Editorial/Opinion

Politics apart; uniting for a cause

 

  • President appoints task force headed by Basil
  • Prime Minister holds all-party leaders conference
  • Presidential pardon for convict of Mirusuvil murders

Black Box by Capt. Vasabha

The continuous calls by many opposition political parties on the Government to convene an all-party meeting to discuss the global Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on Sri Lanka were finally answered by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last week by holding an all-party meeting to discuss the way forward.

Rajapaksa has convened the meeting with party leaders at Temple Trees on Tuesday (24).

With Parliament dissolved and the general election postponed indefinitely, the all-party meeting was the only opportunity to unify the divided political structure of the country.

The call for an all-party meeting was first made by former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, even before nominations for general elections ended on 19 March.

When Jayasuriya made representations to the Prime Minister, the response was that an all-party leaders meeting could only be convened after nominations.

True to his word, soon after nominations concluded, Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa announced an all-party leaders’ meeting the following week.

By then, United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Leader Sajith Premadasa had also emphasised the need for an all-party conference in order to take a united stand against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wickremesinghe, issuing a statement to the media, had called for a national-level discussion between key government leaders, political party leaders, health experts, and religious leaders to discuss and devise a national plan to face the crisis brought on by Covid-19.

“We urge the Government to call for a national-level conference of key government leaders, all political party leaders, health experts, and religious leaders to discuss and devise a national plan to face the crisis brought on by the Covid-19 and to appoint a joint committee to face the issue,” Wickremesinghe had said in the statement.

He had further noted that several countries like the US and UK had already formed a co-ordination committee to deal with the issue.

Premadasa, while urging a dialogue, had called on the Government to carry out relief programmes to assist those in need, especially the individuals dependant on a daily wage as well as religious institutions.

“Buddhist monks who traditionally depend on alms could be affected by the spread of Covid-19 as people cannot provide dhana to them amidst curfew. One has to think of other religious leaders as well and see that some mechanism is in force to assist them,” Premadasa had said.

All-party meeting

The all-party meeting was finally held last Tuesday morning and leaders of all the political parties represented in Parliament attended the meeting.

Former President Maithripala Sirisena was also among the party leaders who attended the meeting.

While discussing the measures taken so far and the future course of action to combat the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on Sri Lanka, several opposition party leaders proposed the convening of Parliament to ensure the better co-ordination of the Government’s mechanism.

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran, referring to this issue, stated thus in a tweet last week, after the party leaders’ meeting: “Reconvening #Parliament was raised at the party leaders’ meeting by @Rauff_Hakeem (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader) and myself. It is not necessary to meet physically in one place but it is important to have an active Parliament so that feedback from the people is received and for better accountability.”

However, the Government is yet to respond to such a request.

After holding the all-party meeting, Prime Minister Rajapaksa tweeted, saying: “I emphasised the need of working together to successfully battle #COVID19. All present were in agreement and pledged full support. #TogetherWeCan #COVID19SL.”

However, it is evident that the President and Government are not supportive of convening Parliament since it would call for the withdrawal of the Gazette issued last month announcing the dissolution of Parliament. It would thereby cancel the holding of an early general election and could result in the eighth Parliament running its full term.

Call for new legislation

Meanwhile, UNP Leader Wickremesinghe had urged the Government to introduce any new legislation that is required to act against the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The UNP will support any legislation that will be introduced by the Government to curb the Covid-19 pandemic,” Wickremesinghe had said.

He had reportedly suggested that the private sector should be allowed to import the necessary goods needed for testing, including special clothing, etc.

He further noted that the Government should follow the methodologies adopted by other countries to curb the spread of the disease.

Issuing a statement to the media, Wickremesinghe had noted there were warnings that Covid-19 would peak from 4-11 April and therefore, it was important to have a common plan, which the public and private stakeholders in the health sector could follow.

“I urge the Government to have discussions among all stakeholders in the health sector; produce or import ventilators, masks. It must also ensure that there are sufficient beds in hospitals, initiate a private/public supply chain to supply essential goods, use even ordinary three-wheelers other than taxi service companies, and introduce special laws as done by many other countries worldwide,” Wickremesinghe had said in a statement.

Task force

President Rajapaksa meanwhile, last week, announced the formation of a presidential task force to ensure that the general public is provided with the required essentials during the next few weeks with the country undergoing a lockdown.

The Presidential Secretariat last week issued a gazette notification announcing the appointment of the Presidential Task Force under former Nation Building Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

According to the Gazette signed by President’s Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, 40 members will comprise what will be called the Presidential Task Force to Co-ordinate and Monitor the Delivery of Continuous Services for the Sustenance of Overall Community Life.

Additional Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office Anton Perera has been appointed as the Secretary of the Task Force.

The special unit had been tasked with co-ordinating with the relevant authorities to facilitate the import of essential foods and drugs as well as the export of goods such as tea and sanitary clothing.

Furthermore, the Task Force had been vested with the responsibility to organise and operate Lanka Sathosa, co-operative networks, Cargills, Keells, Arpico, and Laughs retail networks to supply agricultural products directly to customers.

The Gazette also stated that the Presidential Task Force should take steps to focus special attention on women, low-income families, and persons directly at risk, when undertaking the above measures.

Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa had also appointed (Rtd.) Maj. Gen. Sumedha Perera as Co-Chairman of the Task Force for Poverty Eradication and Livelihood Development.

(Rtd.) Maj. Gen. Perera will administer functions related to the agriculture sector.

The letter sent by Dr. Jayasundera to the Retired Major General stated: “I am pleased to inform you that His Excellency the President has appointed you as a member and the Co-Chairman of the Task Force for Poverty Eradication and Livelihood Development. You are expected to administer the functions with regard to the agriculture sector.”

Presidential pardon

Be that as it may, fighting the Covid-19 pandemic was not the only key state action that was witnessed last week.

A poignant moment was witnessed with the announcement of a presidential pardon granted to former Army Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake last Thursday (26).

Ratnayake was found guilty for the murder of eight civilians in Mirusuvil in Jaffna, also known as the “Mirusuvil massacre” of 20 December 2000, and was sentenced to death on 25 June 2015.

The death sentence was delivered by the Colombo High Court following a trial that had dragged for 13 years.

Evidence submitted to court stated that the eight civilians including a five-year-old boy who were allegedly killed by a group of Army soldiers and buried in a mass grave had their throats slashed.

The murders were reportedly revealed at the time since one of the arrested by the Army, Ponnuthurai Maheswaran, had allegedly escaped from their custody sustaining serious injuries and had informed his relatives.

Eventually, the Government at the time had charged five army soldiers over the allegations of illegal arrests, torture, murder, and burial of the dead bodies in a mass grave.

Ratnayake was sentenced in 2015 for the murders and the conviction was confirmed by the Supreme Court in May 2019.

However, the presidential pardon granted to Ratnayake last week gathered condemnation from the international community despite the struggle to battle the Covid-19 pandemic.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in a press statement condemned the pardon.

“We are troubled by reports that the convicted perpetrator of the Mirusuvil massacre in Sri Lanka has received a presidential pardon and was released from jail this week,” Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert Colville stated.

The UNHRC had noted that the presidential pardon was an affront to victims and yet another example of the failure of Sri Lanka to fulfil its international human rights obligations to provide meaningful accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other gross violations of human rights.

“Victims of such violations and crimes have the right to a remedy. This includes equal and effective access to justice and reparation, and that perpetrators serve a punishment that is proportionate to the seriousness of their conduct.

“Pardoning one of the sole convicted perpetrators of atrocities committed during the Sri Lankan conflict further undermines the limited progress the country has made towards ending impunity for mass human rights abuse,” the UNHRC has stated.

Amnesty International (AI) was one of the first international organisations to issue a statement condemning Ratnayake’s pardoning.

AI, issuing a press statement, noted: “Where accountability is so rare for serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka, the Government’s arbitrary decision to release Sergeant (Sgt.) Ratnayake sends an extremely worrying message. It means that military perpetrators of horrific crimes, even if convicted through a court of law, will be pardoned and released.”

AI’s Regional Director for South Asia Biraj Patnaik had said the pardon came at a time when there were public calls to ease prison crowding by releasing prisoners held for, amongst others, petty crimes and those who were unable to meet bail conditions, to avoid the spread of Covid-19.

AI had also expressed concern over any further decisions along the same lines as pledged by President Rajapaksa during his election campaign.

“Sri Lanka is a party to the International Covenant on Civil (and) Political Rights (ICCPR) and has an obligation to ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms have been violated have an effective remedy (Article 2).

“Using the pandemic as an opportunity to release those convicted for heinous crimes is reprehensible. Victims have a right to justice, and Sri Lanka has an obligation to ensure that justice is done. After many long years, the victims of the Mirusuvil massacre from 2000 finally got a semblance of justice in 2015. It is despicable to have that justice reversed through an arbitrary executive decision,” Patnaik had said.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch (HRW) had noted that the pardoning of a murderer of eight civilians, including children, shows the administration’s disregard for justice for the worst abuses.

“The conviction of former Sgt. Sunil Ratnayake had been one of the very few cases of security force personnel being criminally punished for civil war-era atrocities, despite the huge number of credible and extremely serious allegations,” HRW had stated.

“The Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government couldn’t make it any plainer to victims and their families that it opposes any form of justice for even the worst atrocities,” said HRW South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly. “Concerned governments need to take the Government’s own message on board and respond appropriately to uphold basic human rights protections and prohibitions on war crimes.”

HRW had also noted that President Rajapaksa had assumed office as President in 2019, promising to release “war heroes” who had been imprisoned on “false” charges.

According to HRW, since taking office, President Rajapaksa appointed Army Chief Shavendra Silva, who faces credible allegations of war crimes, as his Chief of Defence Staff. In February, Silva was banned from entering the US due to the allegations against him. President Rajapaksa had also appointed (Ret.) Maj. General Kamal Gunaratne, who is implicated in alleged war crimes committed by the Army’s 53 Division, which he commanded as Defence Secretary. Gunaratne is currently leading the Government’s task force to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

In February, the Sri Lankan Government withdrew from its commitments under a UN Human Rights Council resolution that included provisions for justice for abuses committed by both sides during the civil war. That Resolution, which was passed by consensus in 2015 and reaffirmed as recently as 2019, represented the commitment of UN member states and their strategy for upholding international human rights and humanitarian law for civil war-era violations.

“The Rajapaksa Government has appointed alleged perpetrators of war crimes to high office while pardoning one of the few soldiers convicted for a terrible offence,” Ganguly had stated. “It should be clear that to deliver justice for victims and to deter future atrocities, an international justice mechanism is needed in Sri Lanka.”