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Editorial

The rape of forests: Govt. in the dock

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Tuesday 23rd February, 2021

The government has apparently achieved what it set out to when it issued a gazette removing the peripheral forests from the purview of the Forest Department and placed them under the Divisional and District Secretariats, purportedly to promote traditional agriculture. Its supporters are encroaching on thousands of acres of forest land with absolute impunity. Nobody takes gazettes seriously, and the government is also not keen to deal with noncompliance; the declarations of maximum retail prices, and minimum purchasing prices are a case in point. They are flouted blatantly. But the gazette pertaining to the peripheral forests took effect immediately! Such is the high-octane performance on the part of the government when it wants to help its supporters.

We have argued, in this column, previously that the government entrusted the District and Divisional secretariats with the task of looking after parts of forests because administrators are scared of ruling party politicians and do the latter’s bidding. We reported, the other day, that a Divisional Secretary had accompanied a group of government supporters who grabbed land in the Somawathiya National Park. The public service is full of such servile officers, and what is in store for the country’s forests is not difficult to imagine.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, speaking at a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak event, last Saturday, faulted the Forest Department, the Wildlife Department, the environmental authorities and others for being involved in a tug of war, which, he said, had rendered the public confused and helpless. True, these institutions work in silos, and not all their personnel are honest and conscientious, but the real problem is not their rivalries; it is that public administrators are helping the ruling party backers grab forest land, and the government is doing nothing about it. If the government is really desirous of ensuring coordination among the state outfits responsible for protecting the environment, it should bring all of them under one umbrella, vest them with more powers and give teeth to the existing laws.

There are some sand deposits inside the Somawathiya sanctuary, according to environmentalists, and what prevents government politicians and their associates from exploiting them is the absence of a road. This is why some ruling party worthies are trying to pressure the Wildlife Department to permit cattle grazing inside the national park. When cattle and cowherds enter the forest, footpaths appear with the passage of time, and these tracks can be used by the politically-backed racketeers to access the sand deposits.

What is reported from the Somawathiya National Park is a textbook case of irony; perhaps, it also represents, in microcosm, the fate that befell the country after the successful conclusion of its war on terror. When the LTTE was around, nobody dared enter the national park for fear of terrorist attacks, and the place was safe, thanks to the absence of human activity. The present-day rulers liberated the area from the clutches of the LTTE more than a decade ago, but, unfortunately, the liberators are now supporting those who destroy the sanctuary.

The President has called for action against those who encroach on forests on the pretext of engaging in traditional agriculture. Defence Secretary General (retd) Kamal Gunaratne has said that he had found that some Divisional Secretaries were issuing licences to clear forest lands and the practice had to be stopped. We have published pictures of some land grabbers responsible for the rape of the Somawathiya sanctuary. They can be identified and hauled up before courts.

Now that both the President and the Defence Secretary are convinced that some errant state officials and encroachers responsible for destroying forests have to be stopped, the question is what prevents them from going the whole hog to have the racketeers brought to justice forthwith. For those who pride themselves on having killed Prabhakaran, stopping the destroyers of forests should be child’s play.



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Editorial

Judges in the dock

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Friday 5th March, 2021

Judges do not take kindly to utterances that amount to contempt of court. They go all out to make the offenders concerned regret having made such statements. This, we have seen both here and overseas. But there are situations where judges themselves get into hot water for their unguarded remarks that irk the public beyond measure. Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde is under heavy fire for having asked an accused rapist if the latter would marry his victim, a schoolgirl, to avoid jail. Bobde’s suggestion is a textbook example of adding insult to injury.

Women’s rights activists in India have launched a signature campaign, urging Chief Justice Bobde to resign. Their protest is gathering momentum, and consternation is understandable; India has a very high rate of rape. They accuse their Chief Justice of having proposed something that is tantamount to condemning the victim to a lifetime of rape at the hands of her tormentor.

One cannot but agree with the protesting Indian women. It is doubtful whether any rape victim in her proper senses will ever want to spend the rest of her life with her tormentor. As for the aforesaid Indian girl, her rapist even threatened to burn her alive and kill her brother if she made a complaint against him. How can a girl live with such a monster? If the desperado had been allowed to get away with his brutal crime by marrying the victim, that would have set a very bad precedent. Such leniency would have rendered Indian women even more vulnerable. That would also have sent the wrong message to desperate men that they can marry women they dream of simply by sexually assaulting them!

What the Indian CJ should be asked is how he would have reacted if the victim had been his own daughter; would he have accepted the rapist as his son-in-law?

Callous disregard for rape victims’ feelings is apparently universal. It is reported from even supposedly enlightened societies that pride themselves on respecting women’s rights. CJ Bobde’s predicament reminds us of a Canadian Federal Judge—Robin Camp—who had to resign in 2017 for having asked a 19-year-old rape victim why she had not kept her legs together to prevent rape. Adding insult to injury, he told her ‘sex and pain sometimes go together.’ What a revelation!

Instances of rape victims suffering many indignities at the hands of lawyers abound in this country so much so that many girls and women, who suffer sexual assault, choose to suffer in silence. Unfortunately, this issue has gone unaddressed much to the benefit of rapists.

The female lawmakers in the current Parliament have sunk their political differences and come forward to safeguard the rights of Sri Lankan women, we are told. They have reportedly requested the Speaker to appoint a special Select Committee to address gender-based offences against women. Female local government members have also launched a similar initiative. They complain of harassment in their councils, where their male counterparts do not even allow them to speak freely. These female politicians can rest assured that they have the unstinted support of all right-thinking citizens. After all, women account for more than one half the country’s population. It is they who toil in factories, on estates and in West Asian deserts to help keep the national economy afloat. At least 50 percent of seats in Parliament, the Provincial Councils and the local government institutions should be allocated for women.

The members of the women’s caucus in Parliament ought to campaign for ensuring that women who become victims of rape, etc., are treated humanely in courts. Ideally, there should be separate courts to hear such cases. They are sure to have the ear of Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who has evinced a keen interest in giving the existing legal system a radical shake-up. They will also be able to convince President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the pressing need to hear rape cases expeditiously with the rights of the victims being protected.

We hope that the brave Indian women who have taken on their CJ will succeed in their endeavour.

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Editorial

A strange case of distrust?

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Thursday 4th March, 2021

The Presidential Secretariat has reportedly told Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera, that 22 volumes of the final report submitted by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks cannot be released as they contain sensitive information pertaining to national security. So, the AG has been left with no alternative but to divine what is in these 22 volumes which he cannot do without.

The argument that the state prosecutor should be denied access to some volumes of the report at issue for reasons of national security, in our book, does not hold water. In fact, we consider it an affront to the dignity of the AG. Is it that the State cannot repose trust in its own AG as regards national security?

The AG knows how to handle sensitive information, doesn’t he? On the other hand, there was no such thing as national security, so to speak, during the period covered by the presidential commission probe, and that was the reason why the NTJ terrorists were able to snuff out so many lives with ease. After all, that was what the SLPP kept telling us when it was in the Opposition. Luckily, the LTTE did not try to make a comeback during the yahapalana government. There were no regular National Security Council (NSC) meetings, and those who were responsible for safeguarding national security were all at sea so much so that they did not take seriously warnings of impending terror attacks which could have been prevented. Even some outsiders were privy to what transpired at the NSC meetings, which they were allowed to attend because they were close to the then President Maithripala Sirisena! The state intelligence outfits were in total disarray with their key officers facing a political witch-hunt. The CID was doing full-time political work to all intents and purposes, and the Terrorism Investigation Division was accused of conspiring to kill the President! So, how come any information about what happened during that period is considered too sensitive to be divulged even to the AG?

What the AG is required to do anent the cases he files is not akin to keyhole surgery; he has to see the whole picture before filing action. He should be able to ascertain whether the facts, on the basis of which legal action is to be instituted against those named in the report, can be backed by irrefutable evidence if the cases he is going to file are to have a solid foundation. He and his legal team need to study all volumes of the commission report if they are to know where they stand.

The AG has to build strong cases to prove that the accused are guilty. Unless all information contained in the PCoI report is studied properly, the cases to be filed may not stand up to judicial scrutiny. The defence may be able to drive a coach and horses through them. One can only hope that no surreptitious attempt is being made to open an escape route for the high-profile government members who are likely to be hauled up before courts for their serious lapses that made the Easter Sunday carnage possible.

The AG, we repeat, should be given unhindered access to the PCoI report so that he will be able to proceed with prosecutions properly.

The government finds itself in a dilemma. Unless it takes action against the former leaders and their bureaucratic lackeys for their failure to prevent the terror attacks, it is likely to face a considerable electoral setback, come the next election, but at the same time, it is not in a position to go the whole hog to ensure that the culprits are brought to justice; it runs the risk of suffering a split in the event of former President Sirisena being prosecuted for security failures that led to the Easter Sunday tragedy, on his watch. The SLFP has already indicated that it might pull out of the SLPP coalition in such an eventuality. But nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of justice. An oft-quoted legal maxim is ‘Fiat Justitia, ruat caelum’, or ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’. As regards, the Easter Sunday attacks, one may say, ‘Let justice be done though governments fall.”

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Editorial

Govt. learning from UNHRC

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Wednesday 3rd March, 2021

There is obviously no love lost between the incumbent Sri Lankan government and the UNHRC, but the former seems to have taken a leaf out of the latter’s book. It has adopted the practice of using reports to scare and tame its political opponents.

In what looks a counterattack on the political front, the Rajapaksa government has decided to release the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed allegations of corruption and irregularities under the yahapalana government from 14 Jan. 2015 to 31 Dec. 2018. The then President Maithripala Sirisena appointed this commission to settle political scores with the UNP. He sought to take moral high ground and show his political enemies, especially the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in a bad light. The final report of the Easter Sunday PCoI, which Sirisena appointed to deflect criticism and pin the blame for failing to prevent the carnage on others, has boomeranged. The SJB is using it against not only Sirisena but also the present government, of which he is a member. The government seems to think the release of the PCoI report on corruption under the yahapalana government will help it silence the SJB, whose grandees were Cabinet ministers in the previous administration accused of being involved in various corrupt deals. One may recall that allegations of corruption were also levelled against several SLFP notables in the yahapalana Cabinet, and they are now in the present administration. Will the SLPP open up another can of worms by releasing the PCoI report at issue?

Most of the Opposition politicians who pretend to be paragons of virtue have a lot to answer for as regards frauds and corruption under the previous dispensation if the testimonies of high-profile witnesses who appeared before the PCoI on corruption are anything to go by. These politicians are now in overdrive, bashing the government for its failure to reveal the masterminds of the Easter Sunday attacks. It will be interesting to see their reaction to the government decision to release the PCoI report on corruption. Will they dare the SLPP to do so expeditiously and call for a parliamentary debate thereon? They should be able to do so if they are as confident as they claim to be that they were above board while they were in power.

If the government thinks it can mitigate the fallout of the flawed PCoI report on the Easter Sunday carnage by using the PCoI report on corruption to silence the political Opposition, then it is mistaken because not all its critics are its political rivals. Some SJB and UNP politicians attacking the SLPP may chicken out lest they should be prosecuted for corruption, etc., on the basis of the PCoI report, but there is no way the government can allay the fears of the public and counter protests by the Catholics who bore the brunt of the Easter Sunday terror. The Catholic Church has declared a Black Sunday protest (07 March), and its agitation campaign is likely to continue. Its consternation is understandable. Nobody is safe until the masterminds of the carnage are identified and dealt with, for they can carry out more attacks.

There was absolutely no need for a presidential probe to identify those whose lapses had led to the Easter Sunday tragedy. Their identities were already known and legal action could have been taken against them, but such a course of action will not help ensure that there will be no terror attacks. The need for a presidential probe arose as nobody knew who had actually masterminded the carnage and they had to be identified and neutralised.

The yahapalana leaders and their lackeys in the military and the police are no longer a problem because they are not in charge of national security. But the masterminds of the terror strikes are still at large. There’s the rub. The government ought to fulfil its election pledge to probe the carnage thoroughly, identify the masterminds thereof instead of trying to silence its critics politically.

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