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Editorial

Reopening schools

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Saturday 21st November, 2020

Schools are scheduled to reopen for Grade Six to Grade 13, next Monday. Opinion may be divided on this move as COVID-19 is spreading fast, but schools cannot remain closed indefinitely. There are no signs of the virus going away anytime soon, and the World Health Organisation has said humans will have to learn to live with coronavirus for want of a better alternative. In fact, living with the virus is less dangerous than crossing Sri Lankan roads, where about eight lives are snuffed out daily. (In 2019, as many as 2,829 people were killed in 2,641 accidents.)

Parents and teachers will have their work cut out to ensure that carefree schoolchildren adhere to the health guidelines that have been given legal effect to prevent the transmission of coronavirus. Children are known for throwing caution to the wind and trying to do exactly the opposite of what they are instructed to do. There is hardly anything they do not share, and physical distancing is something they loath when it comes to their friends.

On the other hand, schools are overflowing with students. Most of them have about 50 students each crammed into classrooms, and it is well-nigh impossible to observe the physical distancing rule in such an environment. Many schools are without proper sanitary facilities, and this may also lead to the transmission of COVID-19 among students.

It is not only at school that students are exposed to infections; they may get infected while travelling to and from school. Private transport is a luxury most of them cannot afford; they are dependent on trains, buses and school vans. Lucky are the ones who can travel in private vehicles or use Shanks’s pony or cycle to school.

School vehicles sans proper ventilation are chock-a-block with students, as is public knowledge. Not even cattle are allowed to be transported in this manner, but nobody has taken up the plight of students travelling in overcrowded vans.

Students are left with no alternative but to travel in school vans suffering in silence and exposing themselves to infections. These vehicles travel in circuitous routes, and most students have to board them at dawn and spend hours in them before reaching school. They suffer again after school. The government says it will take action to have the school van operators adhere to the health guidelines, but it is highly unlikely that they will do so; they are bent on squeezing as many children into their vehicles and, thereby, maximize profit.

Only some half-hearted attempts have been made to ensure the roadworthiness of school vehicles, whose operators have become a law unto themselves. They hold parents to ransom, and exact fees even during school vacations.

Successive governments have set for themselves ambitious goals as regards education. We have heard many a Finance Minister wax eloquent about what they call their contribution towards the development of the education sector, and promise to develop the school system further. That all of them have failed is evident from the state of the government schools, most of which lack even basic facilities.

It is high time the government made a meaningful intervention to solve students’ transport problem and took steps to launch a countrywide programme to provide all schools with facilities to ensure the safety of students.

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Editorial

A different case

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Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter, Ahimsa, and four others have written last week to Attorney General Dappula de Livera appealing to “protect the life” of former CID Director Shani Abeysekera held in a military-run facility for covid-19 infected persons, having contracted the virus while in remand custody. There is no escaping the fact that our overcrowded prisons, literally bursting at the seams for many years, are a hotbed of covid with both prisoners and officials highly vulnerable to infection. All those who have signed the appeal to the AG are victims of grave and violent crimes under the laws of this country. While Lasantha Wickrematunge, an outspoken editor who had courageously courted death by hitting out at the high and mighty, was brutally clubbed to death in broad daylight in a high security zone, the others say their kin had been abducted and “disappeared.”

What the AG can or will do to protect a now interdicted senior policeman remains an open question. The authorities are very well aware that jailed or detained law enforcers are under grave risk in prison where they are at the mercy of hardened criminals who cannot bear the sight of a cop. In fact, Abeysekera was accorded personal security by the state until November last year when he was removed from the CID. Such arrangements are made on the basis of threat assessments made by specialists in the subject who would have had little difficulty in determining that he was at high risk given the work he was doing. Following his removal from the CID this security was withdrawn and he was interdicted without a charge sheet, according to the appeal now before the AG. What is stated there is easily verifiable.

Persons subject to investigations, including high profile politicians in office, will have many axes to grind against policemen who either investigated or supervised the investigations of matters involving them. Thus it was a matter of no surprise that Abeysekara was removed from his high profile position and subsequently harassed, if not persecuted, after the change of government. Many persons in office have accused him by name of framing them. How true or not such allegations are remain to be established. But there is no escaping the reality that there had been political direction on who was or was not investigated. A high-powered committee is alleged to have operated from ‘Temple Trees’ determining priorities and direction of investigations. Much has been made of the fact that former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran accused of involvement in the bond scam was allowed to return to Singapore, where he is a citizen, without let or hindrance. He has since been out of reach.

That some are more equal than others is a fact of life in this country. How many persons of importance or wealth including politicians, either convicted or in custody, have spent time in the Merchant’s Ward of the National Hospital or in the Prison Hospital? Even people convicted or murder and sentenced to death who had been (or should have been) in Death Row have been beneficiaries of such privileges. Former President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned the young man found guilty of murdering his girlfriend’s sister at the Royal Park apartment complex towards the end of his term. He provided justifications for this act of clemency that many found lame. The beneficiary, conscious no doubt of the possibility of the wheel turning left the country and, as far as we know, had not returned since. It is well known that privileged persons in jail are handled with kid gloves and accorded semi-luxury facilities. We do not know whether there are arrangements in jails for the safety of vulnerable convicts or suspects (eg. policemen) even under special circumstances. With the best will in the world, these would be hard to provide under present congested conditions in prisons.

Bloodhounds set on political opponents are massively vulnerable following changes of government, and Abeysekara probably belongs to that category. It is now nearly 12 years since Lasantha Wicrematunge was bumped off by a group widely believed to be a state-connected hit squad. While some suspects have been identified and bailed, no indictments have been served up to now. His daughter and the other signatories to the letter sent to the AG say that after years of stonewalling, “Abeysekara was one of the few impartial police officers who had the courage to seek justice for our families.” They have also said in their letter “If every public servant has the backbone, integrity and conviction of Mr. Abeysekara, our loved ones would still be alive today. By doing his job and seeking justice for those we lost, Mr. Abeysekara’s own life is now in danger. We owe a debt of honour to speak on his behalf.”

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had said in parliament as this is being written that Abeysekara should be moved to the Infectious Diseases Hospital on humanitarian grounds. It has been reported that his family too have been in contact with the Human Rights Commission regarding his welfare. We hope that the concerned authorities would take note of what has been urged and treat this police officer who has been both highly praised and strongly condemned with due consideration. Who he investigated is not relevant in this context. Travails of investigators, such as he, would be a deterrent to other law enforcers performing their duties without fear or favour especially in sensitive cases. The worst case scenario for most cops properly doing their jobs and rubbing politicos on the wrong side would be a transfer. But this case is different.

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Editorial

Name that evil foreign power!

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Saturday 28th November, 2020

Mystery surrounds some vital aspects of the Easter Sunday attacks although those who carried them out have been identified and their confederates arrested. That a group of National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) terrorists, led by Zahran Hashim, carried out a series of suicide bombings, on 21 April 2019, is known to one and all, but who actually handled them has not yet been found out. The police have confirmed that the NTJ had planned a second wave of attacks on places of Buddhist worship and the Kandy Dalada Perahera. So, if Zahran had been the real terror mastermind, he would not have chosen to die in the first wave of terror without waiting to ensure that his outfit would be able to carry out the second wave of bombings, as we argued in a previous column. Former DIG CID Ravi Seneviratne, has recently told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, probing the Easter Sunday carnage, that someone handled Zahran, and he had to be traced if threats to Sri Lanka’s national security are be neutralised effectively.

Now, no less a person than Maithripala Sirisena, who was the President, at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, has confirmed that there was a foreign hand behind the carnage. On Wednesday, testifying before the PCoI probing the Easter Sunday terror, he declared that there had been a foreign power behind the terror attacks. All information about the terrorist bombings at issue was available to him as the President and Minister of Defence, and his statement must, therefore, be based on credible intelligence. He should name the foreign power; not only the Sri Lankan public but also the whole world have a right to know what that evil force is. It may be responsible for terror strikes in other parts of the world as well.

On an earlier occasion, Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and former Justice Minister, Rauff Hakeem, made a similar statement before the PCoI. He said the NTJ and its leader Zahran were only pawns, and there had been a hidden hand behind the Easter Sunday attacks, which, he said, had been aimed at destabilising the country. Asked by the commission to name names, he did so in camera.

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjtih, however, was the first to state, in public, that the Easter Sunday attacks had been part of an ‘international conspiracy’ to destabilise the country. He said so, in July 2019, addressing a congregation at the Katuwapitiya St. Sebastian’s Church, where as many as 118 people had been killed by an NTJ bomber only three months back.

SLPP MP Mahinda Samarasinghe revealed, in Parliament, the other day, that during the closing stages of Eelam war IV, a foreign power had sought to remove Prabhakaran to safety, and one of its ships had been waiting in international waters, for the mission. He said the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had not given permission for the vessel to enter the Sri Lankan waters. He should have named the country.

Foreign powers move resolutions against Sri Lanka on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, but the Sri Lankan politicians lack the courage to name and shame the countries that tried to save terrorists and were behind the Easter Sunday bombings, according to them.

Now that former President Sirisena has revealed that there was a foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka must seek international assistance to trace the terror mastermind. The UN could be of help in this regard. First of all, let Sirisena be urged to name the foreign power concerned. Having pathetically failed to prevent the Easter Sunday terror strikes, despite intelligence warnings, he should, at least, make public information about the perpetrators of the attacks. He must do so for the sake of the families of those who died on his watch as the President. On the other hand, the act of suppressing information about a crime is a punishable offence.

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Editorial

Virus in hellholes

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Friday 27th November 2020

Former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, who was taken into custody a few weeks ago, has been released on bail. His counsel, asking for bail, brought to the notice of the court that COVID-19 was spreading fast in prisons. Prisoners are a high-risk group. Life is precious, and nobody must be exposed to COVID-19. Bathiudeen’s safety should be ensured. But what about the other suspects, numbering thousands, held in overcrowded remand prisons, and convicts serving sentences?

Prisoners have held protests, claiming that their lives are in danger due to the spread of the pandemic. Their rights must also be respected. Will the suspects currently languishing in remand prisons also be released on bail to save them from the virus? Or, is it that all prisoners and remandees are equal, but politicians amongst them are ‘more equal’?

Bathiudeen was arrested and remanded for violating the Presidential Elections Act, but if the allegation against him—misusing public funds to transport voters in state-owned buses during a presidential election—is anything to go by, then he should be charged under the Offences against Public Property Act, as well. It is a non-bailable offence to violate this particular Act, which the yahapalana government used to have some of its political rivals remanded. Bathiudeen has not yet been prosecuted for destroying forests although the Court of Appeal has recently determined that he cleared a section of the Kallaru forest reserve illegally and ordered him to bear the cost of reforesting the area. He is lucky that the present-day leaders who helped him launch his political career and gave him free rein to do whatever he wanted are wary of pressing for his prosecution over the destruction of forest land. They apparently do not want to open up a can of worms. The rape of the Wilpattu forest began during a previous Rajapaksa government, which benefited from Bathiudeen’s block vote until late 2014, when he decamped and threw in his lot with the common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena.

Bathiudeen evaded arrest, following Attorney General’s order that he be taken into custody and produced in court; he apparently hoped that he would be able to get away like the bond racketeers who went into hiding and obtained an interim injunction staying their arrest warrants. The CID was obviously under pressure not to arrest those elements with political connections, but it became too embarrassing for Bathiudeen’s mentors in the present regime to go all out to prevent his arrest owing to tremendous media pressure.

COVID-19 is spreading in the Sri Lankan prisons as it is not easy to contain the highly contagious coronavirus in overcrowded environments. Precautions should therefore have been taken to prevent its spread. The first wave of COVID-19 ripped through the US prisons, which are much more spacious and have better facilities than the Sri Lankan jails, and left hundreds of inmates dead. Prisoners and their family members staged protests in some parts of the US.

Sri Lanka did not learn from others’ experience; only a committee was appointed some moons ago to find ways and means of easing prison congestion. The Attorney General himself has evinced a keen interest in ensuring the safety of prison inmates. But the situation has taken a turn for the worse, and how the government is planning to make prisons safe is not clear.

Prison overcrowding, however, is not a problem endemic to the developing world. It has come to plague even the developed countries, which have been compelled to experiment with technological solutions. Years ago, some nations including the UK adopted the electronic tagging system, which allows non-violent prisoners to be tagged, released and monitored. Opinion may be divided on this method, but it seems to have worked where it is employed and is worth a shot.

Whatever the methods the government is planning to adopt to make prisons safe, it has to act fast. The clock is ticking.

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