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



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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JVP, too, moves court against deal with US company



By Chitra Weerarathne and A.J.A. Abeynayake

The JVP yesterday (26) filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal requesting it to declare null and void a Cabinet decision to transfer 40 percent of the Yugadanavi Power Plant to US Company, New Fortress Energy Inc.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Cabinet of Ministers, the Ceylon Electricity Board, West Coast Power (Pvt) Ltd, Lakdanavi Limited, the Monetary Board of the Central Bank, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation have been named as respondents among 43 others.

The JVP’s petition has come in the way of Colombo’s Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and Ven Elle Gunawansa, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya and the Federation of National Organisations (FNO) moving the court against the controversial deal with US energy company,The application has also sought a writ of mandamus on the respondents preventing them from taking any action with regard to the matter until the application is taken up and its examination is concluded.

Former JVP MPs Sunil Handunnetti and Wasantha Samarasinghe are the petitioners.

The petitioners state that the Cabinet decisions undermine the rule of law, the Constitution and democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution and several other statutes, and conventions of democratic governance and Cabinet of Ministers exercising executive powers.

The petitioners state that LTL Holdings (Pvt) Ltd., is the largest power sector engineering company in the country. It was first incorporated in the 1980s as a joint venture of the Ceylon Electricity Board and a multinational group – ABB of Norway.

The Petitioners state that Lakdanavi (Pvt) Ltd., is a fully owned subsidiary of LTL Holdings (Pvt) Ltd., and is a company specialised in engineering, procurement and construction and operations and maintenance in the energy and power generation sector.

They assert that the government has not properly explained particulars of the deal even to the Cabinet of Ministers when transferring the shares of the power plant to the American company.

They have also alleged that the government has not obtained the approval of Parliament for the agreement in question and that the relevant share transfer process has not been carried out in accordance with a formal tender procedure.

They have sought the Appeals Court to issue an order rescinding the decision taken to transfer the shares to the American company and the agreement signed by the government.

In addition, the General Secretary of the SJB MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara filed a Fundamental Rights application in the Supreme Court on 21 Oct., challenging the government decision to transfer 40 per cent of the Kerawalapitiya Power Plant to the US firm.

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Ex-Indian HC in Colombo during turbulent 1989-90 will be featured in next Pathfinder “In Conversation” webinar



Ambassador Lakhan Mehrotra, former High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka, will be featured in the next Pathfinder “In Conversation” webinar scheduled at 2.30 p.m. IST/SLST on Thursday 28th October.

Mehrotra will be interviewed by Bernard Goonetilleke, Chairman, Pathfinder Foundation. They will discuss the guest speaker’s publication ‘My Days in Sri Lanka’, which features his experience during the period 1989-1990, when he served as High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka, during a politically turbulent era coupled with the separatist war in the north-east and an insurrection in the south.

His book, ‘My Days in Sri Lanka’ touches on the beginnings of the conflict, briefly follows on its evolution until it reached its peak in the early 1990s, and then takes the reader in detail through the author’s own experience in the country, nearly two years after the 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement was signed and the Indian Peace Keeping Force had been inducted at the invitation of President J. R. Jayewardene, while President Premadasa, who succeeded President Jayewardene considered the presence of an Indian military contingent on his nation’s soil as an affront to its sovereignty. Soon after his election, the President issued an ultimatum for the IPKF to leave its shores by 29th July 1989 and threatened military action against it if it failed to do so, which brought the two nations to the brink of a military confrontation.

The High Commissioner’s intensive consultations and tireless interaction with the political leaders of Sri Lanka, the warring factions in the country’s north-east, and the governments in New Delhi and Colombo helped signing of the joint communique on 28th July 1989 on arrangements for phased withdrawal of the IPKF in March 1990 with due recognition of its contribution and sacrifices made to preserve the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the country. ‘My Days in Sri Lanka’ provides information that has never been divulged before. The “In Conversation” webinar will delve into these experiences of the High Commissioner; whose rather brief assignment was from April 1989 to June 1990.

Following his assignment that covered the most turbulent period of Sri Lanka in modern times, Ambassador Mehrotra served as Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs and as Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Africa before his retirement in 1992. Later, he served as UN Secretary General’s Personal Representative in Cambodia from 1997 to 2000 and as Head of the UN Diplomatic Mission in Jakarta for Peace Talks between Indonesia and East Timor.

Those who are interested in retracing the history of Sri Lanka should register in advance for this webinar through the link below:

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Cardinal lashes out at Minister known as Ten Percent



His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith visits Sarakkuwa in the Pamunugama area where clearing of X-Press Pearl debris continuinues.Pic by Nishan S .Priyantha

By Norman Palihawadane and Nishan S. Priyantha

Monies taken in the form of commissions by forfeiting people’s welfare will never do any good to those who take them, says His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith.

“The biggest malady our society is afflicted with is the commissions earned by politicians through various deals. They take commissions from companies by depriving the people of their dues. Such money has blood on them and they would not do any good to those who take them,” the Cardinal said yesterday.

Speaking to journalists at the Sarakkuwa beach in Pamunugama during an inspection tour to witness the progress of cleaning work of the MV X-Press Pearl wreck the Cardinal said: “We have a Cabinet minister who is notoriously known as Mr. Ten Percent. Imagine the shame on this nation when there is such a minister taking ten percent of commission from every project he passes. The monies collected in that way would never bring out any good.”

The Cardinal said that the President, the Prime Minister and government institutions including the Ministry of Fisheries, coast conservation department, marine environment protection authority and urban development authority were duty bound to remove the wreck, clean the beach and the ocean. “In doing so, the government should be concerned about the interests of people, and not about the shipping company, its local agents or agents of the insurance companies. We demand that the government take this case before the International Court of Justice in The Hague and get full compensation for the people. We have information that the agents of companies have come down and are staying in Colombo exerting influence on various political leaders and officials. Their objective is getting out of this by paying a paltry sum. If the politicians and officials permit that we will take to the streets with people.”

The Cardinal said that there was information that Urban Development Authority officials were making plans to give away Muthurajawela to foreign companies. “Muthurajawela is a national asset and belongs to the people. The politicians have no right to sell them off to Korean or Chinese companies. We would not let that happen,” he said.

Associated with the Cardinal were Ven. Pahiyangala Ananada Thera, Chairperson of Marine Environment Protection Chairperson, bishops and other religious leaders.

The Singapore-registered X-Press Pearl caught fire off the coast of Colombo in May and sank while transporting 1,486 chemical containers from the Middle East with stops in India and Sri Lanka during its voyage to Singapore.

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