yahapalana leaders and their lackeys in the military and the police are no longer a problem because they are not in charge of national security. But the masterminds of the terror strikes are still at large. There’s the rub. The government ought to fulfil its election pledge to probe the carnage thoroughly, identify the masterminds thereof instead of trying to silence its critics politically.
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