UNHRC sessions in the offing
Stalemate over ECT to be resolved
Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court found Ranjan Ramanayake guilty of contempt of court for making defamatory remarks about lawyers and the judiciary in Sri Lanka and sentenced him to four years Rigorous Imprisonment. Ramanayake is alleged to have made the remarks to the media back in August 2017 outside Temple Trees. He had just finished a meeting with his political peers about ousting then justice minister Wijedasa Rajapakse. His voice cuts were followed up with two petitions to the Supreme Court. The petitioners were Sunil Perera, a retired air force officer and the Ven Magalkande Sudatta, who ironically objected to the Supreme Court determination on Duminda Silva. Their petitions were identical, down to the English spelling errors.
A multitude of eyebrows across a spectrum of the population mostly in Sri Lanka but also abroad have been raised about the perceived disproportionate sentence in the case. Especially since it was only a day later that the High Court in Batticaloa dismissed the case against Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan on a point of law. Pillayan was accused of the murder of former parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham on Christmas eve of 2005 at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Batticaloa. He was Deputy to Karuna Amman, who used to be the eastern commander of the LTTE. Karuna’s defection from the LTTE during the premiership of Ranil Wickremesinghe was largely considered a death blow not only to the eastern command of the LTTE but it was also seen as the beginning of the end of the group. It is a well-known fact that then Deputy Minister Ali Zyed Moulana was instrumental in engineering the defection when Moulana learnt that disagreements were brewing between LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and Karuna Amman on several matters including the finances of the LTTE. Karuna Amman along with Pillayan formed the TMVP after they gave up arms and embraced democratic politics. Karuna Amman joined the government headed by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa but was later jailed in the United Kingdom over a passport issue. There were differences between Karuna and Pillayan too. Pillayan was able to oust Karuna and take over the reins of the TMVP. Following the 2008 provincial council elections, Pillayan who polled a considerable number of eastern votes was appointed Chief Minster. Throughout and to date, he remains a Rajapaksa loyalist. In this case against Pillayan the Court held that a confession to a Magistrate by a co- accused in the case, Pradeep Master, was inadmissible.
In contrast Ramanayake is a flamboyant man. A local Robinhood who is vocal about his crusade against corruption in Sri Lanka, his political persona has superseded his screen persona. He started acting in movies because he wanted a platform to raise awareness about corruption in the country and to address it. It was also his motivation to get elected to parliament. Corruption was also the thrust of Ranjangate, a series of leaked tapes of conversations between Ramanayake, the judiciary and senior government officials. This is what makes Ramanayake what he is. In his evidence in the contempt matter, he spoke about his anti -corruption drive and the three Supreme Court Judges who presided over the proceedings, Justices, Sisira de Abrew, Vijith Malagoda and Preethi Padman Surasena included it in their unanimous judgement. Preceding the Ramanayake case were the two other significant cases with political connotations that of SB Dissanayake and the Ven. Galada Athethe Gnanasara where the sentences too were deemed stringent. Ven Gnanasara thero was sentenced to six years while Dissanayake was jailed for two years, however both these political icons were recipients of Presidential pardons respectively.
Closer to home in India, writer Arundhati Roy was found guilty of contempt of court. Because of her public presence, the Indian Supreme Court sentenced her symbolically, to one day in prison. In the case of lawyer -activist Prashant Bhushan, also found guilty of contempt of court by India’s Supreme Court, the judgment ran into a near 100 pages and Bhushan was told to pay a fine of one rupee.
What next for Ramanayake? His legal team can, and is likely to, ask for a review of the Supreme Court decision. For this, the same Supreme Court bench which heard his trial will have to refer the matter to a fuller bench. His political party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, which has already pledged to continue to back him, will review what the judgement entails for his parliamentary seat. According to the Sri Lankan Constitution a MP who is convicted of an offence for which the sentence is more than two years and serves more than six months in prison, is disqualified from retaining his seat in parliament. Whether his sentence will make him a hero or a villain only time will tell. Walking away from the Supreme Court after hearing his judgment to the police bus that was waiting to take him to the Pallansena correctional centre for juvenile offenders to serve his period of quarantine, a defiant Ramanayake who refused to be silenced said the fight against corruption should continue. There have been outpourings of solidarity with Ramanayake on social media platforms and others.
In Jaffna meanwhile, a monument in the Jaffna university built for civilians who died in the war was demolished by university authorities on Friday night. “The monument was not even about the LTTE”, said a source. “It was for civilians who died, including some students and staff of the university and close relatives of the students”. The reason for the demolition of the monument, nearly two years old, was because it did not have a building permit from the local pradeshiya sabha and was therefore an unauthorized structure which then begs the question why the pradeshiya sabha itself did not demolish the monument. The university surroundings became restive following the demolition since almost immediately nine undergraduates started a hunger strike and ten others joined it later. The hartal which followed on Monday with the participation of Rauf Hakeem, Rishad Bathiudeen and other Muslim politicians was seen as a success. The incident reverberated across the Palk Straits in Tamil Nadu where protestors led by local politician Vaiko, incensed about the demolition, surrounded the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai. With India in the throes of a series of local elections, needless to say the situation is likely to have prompted a phone call from New Delhi to Colombo to diffuse the tension. By the following Monday the hunger strike was called off after the Nallur pradeshiya sabha gave the university the greenlight to build a memorial. The new foundation stone that was laid came up as speedily as the demolition which took place. This replacement is expected to be a memorial although parallels are being drawn with the monuments in the Moratuwa and Sri Jayawardenepura universities which are dedicated to the dead from the JVP insurrections. The monument in the Moratuwa university is that of a man holding a bomb.
The Ramanayake case and the Jaffna university incident will inevitably come under the microscope of the UN Human Rights Council whose 46th session is round the corner. The wider human rights issues of the shrinking space for freedom of speech and expression, critiquing of government corruption and memorialization are likely to resurface when the sessions take place between 22 February and 21 March. Last year, Sri Lanka opted out of Resolution 30 /1 to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights which the previous government co-sponsored. Human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are already talking about the UNHRC considering measures against Sri Lanka including an international accountability mechanism. China was elected to the UNHRC last year and Sri Lanka may be able to count on her support for any issues that may come up during the sessions, but questions are raised about the sincerity of India especially in an environment where China is making irreversible headway in Sri Lanka as far as investments are concerned. In the circumstances, Sri Lanka should strike a balance at some point taking into consideration the Indian interest in the region. Hence the Eastern Container Terminal could be a bargaining point to keep Indian interests alive in the Indian Ocean.
The visit of Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Sri Lanka last week was of strategic significance as the two countries have now edged closer to resolving the stalemate on the ECT Terminal. The GoSL said it will not sell or lease the Terminal and will go ahead with a joint collaboration with the Adani Group in India which is a multinational conglomerate with its headquarters in Gujarat. Adani will have 49 percent of the share and the balance 51 percent will be in the control of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. The new arrangement will have winners and losers. Japan, an old friend of Sri Lanka who was her biggest donor until a few years back when China took over, will lose the stake she had under the old agreement which is now a dead letter. India, although having to trade -off the 13th Amendment which is seen as something that will not add value to the new constitution in the offing, will be appeased with a consolidated and strategic presence in the Indian ocean.
By our Political Correspondent