Monday, November 08, 2010

Sri Lanka Govt trying to use military laws for suppression: IUSF

Sunday Leader Online

The Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) has alleged that the government was trying to use military laws to suppress university students.

The ISUF says the government’s move to give university marshals the authority to clamp down on university students was one such move.

Acting Convener of the IUSF, Sanjeewa Bandara told Colombo Page that the government was trying to suppress the students by making false comments that the students movements were gearing for an armed insurgency. He referred to Minister Keheliya Rambukwella’s statement last week that the IUSF was pushing the students to take up arms.

“The IUSF is not a political movement, it is a social movement that is fighting for the welfare of university students,” he said.

He added that students would only take up arms and participate in an insurgency if they want to take over state power, but instead the students were now struggling to get the authorities to address their grievances.

Bandara said 30 university students were in police custody including IUSF Convener Udul Premaratne.

The IUSF vowed to continue with its struggle to secure the release of the university students in police custody.

© Sunday Leader Online

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Monday, November 08, 2010

Sri Lanka: Resettlement, reconciliation in limbo

By Lee Yu Kyung, Mannar | Green Left Weekly

Men in uniform, mainly young soldiers holding AK 47 rifles, are seen all around northern Sri Lanka, from Mannar in north-west to Mullaitivu, the last battlefield in the north-east. In Mullaitivu, there are said to be more soldiers than civilians.

This is the situation in the largely Tamil north of the island one-and-a-half-years after the end of the Sri Lankan Army’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed by the SLA in the last months of the conflict.

Before its defeat, the LTTE had waged an armed struggle for an independent state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. Tamils have suffered systematic discrimination from the Sri Lankan state, which is dominated by the Sinhalese ethnic majority.

At the Omanthai military check point in Vavuniya district, passengers are stopped to have their ID checked. Those travelling from Vavuniya town, only four-to-five kilometres away, will have already had their ID card checked three times.

Those travelling from Jaffna — the capital of the Northern province — have their belongings searched.

“Don’t worry, [they’re] just checking”, one cheerful Tamil man told me during such a search, trying to comfort me in a bus heading for Jaffna. “Peace has come. You can go everywhere.”

However, “everywhere” is not for “everyone”. At Omanthai checkpoint, foreigners are turned back if they don’t have clearance from the defence ministry. I phoned the ministry beforehand and was told I would be allowed to travel by land. At the checkpoint, however, I was turned away for lack of a pass to show.

Foreigners are generally only able to visit to Jaffna by air. It is little wonder they do not want foreigners to travel on the heavily militarised A9 road, which stretches out through the war-ravaged north.

The road from Mannar, the capital of the Mannar district, to Vavuniya also has many military posts. In Mannar district, armed soldiers stand on street corners of alleys or in the middle of the road in small villages as well as towns.

“Go that way”, “Come this way” and “Open your bag” are the only words in Sinhalese — the language of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority — that most Tamil villagers in the area understand. Soldiers stationed in the area speak hardly any Tamil.

With communication often impossible, checkpoints were dangerous during the war. Some people were seen for the last time at a checkpoint, never to return.

“My husband was seen last at the army checkpoint in 2007”, 33-year-old Anoja (name changed) told me. “The next day, I went to the checkpoint with my neighbour, who speaks Sinhalese, to ask where my husband was.

“A soldier told us we can come inside to check. We were scared, so we left.”

Anoja showed me all sorts of papers issued by police, the Human Rights Commission and human rights groups, to all of whom she has reported her husband’s case.

Another woman from the same village has been looking for her missing brother since 2007, when he was last seen at a checkpoint. The 35-year-old woman lost her mother, elder brother and sister when all were shot dead by the Sri Lankan Army in early 1990s.

The military’s heavy presence in the north has, ironically, grown drastically after the more than three-decades-long war ended.

However, the resettlement in the north of Tamil “internally displaced persons” (IDPs), which is supposed to be a top priority in the post-war era, is developing at a snail’s pace at best. About 300,000 Tamils were held in IDP camps at the end of the war.

All aid provided to help resettlement is overseen by the “commander in charge” of the area. Aid items have to go through army checkpoints set up at the entry of each resettled area.

Severe restrictions on NGOs and aid, which have left IDP camps vulnerable to disease and short on food, have now been extended into resettlement areas.

An aid worker in Vanni told me: “We were told by the area commander not to use vehicles with our organisation’s logo. Without the logo, we could bring in aid for the people.”

In “P” village in Mannar, thousands of people began to resettle almost one year ago. But most villagers have no means to cope with the rainy season. People are living in temporary housing made of tin sheeting provided by the International Organization for Migration.

When released from IDP camps, Tamils were given 25,000 rupee (about $224) by UNHCR. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) promised to provide basic food items for six months.

A woman from the village said: “Luckily, we were provided with food by WFP until August. It was more than six months.

“Now, we have sowed seeds provided by government for cultivation. [But] until the harvest in about four months’ time, we have no food.”

Some jobs have been available for villagers, such as cleaning public places, which pay about $4.5 per day. But it is far from sustainable work.

There are no medical facilities or electricity, other than solar lanterns provided by aid agency Caritas for some families with students.

Despite shortfalls, aid and government workers in the region agreed that “P” village is one of the best resettlement cases. Villagers and NGOs complain about the vicious restrictions on aid for the desperate population, complaints supported by government workers.

Sanjive (name changed), a 32-year-old field worker, said: “Some 150 families, who were resettled in and around Periamadu area, were given nothing. But the government hasn’t given permission to NGOs [to help].

“There’s no toilets for those resettled in August, while those who were resettled in September were given only roof materials.”

In early September, Suresh Premanchandra, an MP from the Tamil National Alliance, revealed that 255 families, or 1215 people, were prevented by the commander in charge at Mullaitivu from resettling in their place of origin.

No aid has been provided for these people, who are living in a school.

Another Tamil politician, Mano Ganeshan, said: “The government wants to keep Tamils desperate for years. This is so people will only be concerned with food and shelter, and they wont think of political or social rights.

“This is what has been going on in Palestine. Palestinians have lived in refugee camps for generations.”

It is not by accident that the most solid structure in “P” village is a military camp. When asked how she felt when she first arrived back in her hometown after being displaced for years and then detained in an IDP camp, 32-year-old Buddima (name changed), whispered: “Terrified.”

After a pause, she continued: “We are not getting used to living under the army control or being surrounded by them like this. This is terrible.”

The situation for those still in the IDP camps, meanwhile, appears to be becoming more primitive now that most IDPs have been released.

Statistics compiled by UNHCR put the number of IDPs released as of August 30 at 258,846. This indicates that somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 IDPs are still detained in the camps.

The world community, appalled by the forced detention of hundreds of thousands of Tamils in barbed wire-surrounded camps, demanded the Sri Lankan government release people as quickly as possible. However, the situation for the IDPs after their release, as well as for those still in the camps, has not been closely monitored.

Those still in the camps say the conditions are inadequate. Rani (name changed), a 21-year-old woman held in the Zone 4 IDP camp, said: “[There have been] no more bowser supplies of [drinking] water since August. Electricity, which used to be available 24 hours-a-day, is now available only five hours each day.

“The army and GA [government agent, a local administrative worker] told us to move to a transit camp. But many of us rejected this because we’re afraid that the authorities will screen people again and take away youth on suspicion they are LTTE.”

Rani was allowed out of the camp for 10 days at the end of September. She said one man who returned after his allowed 10 days was severely beaten by soldiers.

She said: “I learned that he had to look after his ailing parents, who were transferred in Colombo. That’s why he returned late.”

Another IDP from Zone 4 camp, 35-year-old Sara (name changed), complained about shortages of food and other necessities. “I often eat rice and dhal only”, she said, “no vegetables or other items provided”.

Sara, who has lost all her family members and is alone in the camp, said the camp had stopped providing soap three months ago.

The accounts by Sara and Rani backed up a report in June from United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The report said: “Food commodities for IDPs donated by the USAID [United States Agency for International Development] came to an end on 31 May ... Drinking water distribution shortfalls [are] possible at the end of July.”

One-and-a-half years after one of Asia’s longest wars ended, the Sri Lankan government does not seem to be taking its claim of seeking “reconciliation” with the island’s Tamils seriously. Rather, President Mahinda Rajapakse has focused on keeping his family’s power intact, leaving root cause of the brutal conflict intact.

A constitutional reform passed on September 8 is a prime example. It removed presidential term limits and authorised the president to appoint the heads of all independent commissions.

Rohan Edrisinha, a professor of Colombo University, said the reform “was introduced without any public notice, discussion or consultation. It is very regressive on ethnic issues as well.”

Having been the scene of brutal ethnic cleansing against the Tamil minority, the island is now being transformed into the Rajapakse family’s personal kingdom. There is no guarantee that, with the regime seeking to strengthen its grip on power and the ongoing mistreatment of Tamils, the ever present guns will remain silent.

© Green Left Weekly

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Monday, November 08, 2010

Is the removal of checkpoints in Colombo enough?

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene | The Sunday Times

Recently I listened in disbelief to a professional of Tamil ethnicity telling me that when people travel from Jaffna or Mullaitivu (etc) to Colombo, they avoid the out-of-town travellers like the plague. As the teller was an old friend of more than twenty years standing, I was able to remonstrate with her and ask her why this was the case. Her response was, ‘It is far too dangerous to be seen associating with them. They have all been living in the war torn areas and, of necessity, had to deal with the LTTE. Their phones are tapped, they are monitored by the army and police and if they even call us for some ordinary request, we will also be implicated. It is far better to keep out of contact entirely.’

Is this a classical example of the washing of hands by Pilate, a callous betrayal of one’s own? But can we indeed find fault with such sentiments when the prevalent environment permits, nay encourages such a differentiation, even between a minority by itself? What would an ordinary person do in these circumstances? Remember the mid nineties, at the dying of the second insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, when people in Sinhalese villages drew fastidiously away from even a minimal association with those whom they coyly referred to as the former troublemakers? These are similar situations, evoking similar emotions, never mind the majority-minority differentiations.

Is arbitrariness under law no longer possible?

So when we are informed, (to the manifold delight of many undoubtedly), of the removal of checkpoints in Colombo, it is best to hold back our cheers and to keep this in context. More than this removal of checkpoints, what is worth interrogating is the stance of the government and its counsel that much of emergency law in Sri Lanka has also been removed in the post war period. By implication therefore, we are asked to believe that arbitrariness under law is no longer possible and that Sri Lankans of the majority and the minority communities have nothing very much to worry about. But is this assertion actually correct? Have we brought about a situation where reconciliation is actually possible and where individuals of the same minority community need not avoid each other due to fear of being tainted? Irrespective of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commissions and our most optimal expectations from their sittings, where is the law in all this? Let us examine the actual factual situation.

No actual change in the emergency regime

The legal position is unequivocally clear. The Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions and Powers) Regulation No 1 of 2005 (Gazette No 1405/14) brought into effect by the Public Security Ordinance No 24 of 1947 (as amended) was further amended on May 2 2010 by Gazette No 1651/24, rolling back emergency regulations in certain respects.

While this column will not dwell on each and every aspect of these changes, so far as personal liberty rights are concerned, the obnoxious preventive detention clause whereby a person may be detained on the mere suspicion of the defence authorities that he or she is a threat to national security has been retained but the period in which a person may be so detained has been lessened from one year to three months. Such a person who is arrested must be brought before a magistrate within thirty days and the magistrate must be informed of such arrest within seventy two hours. It is also much touted by the government that the even more obnoxious clause permitting the legal admissibility of confessions to police officers above the rank of an Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) has been removed.

But what is most conveniently forgotten in this enthusiastic defence is that even though emergency regulations have been rolled back to some extent, the emergency regime continues in full force under the Prevention of Terrorism Act No 48 of 1979 (as amended) (PTA). The PTA is as problematic as emergency regulations and perhaps even more so. For example, preventive detention orders under the PTA made by the Defence Secretary may be up to a period of eighteen months and magistrates are required to merely routinely approve the extensions given without actually scrutinizing the factual context to see if circumstances justify continued detention of the suspect.

Confessions under emergency law

Again, the PTA continues, most robustly, to allow confessions made to senior police officers (thus making the withdrawal of the parallel provision in the emergency regulations of mere academic interest) and puts the burden of proving that they were not voluntarily made on the accused. This is effectively a burden impossible to prove in many instances. In a vast majority of cases that come before the High Courts, the only evidence against an accused is a confession but it becomes virtually impossible to prove that they have been induced by the law enforcement officers in whose custody the accused has been kept. In some cases, the fact that the accused had not complained of torture at the earliest point that he or she was brought before a magistrate is taken as indication that ill treatment had not taken place.

However, to expect a suspect to freely confess to torture by his or her custodial officers to whose custody, the suspect will be returned after the court hearing is to be optimistic in the extreme. In other cases, problems with language and understanding may be at the core of an alleged confession. Rizana Nafeek awaiting execution in a Saudi Arabian jail would understand this far too well. Her conviction was primarily secured on the basis of a confession which she later retracted from saying that she had not understood what was said to her and that she had been coerced. Our sympathy for this unfortunate girl is freely given and efforts to secure some redress on her behalf by many both in this country and outside are untiring, whether by prayers or by intervention with the Saudi Arabian authorities. Why should we not extend this same sympathy to a Tamil man or woman languishing in a rat infested Sri Lankan cell?

Another defence justifying the admissibility of confessions is that the case will anyway be looked into by court which would be quick to spot coerced confessions. Such faith in judicial infallibility is however quite misplaced. In one particular instance in 2002 for example, we had the Supreme Court ruling out a confession which had been judged to have been perfectly proper by the Court of Appeal (Theivandran’s Case SC Appeal No 65/2000, SCM 16.10.2002). In this case, the Supreme Court Bench included Sri Lanka’s most formidable judicial minds but the outcome may well have been different before a different Bench.

Marking a different road for this country

While being aware of the need to deal strongly with the remnants of the LTTE, has the government made a strong enough case as to why the ordinary penal law is not sufficient for this purpose? We are, after all, not in a situation of active conflict. By continuing with this regime of emergency law and relaxing only some parts for largely cosmetic effect, the government stands accused of not being genuine in its protestations that the post war period is a time for reconciliation and of using emergency law to perpetuate its stranglehold on power. Importantly, this also alienates a segment of Sri Lanka’s population who ought to be recognized as part of this country’s people regardless of whatever travails that they may have been subjected to, during the conflict.

It is only on the day that we hear of emergency law being lifted, and not only in bits and pieces that it will indicate that we are on a different road to a different future for this country.

© The Sunday Times

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Monday, November 08, 2010

More than 50 injured in Sri Lanka prison clash

Agence France-Presse

More than 50 police and prison officials were injured Sunday by inmates at Sri Lanka's main jail in the capital Colombo after authorities launched a drugs raid, officials and doctors said.

Convicts beat up police as they stormed the Welikada prison to search for hidden narcotics as part of a nationwide crackdown on illegal drugs, police said.

Five prison officials and 46 policemen were brought for treatment at Colombo National Hospital, hospital director Hector Weerasinghe said.

"We were told that they were beaten up by prisoners when they tried to carry out a search," Weerasinghe said.

"Most of them have head and chest injuries."

Police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said there were no casualties among the convicts.

"Convicts in one of the Welikada prison wards launched the attack with sticks and stones," Jayakody said, adding that the police Criminal Investigations Department had been asked to probe the unrest.

Prisons deputy minister Vijithamuni Soysa said police had obtained a search warrant from a magistrate before entering the prison and similar search operations had been carried out in other prisons too, but without incident.

The clashes at the Colombo prison came as the police announced the results of an anti-narcotics drive that led to the arrest of over 11,500 suspects and the seizure of large quantities of heroin and cannabis.

Overall, the raids, which started three weeks ago, have resulted in over 3,000 court cases, while many more will be filed soon, Jayakody said.

"Within a three-week period we have arrested 11,639 suspects in connection with drug-related offences," Jayakody said, adding that all 425 police stations in the country carried out simultaneous raids.

It was the country's biggest single concerted drive to crack down on illegal drugs, and millions of rupees' worth of narcotics have been seized, he added.

In February, police seized heroin worth 780,000 dollars in a major blow to smugglers who are believed to use the island as a trafficking route from India.


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