By Uditha Devapriya –
At around 4 p.m. on April 14, a day after the New Year dawned, Hejaaz Hizbullah received a call from a man identifying himself as an official from the Ministry of Health. It had been a month since the government had imposed an island-wide lockdown due to the pandemic, and there was a palpable sense of fear, anxiety, and dread everywhere.
The man on the other side asked him whether he had withdrawn cash from a certain ATM. Apparently he had. Stay home until our fellows show up, he instructed him. He duly obliged, and stayed put with his wife and mother-in-law.
But the call had not been from the Health Ministry. Nor were the five people (four men and a woman) who showed up at his place an hour later. Hejaaz found himself handcuffed and asked to sit on a sofa. Having rummaged through his property, including his law chambers, and having dialled some numbers on his telephone, they removed his handcuffs. After they were removed, he was told to be present at the CID the next day.
Then someone called one of the officials. He informed Hejaaz and his wife to accompany them immediately. Along the way they picked up one of his juniors. At the fourth floor of the CID, he was questioned for half an hour. Once the interrogation was over, his junior was informed that he had been arrested and detained. No reasons were given.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), used widely, and one could say legitimately, during the war, gives authorities the power to detain suspects for up to 18 months without charge or having to present them at a court of law. The detention orders must be renewed every 90 days. Having been renewed in July, the order for Hejaaz expired on October 17. According to his lawyers, no evidence has been presented so far to explain why it should be renewed a second time. They claim he is being persecuted. They argue he has become a scapegoat for the sins and crimes of others. They say evidence has been and is being fabricated, including the testimony of “key witnesses.” They believe he is innocent.
One cannot blame the government for taking defence and security seriously. The previous government, as it clearly showed, didn’t take them seriously. The Easter attacks brought to the fore a face of international terrorism we never thought we’d see here. At the same time, it brought to the fore officials, ministers, and deputies whose gross mishandling of the issue should have automatically removed them from power. Piers Morgan, reflecting on the then Prime Minister, had this to tweet about him: “Why does [he] keep smirking about the terror attacks?” Asanga Welikala, no friend of that regime’s opponents, re-tweeted: “The world is noticing. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the world’s worst communicator.”
And yet, they did not resign. The anger of the people grew. That anger translated itself to a forever swelling bubble of support for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to his credit the only person among the presidential candidates who had a record of eliminating terrorism. His opponent from the UNP, representing that party’s petty bourgeois base, was no match for him. While he spoke loftily on the need to beef up security, those invited to speak at his rallies adopted completely opposite positions. It seemed as though Sajith Premadasa was running, but Ranil Wickremesinghe was contesting. Given this, it was inevitable that the Bonapartists of the UNP would concede defeat to the Bonapartists of the SLPP at the polls.
But the anger of the people – Catholics and Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, even Muslims across the country – could not find a way out with the return of the Rajapaksas. The usual way about it was the setting up of a Presidential Commission. The previous government had instituted it, and witnesses had been called almost every day.
The villains of the piece quickly emerged there: the IGP, the Defence Secretary, the State Minister of Defence, and the Minister of Defence. The latter, of course, happened to be the President. He hadn’t, he informed the Commissioners, been getting along with the Prime Minister. For his part the Prime Minister hadn’t been getting along with him either. The one, it turned out, had excluded the other from crucial intelligence meetings.
In other words, a government elected by the civil society intelligentsia, those whom my friend Hafeel Farisz – one of the legal representatives of the subject of this piece – once called “coffee shop liberals”, had treated security in much the same way badminton players treat their birdie: the Prime Minister threw it to the President, the President threw it back to the Prime Minister. No wonder people had got so furious.
Probably a third or so of those who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man with a record, were voting as much against the incumbent as they had against the incumbent four years earlier. With his victory, supporters and opponents alike thought his government would up the ante in the probe into the attacks. Many of them welcomed his appointment of military officials, believing, as I did and still do, that it was a pragmatic response to the lackadaisical attitude of their predecessors to security issues and concerns.
Jean-Louis Bruguière, the charismatic leading counterterrorism judge in France, gave a simple piece of advice at the height of Islamist attacks in Western suburbs: “Make sweeping arrests.” The government, this one and the one before it, did not excessively indulge in sweeping arrests. There were two exceptions. The first, under the yahapalanists, was Shafi Shihabdeen; the second, under their successors, was Hejaaz Hizbullah.
Hejaaz’s arrest hence represents the crest of a wave of anger towards those believed to have been complicit in the attacks. It symbolises the apogee of the present regime’s position on defence. It brings back that old debate about the proportionate use of anti-terror legislation. And of course, it aids and abets those among the public, and those operating the court of public opinion, desperately on the lookout for a scapegoat.
I sincerely wish it didn’t have to be this way. As I pointed out in my earlier piece on Hejaaz, however, his case is more a symptom than a consequence of an upsurge in security. From 1971 to 2009, the Sri Lankan government, as Shiran Illanperuma observed in an article on the Counter-Terrorism Act (proposed, though not enacted, as a replacement for the PTA by the last regime), faced “existential threats in the form of armed militants in both the north and south.” Those who bombed the churches last year were neither armed militants nor from the north and south. They represented a different breed of terrorism altogether, and the PTA, revived and reactivated, is in full throttle to keep them at bay.
And yet somehow, somewhere, I believe someone has been accused for something he didn’t do. Though I don’t have the proof, I believe I might not be wrong. I believe, also, that the people responsible for what happened last year, people still roaming on the streets, still smirking smugly at the Presidential Commission, should be the ones charged, detained, and made responsible for their inactions. The demonization of scapegoats, by contrast, achieves very little. It is time we realised this. It is time we woke up.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org