25 May, 2022

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Geneva Toils & Tamashas: Serial Indictments & Tamil Politics In Letters

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that began on August 13, is already remarkable for two new developments. The first is the enabling of the UN High Commissioner to update in real time the charge sheet against the Sri Lankan government. This is not due to any arrogation of powers on the part of the High Commissioner, but is entirely the result of the government forever piling on its past follies with new ones. The indictments in Geneva are becoming serial only because the government’s misdoings in law and order are already serial.

The second development is more hilarious than serious, and it is about competing letters that are reported to have been sent to the High Commissioner by Tamil political personas. News about the letter writing tamasha was restricted to the Tamil media, until DBS Jeyaraj brought it out to laugh out loud in the open. It is difficult to project the future trajectory of the new letter writing politics, but there are plenty of political tamashas from the past that will fit the present episode into a familiar pre-war pattern.     

High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s opening statement on Sri Lanka has more references to the current goings-on than any past occurrences. Early on, in her third paragraph, Dr. Bachelet alludes to the “corrosive impact that militarization and the lack of accountability continue to have on fundamental rights, civic space, democratic institutions, social cohesion and sustainable development.” In the very next, fourth paragraph, she takes on the “new state of emergency” and expresses concern that “emergency regulations are very broad and may further expand the role of the military in civilian functions.” Then the sting, “the Office will be closely monitoring their application.” 

There you have it. The monitoring of the application of Emergency Regulations is now on the UNHRC radar. It is not that UNHRC is going to crash the sky down on the Rajapaksa presidency, but so long as the Sri Lankan file remains open in Geneva the list of charges and indictments against the Rajapaksa government will keep growing. The Commissioner’s statement lists all the recent transgressions of the government in addition to declaring Emergency Rule.

The highlights include excessive force on peaceful protesters, and their arrests and detention in quarantine centres; continuing deaths in police custody besides torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials; the suspension of the case against former Navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda for the enforced disappearances of 11 men in 2008 and 2009; and the Presidential pardon of Duminda Silva, who was convicted for murder.

The unenviable task of defending the indefensible fell to the new Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Prof. GL Peiris (PGLP), who has returned to his old portfolio after a ragged stint as Minister of Education. He had little to say about the current goings-on and not too much to say about the positive achievements of the government. He of course rejected the suggestion of any “external mechanism to investigate issues in Sri Lanka.”

There may never come a time when an external mechanism gets established in Sri Lanka. But talking about it will never end until Sri Lanka has a government that finds the will and resources to put its own house of disorder into order. If there has been any lingering illusion that the present government may yet rise up to this task, that was blown away, yet again, by the thuggish antics of State Minister Lohan Ratwatte in the Anuradhapura Prisons.

Apparently, he held the portfolio for Prison Reforms and Prisoners Rehabilitation, and Gem and Jewellery Industries – a very ‘methodical’ (the term President GR has used to explain the logic behind his cabinet assignments) combination of duties. After the Anuradhapura fiasco, Mr. Ratwatte remains State Minister of Gem and Jewelry Related Industries, minus Prison Reforms and Prisoners Rehabilitation. He half-resigned after Anuradhapura and the President accepted the half-resignation without fully firing him. Talk about domestic mechanisms!   

Mastermind and the Scapegoat

Not surprisingly, the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings have also become a permanent item of concern for the UNHRC. The Commissioner expressed solidarity with the victims and religious leaders and their cry for truth, justice, and full accounting for the tragedy. She also expressed the Commission’s deep concern about the prolonged detention without trial of Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah (now over 16 months) under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Similarly, Ahnaf Jazeem, a teacher and poet, has been detained, also without trial since May 2020. 

The case of Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah has been on UNHRC’s radar for some time. And the Sri Lankan government took note of it and referred to it during a media briefing in Colombo, on September 10, by Defence Secretary, General Kamal Gunaratne. The briefing became a headlined story and General Gunaratne reportedly appeared at the briefing “flanked by Navy Chief VA Nishantha Ulugetenne and IGP C.D. Wickramaratne.” The principal purpose of the meeting was to ‘decry’ alleged efforts by interested parties to implicate the President in the Easter bombings.

Towards the end of the briefing, General Gunaratne brought up the arrest of Lawyer Hizbullah and the fact that “the Lawyer’s arrest had been raised at the highest level at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.” He went on to assert that “in spite of representations made to the UNHRC on behalf of the lawyer, they had irrefutable evidence regarding the detainee’s involvement in Easter carnage.” The question is if there is even plausible, let alone irrefutable, evidence why could not Mr. Hizbullah be put on trial?

Those who follow this matter in Sri Lanka and quite passionately outside Sri Lanka say that there is not even a shred of evidence against Mr. Hizbullah. And government lawyers in the Attorney General’s Department have lately gone quiet on the matter. Earlier one of them even described Mr. Hizbullah as a behind-the-scenes terrorist operator during a court hearing. If government lawyers could be so unkindly indifferent to the plight of one of their colleagues and a lawyer of some repute, what fairness could others expect from their system of justice.      

To be clear, the reason why Defence Secretary General Gunaratne brought up the arrest of Hizbullah at the media briefing likely has nothing to do with prosecuting the long detained lawyer. It also may not have been intended as a rebuke to the UNHRC. A plausible, not necessarily irrefutable, reason could be that he wanted to prop up the detained lawyer as a scapegoat for Easter bombings to divert attention from the gossipy search for the ‘real’ mastermind behind it.

The attempted diversion would seem to have backfired. You cannot scapegoat Lawyer Hizbullah any worse than he has been hurt so far. But the tag of mastermind may have escaped the gossipy underworld and got stuck in the respectable public domain. To be fair, General Gunaratne did not use the term ‘mastermind’; other Rajapaksa supporters did, but only to ‘decry’, just as the General did, the mastermind allegation that was mostly social media gossip. Not anymore. And no one can ask for proof of any kind, since the government itself is not interested in proving or disproving anything about the Easter bombings. But for His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.

How far the Cardinal will go in his search for truth and accountability for the Easter carnage is not a matter for mortal minds. He seems to have indicated that he is prepared to go to