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“The criminal justice system in South Asia is discriminatory and violent”: Ambika Satkunanathan

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As a lawyer and human-rights champion who led the first-ever national study of prisons in Sri Lanka last year, Ambika Satkunanathan is vocal against the violence that is an endemic part of prison systems, and the ‘retributive’ and ‘vengeful’ nature of state justice that creates worse problems in society and creates criminals rather than rehabilitating them.

“Violence is used to maintain order, which robs the person in prison of dignity and agency from the moment they enter prison until they leave. Violence and discrimination are normalised in the system,” says Ambika, who was commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka from 2015 to 2020.

“This penchant for violent forms of punishment is a result of societies being wedded to the punitive and carceral approach to dealing with what are essentially social problems,” she adds. “We believe that locking someone up and throwing away the key solves the issue, but it only compounds it.”

Regardless, she says, societies in the Subcontinent continue with this deeply flawed approach because it is easier than addressing the root causes of what is defined as ‘crime’.

The question of what constitutes crime has become increasingly blurred in the recent past in South Asia as more and more human-rights activists and even journalists in the region are being targeted by their own governments, and imprisoned on the basis of draconian colonial-era laws, and kept confined as ‘undertrials’ for years until the case begins. In these instances, prisons are being used not to deter crime but to deter dissent, and to threaten those who speak up against governments, even ‘democratic’ ones.

She shares her observation that South Asian societies are more skewed towards punishing individuals over corporations, and the underprivileged over the privileged. “A large multinational corporation will be able to use technicalities and the immense resources at their disposal to escape accountability for environmental degradation, while someone with a few grams of marijuana will be imprisoned. Therefore, your social position, power and privilege impact how you are treated by the criminal justice system, which is not neutral or objective but is discriminatory and violent,” asserts Ambika, who did her BA and LLB from Monash University in Australia, and LLM from the University of Nottingham.

Women even more vulnerable. “In Sri Lanka, women suffer structural violence in many ways. For instance, they don’t have access to even sanitary napkins, have no access to reproductive health care, and there is inadequate access to pre and postnatal care,” she says, describing a scenario that could apply to a number of rural areas anywhere in the Subcontinent.

Apart from facilities and infrastructure, women also bear the brunt of carrying the ‘honour’ of the family, or loss of reputation, which is more severe for them than for men. “When women are imprisoned, they often lose the support of families or partners / husbands and hence find it difficult to retain legal representation. It prolongs their imprisonment,” says Ambika, who has been a Chevening scholar and currently serves as the chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, the only indigenous grant-maker in Sri Lanka, combining human-rights and peacebuilding initiatives.

Further, she says, women are more stigmatised and find it challenging to rebuild their lives following release from prison. This in turn pushes them into exploitative situations that leads to them being imprisoned again. “The vicious cycle continues,” she explains.

Women are also vulnerable to the gendered aspect of violence to which they might be subjected – another staple in South Asian societies. For women activists from minority communities in Sri Lanka, the challenges are progressively worse.

“If you are a Tamil woman activist working in the Northern Province, you will face additional challenges, such as surveillance, constant visits by the security agencies to your house to make inquiries about your activities, and phone calls prior to events or demonstrations to intimidate you from participating,” she shares.

Ambika’s own journey from a lawyer to a human-rights champion has been shaped by her identity as a Tamil woman in Sri Lanka – particularly the discrimination she faced. The violence and fear of violence that Tamils have experienced in Sri Lanka cast a shadow that hung over her life as long as she can remember.

“This is what drove me to study law and work to further the protection of human rights. The personal became the political because the political impacted every aspect of my personal life, like that of most Tamils in Sri Lanka,” she says.

She looks back with pride at her work at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka where, despite structural and systemic impediments, she managed to strengthen connections between the Commission and civil society and survivors of human-rights violations. “It helped create an environment of trust whereby they felt they could approach the Commission for remedies,” she says.

At a webinar organised by South Asia Peace Action Network last month on the topic ‘Rights of the incarcerated in South Asia’, Ambika stressed on the importance of civil society organisations in South Asia coming together to share experiences, especially strategies, used to counter similar challenges.

“Other South Asian countries have seen authoritarian regimes similar to the current one in Sri Lanka, and are aware of or have experienced state efforts to stifle dissent and intimidate and harass human-rights activists. Similarly, patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism are not particularly unique to Sri Lanka. Since the problems are similar, so are the solutions. We must learn from each other rather than reinventing the wheel,” she says.

Ambika believes the solution lies with civil society who can help activists who are imprisoned or targeted by the powerful. “The most important way is to openly voice solidarity with the activists. Other means include mounting legal challenges to these state acts as well as engaging in advocacy, both nationally and internationally,” she says.

Providing support to the families of the activists, whether material or otherwise, is often understated, but goes a long way too, she adds. “Often the psychological aspect of incarceration is ignored. Therefore, offering moral support to the families is imperative,” she says, suggesting that supporters can visit imprisoned activists, taking them books or food to show they are not forgotten. “It reminds them that there are people who continue to fight for their release.”

While envisioning a unified and socially just South Asia, Ambika believes there’s a lot more that needs change than just laws. “Before we speak of laws, let’s speak of values. In South Asia, majoritarian and ethno-nationalist politics have taken hold and discrimination against minorities is common,” she says.

Giving examples of how religious minorities face constant threat – the Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka; Muslims and Dalits in India; and Sikhs, Shias and Christians in Pakistan – she believes South Asian countries are moving further away from secularism “if not in law, then certainly in deed.”

She has a special bone to pick with the death penalty. Citing both the legal and historical point of view, she refers to the South Asian cultural perspective that leans heavily towards the Hindu and Buddhist principles of the supremacy of all forms of life: “Abolish, abolish, abolish the death penalty! The death penalty is a cruel and inhumane punishment which, as research has shown over and over again, does not in any way prevent crime but instead causes great harm,” she asserts.

As a society, Ambika says, we need to introspect how much we all are responsible in perpetuating crime: “When we address the root causes of social problems, address the deep inequalities within society, we will not have to expend energy formulating humane punishments.” (Money Control)



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Prelates launch legal battle against New Fortress

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by A. J. A. Abeynayake

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera yesterday filed a fundamental rights petition before the Supreme Court against the transfer of shares of the Yugadanavi LNG Power Plant in Kerawalapitiya to a US energy firm.

The petition seeks an order preventing the US firm New Fortress Inc. from obtaining the LNG supply contract.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, other members of the Cabinet, West Coast Power Limited, the owner of the 310 MW Yugadanavi Power Plant, the US-based company New Fortress Energy and the Attorney General are among the 54 respondents named in the FR petition.

The petition requests the court to issue an order to nullify the Cabinet decision on transferring state-owned shares of the Yugadanavi power plant to the US company.

The petition states that the decision taken by the Cabinet of Ministers to transfer 40% stake in the company owning the Yugadanavi Power Plant to the US firm in question was not justified. It also says the Cabinet failed to focus on issues such as the national economy and national security before taking the relevant decisions.

The petitioners have requested the Court to declare that their fundamental rights as well as the rights of the entire citizenry and their future generations guaranteed to them under Article 12(1) of the Constitution have been infringed and/or are continuing to be infringed and/or are in imminent danger of being infringed by the actions of the Respondents with regard to the Yugadanavi deal.

They have requested the Court to quash the decision of the Cabinet authorising the procurement of LNG from the 53rd respondent – the New Fortress Energy.

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Financial crisis so acute teachers’ demands cannot be met – SLPP Chairman

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300,000 entering schools for first time this year among those victimised

By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP Chairman and Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris yesterday (18) emphasised that the worsening financial crisis experienced by the country was so acute the government wasn’t in a position to grant the salary increase sought by school principals and teachers.

Prof. Peiris, who served as the Education Minister till August this year said that the public realised the government lacked the wherewithal to meet the striking teachers’ demands. The academic said so at the weekly SLPP media briefing at the party office in Battaramulla.

Responding to media queries, Prof. Peiris stressed that the government expected the striking teachers to facilitate re-opening of schools on a staggered basis beginning Oct 21 (Thursday). The Minister indicated that striking unions shouldn’t expect to settle the salary issue on their terms as the government lacked the means even if it wanted to do so.

Referring to the rapid deterioration of public finances in the wake of Covid-19 eruption in early 2020, Prof. Peiris said that Budget 2022 was presented amidst an extremely difficult time.

The top SLPP spokesperson reiterated the government’s commitment to grant strikers’ demand in two stages as announced by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at a meeting with striking unions at Temple Trees. Premier Rajapaksa on Oct 12 told a delegation of striking unions that the government would pay one third of the increase through the Budget 2022 and the remaining two in the following year’s budget.

The Premier’s Office quoted him as having told the delegates that the sharp drop in government income deprived the administration of an opportunity to grant the increase. Striking unions want the government to settle the issues immediately in one go.

Prof. Peiris appealed to those who have been on strike for 100 days to resume teaching. The student community really suffered due to the Covid 19 eruption and further delay in resuming studies would be catastrophic, Prof. Peiris said, underscoring the importance of restoring normalcy as about 300,000 would go to schools for the first time in their life.

Prof. Peiris said that schools that conduct classes from Grade 1 to 5 and those with less than 200 students would be re-opened on Oct 21. According to the minister, approximately 3,800 schools would be re-opened as scheduled.

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Lankan authorities must end violence and discrimination against Muslims, says AI

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Kyle Ward, AI’s Deputy Secretary General

The Lankan Muslim community has suffered consistent discrimination, harassment and violence, since 2013, culminating in the adoption of government policies explicitly targeting the minority group, said Amnesty International, in a new report published yesterday.

The report titled From Burning Houses to Burning Bodies: Anti-Muslim Harassment, Discrimination and Violence in Sri Lanka, traces the development of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka since 2013 amid surging Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. This discrimination has evolved from a rising series of mob attacks committed with impunity, into government policies explicitly discriminating against Muslims, including the forced cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims and current proposals to ban both the niqab (face veil) and madrasas (religious schools).

“While anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka is nothing new, the situation has regressed sharply in recent years. Incidents of violence against Muslims, committed with the tacit approval of the authorities, have occurred with alarming frequency. This has been accompanied by the adoption by the current government of rhetoric and policies that have been openly hostile to Muslims,” said Kyle Ward, Amnesty International’s Deputy Secretary General.

“The Sri Lankan authorities must break this alarming trend and uphold their duty to protect Muslims from further attacks, hold perpetrators accountable and end the use of government policies to target, harass and discriminate against the Muslim community.”

Incidents of violence towards Muslims have risen in frequency and intensity since 2013, with a series of flashpoints in which attackers and those responsible for hate speech have enjoyed impunity for their actions.

This escalating hostility began with the anti-halal campaign of that year, when Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups successfully lobbied to end the halal certification of food, which demarks food permissible for consumption by Muslims, in accordance with Islamic scripture and customs. The campaign gave rise to a number of attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses, with the lack of accountability for those responsible acting as a signal to others that acts of violence against Muslims could be committed with impunity.

The following year, anti-Muslim riots in the southern coastal town of Aluthgama began after a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist group held a rally in the town. Here too, perpetrators of violence enjoyed impunity and authorities failed to deliver justice to victims.

Despite a new government in 2015, which promised justice and accountability for ethnic and religious minorities, attacks against Muslims continued to occur. Shortly after the election, anti-Muslim mob violence flared in the southern coastal town of Ginthota in 2017, while similar violence was seen in 2018 in Digana and Ampara, towns in the central and eastern provinces respectively. Not only did the perpetrators escape accountability, victims and witnesses alleged the police and armed forces did not offer sufficient protection or act to prevent the violence.

Hostility towards Muslims increased markedly after more than 250 people were killed in coordinated suicide attacks committed by a local Islamist group and claimed by the Islamic State on Easter Sunday 2019.

Following these attacks, on 13 May 2019, Muslims in several towns in the North-Western Province of Sri Lanka came under attack during Ramadan, one of the holiest months in the Muslim calendar. Mosques across the country were also attacked and a spate of ‘hate speech’ posts and anti-Muslim vitriol was seen on social media. Emergency regulations rushed through by the authorities were also used to arbitrarily arrest hundreds of Muslims in the wake of the attacks.

Since taking office, the current government has continued to target and scapegoat the Muslim population to distract from political and economic issues.

This was evident in the mandatory cremation policy on the disposal of the bodies of Covid-19 victims, which was implemented despite cremation being expressly forbidden in Islam, and a lack of scientific evidence to substantiate the claims that burying victims would further the spread of the disease.

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