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Sri Lanka Perspectives: July 2018; By Col R Hariharan

Image courtesy: Trip Advisor

Article No. 051/2018

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, August 2018 |

PTA and culture of impunity

Colombo High Court acquitted on May 26, 2017, Iyer Sriskandarajah, a Hindu priest, charged with aiding and abetting the suicide bomb attack on former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a Colombo suburb on December 1, 2006, that left three dead including the suicide bomber. The court verdict came after it found the confession by Iyer was not made voluntarily and the state counsel was unable to submit any other evidence. But the acquittal came after the priest had spent nearly 13 years in remand custody. An aside to the suicide bombing case was the allegation of former SriLanka army chief Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka made in parliament on May 2016 that it was an “inside job” to win sympathy for the then-ruling family (Rajapaksas).

The callousness with which the case under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was handled is neither unique nor uncommon. According to the statistics on PTA arrests provided by the Office of the Attorney General to the UN Special Rapporteur on Countering Terrorism Ben Emmerson, “out of 81 prisoners at the time of judicial phase of their pretrial detention, 70 had been in detention without trial for five years and 11 had been in detention without trial for over ten years.”

The UN Special Rapporteur in his report to the UN Human Rights Council, after a recent visit to Sri Lanka, has also focused on PTA pre-trial detainees languishing in prison for years without being tried for an offence. Highlighting the continuing “culture of impunity” in the country’s justice system, Emmerson has given the serious apprehensions of the senior-most judge responsible for terrorism cases. The judge said that in over 90 percent of the cases so far in 2017, he was forced to exclude essential evidence because they had been obtained through the use or threat of violence.  Emmerson’s report noted that 80 percent of those arrested under the PTA in late 2016 complained of torture and physical ill-treatment.

The report only confirms that though the Maithripala Sirisena government came to power promising Yahapalana (good governance), it had not been able to tame the draconian PTA which continues to be in force, with the proposed Counter-Terrorism Act (CTA) still limping in draft stage. Similarly, remand prisoners languishing without trial shows that it is a continuing historical aberration that reflects the abysmal level of rule of law and subversion of justice system.

If you can’t win them, buy them

Even before the heat died down after the New York Times report on June 25, 2018, about China’s financial support to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign during 2015 presidential election, Chinese have announced “gift” of $295 million (SL Rs 48 billion) to Sri Lanka for spending on a project of its choosing. President Sirisena said the money would be spent on a countrywide housing programme for building houses in all administrative districts at a cost of SL Rs one million per house. It is significant that the Chinese grant has been made when Sri Lanka is poised to hold provincial council elections. Clearly, this grant would appear to be part of China’s strategy – ‘if you can’t win them buy them.’ Work on the construction of another ‘gift’ from China – the 200-bed National Nephrology Hospital – in Polonnaruwa has also started.

Equally significant was the announcement of China gifting a frigate to Sri Lanka Navy. Already, PLA has been offering training courses to Sri Lanka military. It is also completing an auditorium at the Kotelawala Defence Academy.

On the other hand, it was evident that Sri Lanka government was trying to balance its relations with India also. A proposal to develop the loss-making Mattala international airport as a joint venture with Airports Authority of India (AAI) is underway. Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva said 70 percent stake of the joint stock company to be formed for the operation of the airport would go to AAI and 30 percent to the Sri Lanka government. Speaking in parliament, the minister promised to present the draft agreement with AAI before signing it.

The preconditions for the partnership included AAI agreeing with the Government chief valuer’s estimation for 70 percent ownership and use of the airport only for commercial purposes and not for any military use. Only locals and not foreigners can be involved in air navigation work. The airport security must be handled by the air force and airport staff.

In the context of the growing international competition for influence in Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s speech at the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute on July 13 is significant. He said the Indian Ocean was in danger of becoming a major centre of tension again. “China its strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean has sought means of reducing it.” Different projects have come as the result of China challenging the US in the Pacific; the US does not want to see a Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean.

He added that India, the strongest power among the littoral nations, would not welcome a change in status quo. And Japan is committed to free maritime movement in the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific.  He said that if a power struggle broke out in the Indian Ocean, it could adversely affect Sri Lanka’s objective of becoming the hub of the Indian Ocean. “A destabilized Indian Ocean is averse to our economic interest. Stability and growth in the Indian Ocean will further our own national growth.” He said Sri Lanka has to charter a course for itself, as the littoral states ran the risk of becoming spectators with no control.

He also referred to the Hambantota harbour and said “the Southern command itself is shifting from Galle to Hambantota. We have asked the Navy to have more emphasis on anti-submarine warfare, within our capability. We are increasing the number of offshore patrol vessels.” He assured “we will ensure that we can maintain the security of the Hambantota harbour.” He said the immediate objective was to arrive a consensus among all stakeholders including all the littoral states, on the manner of upholding the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Appealing to all parties to agree on the principles, he said “all we are seeking to do is to get everyone to talk of the possibilities of how we move forward.” The PM’s policy speech on the Indian Ocean clearly indicates Sri Lanka’s growing concerns at the country becoming the focus of Indian Ocean rivalry among big powers.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, South Asia Analysis Group and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute, Chennai. E-mail:  Blog: )

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