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Some incomprehensible lapses in Easter Attack Commission Report

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By Kalyananda Tiranagama

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Easter Sunday Attack (PCoI) had the difficult and challenging task of going through a vast amount of evidence, both oral and documentary, of several hundred witnesses, identifying the persons and organizations involved in the attack and the circumstances that brought about the situation culminating in the attack, and the political leaders and state officials whose dereliction of duty and responsibility resulting in the failure to take necessary action to prevent the attack in time and making necessary recommendations for taking legal action against them and for preventing recurrence of such situations.

In its Final Report submitted to the government, the PCoI had made a large number of relevant, important, useful and implementable recommendations, some of which the government has already taken steps to implement such as arresting some of the persons and proscribing some organizations mentioned therein. The Commission has done a commendable job by presenting this report.

While the Commission was conducting its inquiries summoning witnesses and recording their evidence at length giving wide publicity through the media, the people of the country expected that the Commission would identify all the culprits responsible for the attack, not only those who carried out the terrorist acts, but all those who were involved in or contributed to it directly or indirectly in various ways by facilitating, aiding and abetting, providing financial, material or moral support, within the country and from outside, to the terrorist group that carried out the attack; the links they had with communalist Muslim political parties and their leaders; and the foreign involvements in the attack. The people also expected it to identify the political leaders and public officials accountable for this attack by their failure to take necessary action to prevent it even after having received information in advance and deal with them according to law.

However, when a person with some legal background reads this report with an analytical mind, one finds that there are several incomprehensible lapses, omissions and lacunae in it. The purpose of this article is to point out some of the lapses that one would come across while going through this report.

 

Persons directly connected to terrorist attacks

In its Final Report the Commission has identified 14 persons as persons directly connected with the terrorist acts that took place on Easter Sunday. Out of them 11 persons are dead:

 

Zaharan and Ilham Ibrahim – suicide bombers in Shangrila attack;

Inshaf Ibrahim – Cinnamon Grand bomber; Mubarak – Kingsbury bomber;

Jameel – Dehiwala Tropical Inn bomber; Muath – Kochchikade bomber;

Hasthun – Katuwapitiya bomber;

Azad – Batticaloa Zion Church bomber;

Rilwan, Shaini and Niyas – died in Saindumarudu explosion.

 

Only three persons remain in custody to be prosecuted:”

(i)

Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed Naufer – who has lectured on IS ideology and its activities in all the training camps conducted by Zaharan group;

(ii) (ii) Hayathu Mohammadu Ahamadu Milhan – who has acted as the weapons trainer in about 12 training camps conducted by Zaharan, played a key role in establishing the training camp at Wanathavilluwa and preparing explososives and procuring chemicals for the manufacture of bombs and taken part in the killing of two Police officers at Vavunativu in November 2018.

(iii) (iii) Mohomed Ibrahim Sadeeq Abdulla – an active member of Jamaath Islamia Students Movement (SLJISM), who had gone to Syria via Turkey in 2014 and undergone arms training; and participated in two training camps conducted by Zaharan and conducted some more camps in 2017 and 2018 on his own.

 

Persons and Organisations that contributed to terrorist acts

The PCoI has identified

the following as organizations and persons that contributed to the terrorist attacks by aiding and abetting actions which caused racial and religious disturbances or by giving support to such acts within the country and created public unrest and disturbed social order:

(i) Sri Lanka Jamaat-e-Islami (SLJI)

SLJI is an organization working on the same ideology as Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization banned in Egypt, and having close connections with persons and organizations having the same ideology in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, India and Pakistan. The final goal of the SLJI is establishment of an Islam state in Sri Lanka. The official publication of SLJI, Al Hassanat has over the years carried articles glorifying jihad. In February 1990 it has published an article stating that the establishment of an Islamic state cannot be done without waging jihad. In November 1999 it has carried an editorial criticizing the worshipping of statues and praising those who break them. In February 2001 it has published an article extolling people who sacrifice their lives for Islam and stating that they will be given 72 virgins in heaven. In June 2008 it has stated quoting Egyptian terrorist Al Qardawi that a suicide attack is a great act of jihad. It has established Arabic Schools in Madampe, Mawanella and Kalkudah. At the Arabic School in Madampe students were taught about the establishment of an Islamic state and it was compulsory to learn to fight with weapons – P. 227 – 228.

 

(ii) Sri Lanka Jamaat-e-Islami Students Movement (SLJISM)

SLJISM is the students’ wing of the SLJI. Many of the participants in training programmes conducted by Zaharan and several of the suspects in custody over the Easter Sunday attacks are members of the SLJI. About 15 members of the SLJISM are in custody over the Easter attack, some of them have gone to Syria for arms training and Mufees, the person who provided the land at Wanathavilluwa where explosives and weapons found was a member of SLJISM. – P. 238

The COI has recommended proscription of SLJI and SLJISM.

Persons:

(i) Ahamed Talib Lukman Thalib (father);

(ii) (ii) Lukman Thalib Ahamed (son) – 2 persons of Sri Lankan origin domiciled in Australia –who have facilitated several members of SLJISM to proceed to Syria via Turkey for arms training;

(iii) (iii) one Rimsan, a Sri Lankan connected to Al Qaida. The COI has recommended in the on-going criminal investigations to examine their role, if any, in the Easter Sunday attacks.

(iv) Rasheed Hajjul Akbar – the leader of SLJI from 1994 till August 2018. He was a member of the Shura Council of the SLJI. Hajjul Akbar is one of the main ideologists of Islamic extremism in Sri Lanka, promoting religious hatred and intolerance, application of Sharia law and establishing an Islamic state in Sri Lanka. Under his leadership, the official journal of SLJI Al Hassanat has published articles promoting extremism and terrorism. He had been arrested by the CCD on August 25, 2019 and released on September 27, 2019. His younger brother is Moulavi Rasheed Mohamed Ibrahim. Moulavi Ibrahim and his two sons Sadeek Abdulla and Shahid Abdulla are in custody for damaging Buddha statues in Mawanella in December 2018. The COI has recommended the AG to consider instituting criminal action against Rasheed Hajjul Akbar for conspiring to establish an Islamic state in Sri Lanka.

(v) Dr. Muhamad Zufyan Muhamad Zafras – working at the National Hospital, Colombo who has helped Zaharan’s brother Rilwan to get admitted to Colombo National Hospital for treatment as a person injured in a gas cylinder blast, hiding the fact that he was injured in a blast while experimenting with explosives. The COI has recommended the AG to consider instituting criminal action against Dr. Zafras under S. 5 of the PTA for withholding information.

 

Accountability of Authorities for Failure to Prevent Attacks

Political Authorities

As for the political authorities in government accountable for the failure to prevent the terrorist attacks, the PCoI has found only President Maithripala Sirisena accountable: President Maithripala Sirisena – failed in his duties and responsibilities, transcending beyond mere civil negligence – P 263. There is criminal liability on his part for the acts or omissions mentioned therein and the COI recommends the Attorney General instituting criminal action under the Penal Code against him. -P 265

 

Senior Public Officers

The COI has recommended the AG to consider instituting criminal action under any suitable Penal Code provision against three senior public officers:

(i)

Secretary Defence Hemasiri Fernando – P. 284;

(ii)

DIG Sisira Mendis, Chief of National Intelligence – P. 285;

(iii)

SDIG Nilantha Jayawardane, Director, State Intelligence Service – P, 288.

 

Law Enforcement Officers

Out of the Law Enforcement Officers held accountable by the PCoI for their failure to take necessary steps to prevent the attacks in their respective areas, recommendation has been made only against the Inspector General of Police Pujitha Jayasundara for the AG to consider instituting criminal action under any suitable Penal Code provision. – P. 308

In respect of 6 other Police Officers recommendation has been made for the AG to consider instituting criminal action under any suitable Penal Code provision or S. 82 of the Police Ordinance. The following Police Officers belong to this category:

(i)

SDIG Nandana Munasinghe – Western Province – P. 312;

(ii)

SP Sanjeewa Bandara – Superintendant of Police, Colombo North – P. 314;

(iii)

SSP Negombo – Chandana Athukorala – P. 315;

(iv)

SP B. E. I. Prasanna, Western Province Intelligence Division – P. 315;

(v)

Chief Inspector Sarath Kumarasinghe, Acting OIC, Fort Police Station – P.320;

(vi)

Chief Inspector Sagara Wilegoda Liyanage, OIC, Fort

 

The AG has the option of instituting criminal action under any suitable Penal Code provision or under S. 82 of the Police Ordinance. If the AG decides to institute action under S. 82 of the Police Ordinance, they will not be indicted and there will be no criminal proceedings against them. They will be charged in the Magistrate’s Court for breach of duty under S. 82 of the Police Ordinance:

S. 82 :– Every Police officer (a) guilty of any violation of duty or wilful breach or neglect of any regulations and lawful orders of other competent authority – shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding three month’s pay, or to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for period not exceeding three months, or both.

 

Against three other Police Officers only disciplinary inquiry has been recommended:

(i)

DIG Deshbandu Tennekone, Colombo North;

(ii)

Negombo ASP Sisila Kumara;

(iii)

Chaminda Nawaratne, OIC, Katana

 

Accountability of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and the Cabinet of Ministers

 

As for the responsibility and failures of the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe no such recommendation, as made against the President, has been made.

It appears from the following observations of the PCoI that it has shown a very lenient attitude towards the failures of the Prime Minister. The report states: ‘The reasons for the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s inability to attend meetings of the National Security Council when fixed at short notice due to other commitments – acceptable; Though he did not explain why he did not stay on for some of full meetings, this taken in isolation is insufficient to make any adverse findings against him – P. 268; There are other instances reflecting lenient approach on his part to national security issues: No positive action taken to prevent Wahabi violence against traditional Sufi Muslim community though he was aware of it; Did not accept army intelligence presentations about the rising Islam extremism in the country, particularly in the East – P. 270; He opposed the issue of banning nikab and burkha raised by the Army Commander at the National Security Council without consulting Muslim parties – P. 271; Govt. did not ban IS organization in Sri Lanka as there were no reports stating IS propaganda taking place in Sri Lanka, only reports of individuals spreading IS ideology; It was corroborated by several witnesses that the Govt was reluctant to take strong action against rising Islamic extremism due to its dependence on support of Muslim political parties.’

 

However, the Report states: ‘The lax approach of the Prime Minister towards Islam extremism was one of the primary reasons for the failure on the part of the government to take proactive steps towards Islam extremism. This facilitated the build-up of Islam extremism to the point of Easter Sunday attacks.’ – P. 277

If it is so, why no action is recommended against Prime Minister Ranil?

It has totally ignored the fact that, though Maithripala Sirisena was the President, the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe had the effective control of the entire government in his hands under the 19th Amendment, controlling the Cabinet and the Parliament.

Sagala Ratnayake, a close confidante of the Prime Minister in the UNP, was the Minister of Law and Order in charge of the Police.

 

The Accountability of the Cabinet of Ministers

The PCoI has not given its mind as to whether the Cabinet of Ministers has contributed in any manner to the terrorist attack by its failure to discharge its Constitutional responsibility. When it examined the accountability of the President and the Prime Minister, one finds it difficult to understand why it did not examine the accountability of the governemtn headed by the Cabinet of Ministers, especially in view of the relevant provisions in Article 42 of the Constitution and the evidence placed before it.

Article 42 (1) There shall be a Cabinet of Ministers charged with the direction and control of the government of the Republic;

(2) The Cabinet of Ministers shall be collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament;

(3) The President shall be a member the Cabinet of Ministers and shall be the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers.

IGP Pujitha Jayasundara sent the communication received from Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardana, Head of the State Intelligence Services and from Sisira Mendis, the Chief of National Intelligence containing detailed information warning about a threat of possible terrorist attack by ISIS terrorists in Sri Lanka received from Indian Intelligence sources with a note stating ‘FNA’ on 09. 04. 2019 itself to four Senior Police Officers: i. SDIG Western Province – Nandana Munasinghe; ii. SDIG Crimes, Organized Crimes and STF – M. Latheef; iii. SDIG Special Protection Range – Priyalal Dasanayake; iv. Director – Counter Terrorism Investigation Division – Waruna Jayasundara – P. 303.

Special Protection Range is the Ministerial Security Division (MSD) which provides security to Ministers of the Cabinet. It was reported in the media that SDIG Priyalal Dasanayake, giving evidence before the Commission, stated that he had conveyed the information received of the threat of possible terrorist attack to all the officers of the Ministerial Security Division on April 9, 2019 itself.

Of the four Senior Officers who received the said communication from the IGP, the PCoI has recommended to the AG to consider instituting criminal action under any suitable Penal Code provision or S. 82 of the Police Ordinance against SDIG Western Province – Nandana Munasinghe;. – P. 312. As for the conduct of SDIG Crimes, Organized Crimes and Commander STF – M. Latheef, the Report contains the following comment: ‘When the COI queried the steps taken with regard to it (the IGP’s communication) the response was that he got in touch with the Indian High Commission and provided security to it. However, it is surprising as to why he did not instruct his intelligence units to work on the intelligence received.’ – P. 309. No recommendation made against him.

However, the final report does not mention anything about the steps taken by SDIG Priyalal Dasanayake on the information conveyed to him. It does not show whether COI made any query as to whether the officers of the Ministerial Security Division conveyed the information received by them to the Ministers to whom they provide security and the reaction of the Ministers concerned. This is highly relevant and a serious lacuna in the report. One cannot expect or believe that none of the officers of the Ministerial Security Division conveyed this information received by them to any of the Ministers. At least we know that Minister Harin Fernando’s father had got this information from a Police officer, and that he conveyed it to his son preventing him from going to church on that fateful day.

The entire Cabinet of Ministers cannot evade responsibility for their failure in their Constitutional duty. Though they may not be legally accountable, their conduct is highly irresponsible, immoral and blameworthy.

However, the Cabinet Sub-Committee appointed by the present government to study the Report of the COI and identify recommendations for implementation has also expressed its view that the entire government then in power was accountable for the failure to prevent the Easter Attack.

(To be concluded tomorrow)



Features

Implementing 13A: Some thoughts

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The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects.

by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), which introduced devolution of power to the periphery, is again in the news, this time on the need to fully implement it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe first raised the issue in Parliament, asking the various parties whether they are for 13 Plus, meaning improving on 13A. SJB’s Lakshman Kiriella, an avowed supporter of devolution, while saying that his party is for it, asked the President whether Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP, which provides the President with the Parliamentary majority he needs for his legislative agenda, was supportive. Pressed by the President and Kiriella for a response, Rajapaksa, who had promised India to improve on 13A, rose reluctantly and said ‘13 Plus’.

President Wickremesinghe’s attempt to get a consensus on a constitutional settlement of the national question did not get off the ground. The SLPP is unlikely to abandon its Sinhala-nationalist platform. Opposition parties were sceptical. Realising the impossibility of a far-reaching amendment, the President has changed his strategy to one of fully implementing 13A, without changes, or with minor changes, that could muster SLPP support.

Several Opposition parties, that attended the previous meetings of the All-Party Conference (APC), stayed away from the meeting, held on January 27. While the SJB said that the APC was a mere ‘talk show,’ its ally among the Hill Country Tamils, the TPA, said that the President had not considered the issues facing them. The SJB’s Muslim allies did participate. MP Harini Amarasuriya clarified that while the NPP supported the 13A, in principle, it did not consider the President’s statement, on fully implementing the13A, credible.

The main areas in which the 13A has not been implemented are law and order (Police powers) and land. To add to this, successive governments have, over the last 35 years, taken back several subjects, and functions, that legitimately belong to the Provincial Councils (PCs) – agrarian services being one of them. The high point of central intrusion was the Divineguma Act of 2013, under which several functions of PCs, related to rural development, were taken over, using the two-thirds majority that the Government possessed.

Constitutional and legislative changes

The President spoke of the need to establish the National Land Commission, a requirement of the 13A, but which successive governments had not done. He also said that a decision on whether to continue with Provincial Police Commissions, or to bring the Provincial Police, under the National Police Commission, had to be taken. The latter would be a centralising feature—a 13 Minus—that will be to the disappointment of pro-devolution forces.

At the time of the 13A, there was no National Police Commission. Appointments, transfers, etc., of Police personnel, were handled by the Public Service Commission, with the Cabinet of Ministers having the power to overturn decisions of the PSC. To set up the National Police Commission and Provincial Police Commissions, provided for by the 13A, the Police Commission Act No. 1 of 1990 was passed but has not been brought into force by successive Presidents. Under the 13A, a Provincial Police Commission would consist of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President, and a nominee of the Chief Minister. Since the 13A, a National Police Commission was set up by the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the President now appoints its members on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The writer submits that these changes must be reflected in the Provincial Police Commissions, as well. The sub-committee on Law and Order, of the Constitutional Assembly of the previous Parliament, recommended that the Chairman, and the members of the Provincial Police Commissions, should be recommended by the Constitutional Council, having considered nominations, jointly provided by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the respective Provincial Council. The writer submits that a better option would be for a Provincial Police Commission to be appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which should be required to call for nominations from the general public and also consult the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the Province concerned. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment.

The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects. The Commission will lay down general norms, regarding the use of land, having regard to soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors, economic viability, etc. In the exercise of the powers devolved on them, Provincial Councils shall have due regard to national policy, formulated by the National Land Commission. The Constitution does not set out the composition, etc., of the National Land Commission. The establishment of the Commission would have to be ordinary legislation.

Broad consensus needed

President Wickremesinghe, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, sitting beside him, told the APC that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved the full implementation of the 13A. If as President Wickremesinghe confidently says, he has the support of the Cabinet of Ministers and, thus, of the SLPP, the full implementation of 13A would be certainly possible. But it is important that the President reaches out to the Opposition parties, as well. The SJB is for devolution as a solution to the national issue. Sajith Premadasa’s Presidential election manifesto pledged maximum devolution, within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Premadasa won areas dominated by Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils, with percentages second only to those secured by President Kumaratunga, in 1994. SJB’s Muslim and Hill Country allies support devolution, but the President needs to talk to parties representing those communities, about issues pertaining to them, too.

The new ‘Helicopter’ alliance seems unable to take a unified stand on the 13A. Dullas and Dilan Perera were at the forefront of CBK’s campaign for devolution, and Professor G.L. Pieris was the architect of her devolution proposals. Tissa Vitarana did an admirable job of getting a consensus on the national issue, through the APRC process. The Left parties in the Utttara Sabhagaya are strong supporters of devolution, while their nationalist allies are against it. Former President Sirisena spoke in support of implementing the 13A at the APC. The JVP/NPP is unlikely to oppose moves to implement the 13A.

It must not be assumed that the President’s declared intention to implement the 13A could be put into practice easily. Sinhala nationalists, in the Uttara Sabhagaya, have already declared war against fully implementing the 13A, and not all SLPP elements would be enthusiastic about supporting the proposed changes. They are sure to be joined by Sinhala extremists outside Parliament. Anti-13A forces would attempt to use discontent among the masses suffering due to the economic mess the country is in. In these circumstances, the Government needs to convince the people, and the Opposition, of the genuineness of the exercise and the chances of its success. Lest the extremists raise the ‘separatist’ bogey, President Wickremesinghe and the Government must meet such arguments, taking the bull by its horns, and also explain to the people that power-sharing, through devolution, is a must, not only to solve the ethnic issue but also for the development of the periphery. Given its composition, the present Government cannot do so on its own. It must reach out and build a broad consensus on the issue.

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Aiyo, Sirisena

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Former president Sirisena has declared that he is poor and therefore has to go begging to pay compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre! He was unwilling to stand in the dock when he appeared as an accused in a subsequent case and had to be ordered to do so by the Magistrate.

Just imagine an ex-president going around begging from the populace that was made destitute by the actions of the government he headed and the government that followed, which he was part of! To make matters even worse he gives totally ludicrous and unbelievable explanations. Let me add a few of my thoughts to many opinions expressed so far, including those in the editorial “Sirisena’s plea” (The Island, 24 January) wherein the editor quite rightly names those responsible for making this totally undeserved person the President, and suggests that they should help him pay, if at all.

The two important issues that need consideration are whether Sirisena is guilty of neglecting his duties as president in not defending the country from terrorism and who is responsible for paying the compensation awarded by the Supreme court.

I pose the first question because in numerous press conferences, Sirisena has stated that the Supreme Court awarded compensation because he was indirectly responsible for the actions of security chiefs he appointed, implying that there is no direct responsibility! One wonders whether Sirisena is unable to understand the judgement, which categorically states that there were lapses such as the malfunctioning security council for which he was directly responsible. In fact, what surprised me was the reflected annoyance or frustrations of the honourable justices by their use of terms like “what takes the cake” in referring to some of these terrible lapses! Though Sirisena does not come from an academic background, having been a cabinet minister and the general secretary of a major political party for years, surely, he should be able to grasp the contents of a judgement.

Obviously, Sirisena cannot challenge the judgement as it was delivered by the highest court in the land and he cannot criticise the judgement as it would amount to contempt of court. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that he is using a diversionary tactic hoping to fool us. Perhaps, he is unaware of the famous adage: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Sirisena seems to have developed total amnesia about the commission he appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacre! From parts of the report released, it was pretty obvious that the blame lay, in addition to the security establishment, on him as well as the prime minister of the day, who as the present president must be having bad dreams of the day when he no longer has presidential immunity!

In fact, one of the reasons for the downfall of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was his reluctance to take action on that report. Perhaps, he did so at the behest of his younger brother who was obsessed with the two thirds majority.

Sirisena seems to disregard facts and is on a shameless mission to deceive the public again by stating that he has no means to pay compensation. He claims that his only income is from a mango plantation and that he does not own even a motorcycle. But have we ever seen him riding a bicycle or travelling by bus?

Although he has not provided any proof, Sirisena claims that he was in a hospital in Singapore for an urgent medical condition at the time of the attack. Why did he go to Singapore instead of seeking treatment at home? Afterall, he was the Minister of Health before contesting the presidency! How did the urgency resolve for him to return the following day? How did this poor mango grower have the money to go to Singapore for treatment? Did the public coffers cough up the money for allegedly a shopping trip he did for his son’s wedding?

In spite of the Presidential Commission he himself appointed finding him guilty and the highest court of the land directing him to pay compensation to victims, Sirisena has failed the nation by refusing to show any remorse or take his share of responsibility. Instead, he is attempting to make a political drama out of it. What about his brother Dudley, who roared like a lion threatening to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to punish his elder brother in any way? Why is he hiding like a lizard not offering to foot the bill? Has Sirisena no shame in allowing one of his supporters to beg under the Bo tree in Pettah? A decent politician would have opted to go to jail rather than beg but decency is, perhaps, something totally alien to Sirisena!

Sirisena, who really should set an example to others who were ordered to pay compensation, does not seem even to follow their behaviour of silent acceptance. He should remember that we have not forgotten what was stated by the ex-IGP that Sirisena offered him a diplomatic posting provided he accepted responsibility. He must be regretting the refusal! Those who should go round begging are government servants who have no means to pay compensation, not the mango grower whose brother is one of the richest “Hal Mudalalis”!

Mr Sirisena! You have no sense of shame and you have done everything possible to deflect blame. What I fail to comprehend is why the SLFP does not get rid of you. Perhaps, it has a death-wish and so do the ex-Pohottuwa chaps who decided ‘helicopter’! It clearly shows that ours is the land of politicians with no sense of shame!

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Harassment of women in politics on the rise

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by Rathindra Kuruwita

Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.

CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.

“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.

Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.

Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.

The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.

“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.

SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.

“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.

The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.

“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.

There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.

Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.

“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”

Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.

“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.

He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.

“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.

The urban-rural divide

When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.

“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.

“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.

“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.

He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.

With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.

“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.

Role of civil society and govt.

While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.

Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.

“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.

Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.

“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.

Women fighting back

Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.

While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.

“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.

Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.

He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.

“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.

* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

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