Season of national pole vaults begin with handsome prizes offered to jumpers
BY GAGANI WEERAKOON
Old habits die hard and Minister of Tourism and Christian Religious Affairs John Amaratunga will attest to that. With heat of elections taking charge of the atmosphere, the senior minister of this 'Yahapalana' government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appeared to have forgotten that they came into power with a vow to establish good governance when he openly told a UNP rally in Ja-Ela recently that no one should be afraid of anyone, because the government and the Police belonged to the UNP this time. "The government and the Police are ours this time. No one should be afraid. We will deal with anyone. What we want is your vote only," he said.
Anyone who has a little knowledge about the political history of Minister Amaratunga is aware of his obsession with the Sri Lanka Police and when it comes to interfering in Police matters his evolution is minute or rather frozen in the UNP regime which was in power from 1978 to 1989.
With Yahapalana Government coming under criticism for his remarks, several of his Cabinet colleagues had to put some extra effort in clearing the air.
Law and Order and Southern Development Minister Sagala Ratnayaka, in the wake of Amaratunga's recent declaration that the UNPers didn't have to worry and could do whatever necessary to win the forthcoming Local Government polls as both the government and the Police were theirs, assured that the UNP was fully committed to ensuring a free and fair election.
"One should not forget the situation in the country before 8 January 2015. We have now ushered in a new political culture. That is why we should come forward to protecting the rights of the voters and ensuring a free and fair election," Minister Ratnayaka said, after handing in party nominations to contest the Local Government polls in the Matara District.
"We are in the process of strengthening the country's economy and rebuilding the nation. Therefore, we want the Local Government bodies to work in line with our national agenda. That is the intention with which we launch our election campaign.
Some have now forgotten the track record of the defeated political elements. They have also forgotten how their cronies made money through government contracts. We request them not to forget the past. Also, we invite them to join hands with us, and embark on this victorious journey," Ratnayaka said. Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Parliamentarian Buddhika Pathirana were also present.
While the Minister-in-charge of Police seems to have taken matter seriously, two Cabinet Spokespersons, Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne played it down.
During a brief encounter with journalists at weekly Cabinet media briefing Minister Jayasekara asked journalists not to treat seriously the remarks made by Minister John Amaratunga.
Journalists questioned the rationale of threatening remarks allegedly made by Minister Amaratunga targeting political opponents of the UNP saying that 'the government is ours and the Police therefore are also ours'.
Don't take much notice of these remarks. This is not the policy of the Yahapalana government. We are committed to uphold the concept of good governance, free and fair elections and the rule of law, he said.
A journalist however asked whether these remarks are not an indication of what political opponents of the UNP could expect during this election time.
Minister Jayasekara: No, no, please don't make judgments on these flimsy utterances. Besides, Minister Amaratunga is a person with a big frame. He may have said those things without much thinking of the repercussions.
Journalist: A number of DIGs have complained to the Police Commission against the IGP. What is going on in the Police Department?
Minister Jayasekara: I am not aware. However, if such complaints have been made, the Police Commission will investigate it for sure.
Minister Rajitha Senaratne: Anyway, it is true that if you have the power, you have the Police force under you also.
Journalist: Do you think it is proper for Minister Amaratunga to say this?
Minister Senaratne: We don't do all what we say all the time.
The admission by Minister Seneratne, that politicians do not adhere to what they utter all the time, is genuine, yet does not appear wise at a time of an election, many were heard whispering to each other after the media briefing.
Even though, Minister Jayasekara did not respond to the matter raised by journalists that a number of DIGs had complained to the Police Commission against the IGP, as he was unaware about it at the time, many speculations were circulating with regard to the matter.
It was reported that senior Deputy Inspectors of General complained to the Police Commission last week that their chief Pujith Jayasundara was spying on their telephone conversations and insulting them.
This was briefly discussed at an international panel held in Colombo earlier December in which a panellist took a dig at Police Spokesperson SP Ruwan Gunasekara. Gunasekara explaining the progress of investigations on certain murder and disappearance cases of journalists during 2006- 2015 period attributed some delays to lack of technology available with the Police Department.
But he was seen put in an uneasy situation when an outspoken panellist asked as to how Police Department could say they lack technology when the IGP has tapped the telephones of most of the senior officials in the department using sophisticated equipment gifted by a foreign mission in Colombo.
However, the internal issues in the Law and Order Ministry may have led to President Sirisena's decision to strip Ministry Secretary Jagath Jayaweera of the post and replace him with Padmasiri Jayamanna who was the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice.
Pole vaults begin
Digamadulla District MP Sriyani Wijewickrema who parted ways from her leader Dinesh Gunawardena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) pledging support to President Sirisena. She was later sworn in as the State Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government.
However, deputy leader of National Freedom Front Weerakumara Dissanayake and few other NFF members who also joined President Sirisena have not been granted any portfolios as yet.
The Government is confident that at least 10 members from the Joint Opposition would join them pledging support to President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
According to a senior minister, the SLFP is looking at amending the MoU with the UNP which was signed forming a unity government in 2015 as its term comes to an end by 31 December 2017.
Accordingly, these amendments will look at increasing the quota allocated for SLFP ministers at the Cabinet in future. Currently, the majority, of key ministries is held by the UNP ministers.
"We will be compelled to offer ministerial portfolios for those who would join us," the minister said.
Meanwhile, Joint Opposition said even though few worthless members joined the government, the essence of SLFP members will join them in near future. As the two factions of the UPFA are still fighting over who will acquire more power at LG bodies, the UNP is also scheming to form a Government with the support of 20 SLFP members, depending on political developments by 31 December.
Cost of living
With elections announced, the Government plans on supplying essential items at subsidized prices till Sinhala Hindu New Year in April 2018. The decision was taken following lengthy discussions at the weekly Cabinet meeting.
The rains in November and December were inadequate. Therefore, crop harvests will be low next year.
"I and the President met the ministerial committee on the cost of living. We invited private sector representatives as well. We did so because the Government does not have an adequate machinery to cover all areas geographically. We decided to provide rice, dhal, sugar, potatoes, onions, sprats and long beans at subsidized prices. The rates will be decided on the landed price. One of the major issues faced by the people today is the high cost of living. Prices of essential goods have risen rapidly. There is a crisis with regard to climate. We have not received monsoon rains on time. This has affected the cultivation of food crops. Some farmers kept away from cultivating because of the drought. We do not know whether the climatic changes would create long term issues. As a precaution for this crisis of price hike, the government has decided to provide essential items at subsidized prices till the national New Year. High prices of rice, coconuts and vegetables are a major issue. The government is fully aware of it. It is essential to resolve this matter as soon as possible," the Prime Minister said.
He said the decision on extending the concession scheme would be decided in April next year after assessing the situation taking into account climatic changes.
"We will decide on the next step in April as it would be possible to make a fresh assessment on the climate at that time. Several key private sector organizations will also play a role in providing essentials at a subsidized prize. Private sector suppliers of essential goods have said they would be able to implement the new scheme in two week's time," the Prime Minister said.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has identified significant challenges to the enjoyment of the right to personal liberty in Sri Lanka, resulting in arbitrary detention across the country.
The experts recognize positive initiatives, including engagement with UN human rights mechanisms, as well as the recent accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.
However, they say further urgent action is required to give effect to Sri Lanka's obligations under international human rights law, as well as the commitments made by the Government in its Human Rights National Action Plan 2017-2021.
"The right to personal liberty has yet to be respected by law enforcement, security forces, judicial and other authorities," the experts said in a statement, after a three member delegation undertook an official visit to the country.
They said that current powers to deprive individuals of their liberty extended across a range of facilities, including Police Stations, prisons, open work camps, centres for juveniles and the elderly, mental health institutions and rehabilitation camps for former combatants, as well as those for drug addicts and people in vulnerable situations.
The experts called for urgent reforms to address problems including the excessive use of remand, a lack of effective alternatives to detention, an outdated legal framework and reliance on confessions, often extracted under torture or duress.
Court proceedings were affected by excessive and unjustified delays, while suspects remained in detention indefinitely, they said, adding that the rights to the presumption of innocence and due process were yet to be fully recognized.
The experts called for the abolition of the special laws and powers enacted during the state of emergency. In particular, the Working Group urged the Government of Sri Lanka to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, as one of the key enablers of arbitrary detention for over four decades. Any new legislation must be in accordance with international human rights law and best practices.
The delegation highlighted that detainees in general did not enjoy some of the most fundamental guarantees of due process, such as immediate access to legal assistance from the moment of the arrest and before their initial statement was recorded.
"The fact that the detainees are interrogated by the authorities without a lawyer, in particular at Police Stations, is of great concern," the experts said.
The Working Group also paid particular attention to the deprivation of liberty of those in situations of vulnerability, such as children, women, elderly people, those with psychosocial disabilities, and those living in poverty.
"Despite identifying positive practices in this regard, it is concerning that the legal basis and procedures for depriving people of their liberty are not clearly established," the experts said.
"There are no effective safeguards against arbitrariness in this context and there is an urgent need to strengthen mechanisms for independent monitoring and oversight."
During the visit, from 4-15 December 2017, the delegation met Government officials, judges, lawyers, civil society organizations and other relevant groups and officials. They travelled to Colombo, Negombo, Anuradhapura, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Polonnaruwa, visiting more than 30 different settings of detention and interviewing more than 100 people deprived of their liberty.
The delegation was comprised of Working Group members – José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez, Leigh Toomey and Elina Steinerte, supported by staff from the UN Human Rights Office.
The Working Group will present the final report of its visit to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2018.
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