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Saturday May 25th, 2024

Justice for Easter Sunday and Justice for Hejaaz: A Christian perspective

MOURNING FOR EASTER VICTIMS – Worshippers at St Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya on July 1st when the Church reopened after the Easter bombings/Pathum Dhananajana EconomyNext

Most of the victims of horrific Easter Sunday bombings were Christian, majority killed inside three churches, and the bombers were Muslims. Immediately after the attacks, many Muslims unreservedly condemned the attacks and offered support and solidarity to mostly Christian survivors and families of victims. As churches across the country closed in the aftermath of the bombings, at least one Mosque offered to host Christian prayer services. Several years before the bombings, Muslims had protested and informed government authorities about growing extremism and tendencies towards violence amongst few within their community, including of the alleged ring-leader[i].

But after the Easter Sunday attacks, Muslims faced hostility, discrimination and physical attacks on places of worship, houses and businesses. One person was killed in reprisal attacks[ii]. Even refugees and asylum seekers from other countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, who had fled persecution by Muslim extremists and were residing temporarily in Sri Lanka, were perceived as Muslims supporting terrorism and subjected to reprisals[iii]. Easter bombings gave a new lease of life to anti-Muslim sentiments, hostilities, discrimination and violence that had preceded Easter Sunday attacks[iv]. This ant-Muslim sentiment has further escalated during COVID19[v].

The multi-party parliamentary select committee that probed the Easter bombings held many hearings last year. The findings in the report released in October 2019 indicates senior officials and senior politicians may not have taken preventive actions[vi]. What follow up has been done by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors is not clear.

The arrest of Hejaaz Hizbullah and other suspects for Easter Sunday bombings

As the anniversary of the bombings approached, and with parliamentary elections looming, there was a fresh wave of arrests in relation to Easter bombings. On 15th April this year, police announced 197 suspects had been arrested[vii]. Some have been detained for around a year without being formally charged. Amongst those arrested in April this year was Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer, who had been involved in work towards ethnic harmony, democracy and social work. He and his siblings had studied in Christian schools, had many Christian friends and the family had regularly helped in festivities of a Catholic church close to their house. The family had also admitted Christian refugee children to the school they owned on concessionary terms and a charity that Hejaaz was part of had helped a Catholic organization supporting the urban poor. Hejaaz had been invited and joined Church led initiatives towards inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony, where he had spoken critically about extremist tendencies amongst some Muslims.

Hejaaz’s immediate reactions to the bombings, was to tweet “They are not one of us. Those responsible must be found and prosecuted and the law applied to the fullest extent”[viii]. Two days later, he tweeted that “anti-Muslim hate in #lka (Sri Lanka) had contributed to radicalize young Muslims but does not justify violence”[ix].

Hejaaz’s arrest has been widely condemned for being arbitrary and without due process[x], which is probably the same for many others arrested in relation to Easter bombings and PTA. According to Hejaaz’s family members and junior lawyers, arresting officers had called ahead saying they were health officials and had breached lawyer-client confidentiality by accessing files of Hejaaz’s clients[xi]. He is reported to have been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), but the 72 hour timeframe to serve a detention order or produce him before a magistrate was violated. After a month, he has not been produced before a Magistrate, which violates the Sri Lankan Supreme Court’s directives, according to a letter to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, signed by 185 lawyers. [xii].The habeas corpus application filed in his case, seems to be in limbo and the fundamental rights petition is still at initial stages. Hejaaz has been denied meaningful access to his lawyers, which is absolutely essential for a fair trial, except for short periods in presence of police officers. I’ve seen several statements by police about his arrest to the media, but nothing has indicated he was involved in the bombings. Recently, his family members were compelled to protest against a vicious media campaign propagating false information[xiii].

After Hejaaz’s arrest, three children aged 11, 13 and 16 years are reported to have submitted petitions to the Supreme Court, alleging that they were forcibly taken by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police to an undisclosed location. They were not accompanied by guardians and no arrest note or information had been provided to the guardians about where the children were taken[xiv]. The children allege that they had been shown photographs and threatened to admit persons in the photograph had preached extremist and violent ideas in the school they had received scholarships to study. The children had also been asked whether they had received weapons training, which they had denied. They were videoed and asked to place their signatures on documents that they could not read. All three boys are from poor families and the school they had received scholarships to study was funded by a charity of which Hejaaz is a trustee. There have also been media reports that the children have been threatened to withdraw the petitions they had made to the Supreme Court[xv].

Terror of the PTA  

Until the Easter bombings, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been used mostly to arrest and detain Tamils, in context of the government’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was also used against government critics, including journalists and rights activists and church workers. The PTA has led to arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention without charges, long drawn out court cases, multiple cases against one suspect, inhumane detention conditions, torture and long years to release suspects and accused who are not guilty. There are reports about a PTA detainee spending 15 years in prison before being formally charged and 20 years for case to be concluded[xvi]. There have also been reports about PTA detainees being acquitted as not guilty by courts after spending long years in prison, including 15 years in one case[xvii].

Unlike in trials related to many other crimes, confessions in police custody are allowed in PTA cases, despite the tendency to obtain forced confessions through torture or threat of torture[xviii], which has also made PTA trials longer. Many Tamil detainees have been forced to sign confessions written in Sinhalese, a language they didn’t understand[xix]. For those arrested under the PTA, the process is punishment.

Pursuing justice through due process, rule of law and with dignity and rights for all 

Jesus was crucified through a populist and unfair trial, based on false accusations and after being subjected to torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. One of Jesus’s apostles, Paul, was detained for several years based on false accusations, was flogged while in detention, but his captors had regularly produced him before several judges allowing him to be heard.

According Pope John Paul II, “safeguarding the rights of accused against summary trials and convictions are principles that are primarily rooted in value of the person and moral demands of functioning states” and “when these principles are not observed, the very basis of political coexistence is weakened and the life of society itself is gradually jeopardized, threatened and doomed to decay”[xx]. Pope Francis has insisted that “to speak of human rights means above all to restate the centrality of the human person, willed and created by God in his image and likeness”[xxi].

Struggling for justice is an integral and not an optional part of Christian faith. It is a sacred Christian duty to promote and protect rights and dignity of survivors, victim families and others affected by violent incidents, including horrific attacks on churches such as on Navaly and Allaipiddy Catholic churches in the Jaffna district in 1995 and 2006 and the Easter bombings last year.

But as Christians, we also need to promote and protect rights and dignity of suspects and accused, such as Hejaaz. Especially in the painful historical context that many PTA detainees end up being found not guilty by courts and that theirs and their families lives are ruined, by having to spent most of their youth behind bars, their mental and physical well-being severely affected due to long term detention in inhumane conditions and torture. And we must never justify or tolerate attempts to abandon due process, rule of law and resort to arbitrariness in the pursuit of justice.

Rights of survivors, victim families and affected communities and the broader cause of justice for everyone, is strengthened and becomes meaningful only when rights of suspects and accused are respected, and justice is obtained through a due process that respects rule of law and devoid of arbitrariness.

After the Easter bombings, the politically and socially influential Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith played important roles in providing support and care for those injured and families of the dead, demanding for justice and appealing to all Sri Lankans, especially Catholics, to be restrained and not to retaliate against innocents. A year later, as hostilities against Muslims continues and justice for Easter Sunday is threatened by resort to arbitrary actions such as against Hejaaz, the Cardinal, all Christian leaders and communities must insist that seeking truth and justice must be within the framework of rule of law. That is what will ensure the integrity of our faith as Christians, our humanity and democracy. There must be justice for Easter Sunday, but there must also be justice for Hejaaz and others subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention and other forms of violence, harassments and discrimination in the aftermath of Easter bombings.

* Ruki Fernando is a Catholic human rights activist working with various Christian and secular rights groups. He is a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Catholic Church in Sri Lanka and was member of the Chaplaincy team of International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS) – Asia Pacific.

[i]

Comments (3)

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  1. Justice is up to the Lord. No discrimination please

  2. Faizel says:

    What a brilliant , well researched and balanced article.l by and Fernando. The actions of the authorities appears to be a vindictive action to silence a brilliant lawyer in the forefront of sensitive civil and constitutional cases opposed to the current administration.

    In Muslim civil society Hejaaz is the face and voice of moderation; the balance that is required to build a cohesive multi- ethnic community with a Sri Lankan identity. Clearly not an agenda or goal of this administration as can be seen from the virulent anti Muslim rhetoric condoned ( if not encouraged) by the Administration in the media.

    We need more people from the Catholic Church, including the Cardinal and his old school to stand up for justice for Hejaaz. The Govt has lost the moral ground and it’s sad to see that they are attempting to pervert justice by coercing confessions from innocent children.
    This is time for us to stand up and be counted.

  3. charles+horenegae says:

    The bottom-line is justice must prevail.

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Comments (3)

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Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Justice is up to the Lord. No discrimination please

  2. Faizel says:

    What a brilliant , well researched and balanced article.l by and Fernando. The actions of the authorities appears to be a vindictive action to silence a brilliant lawyer in the forefront of sensitive civil and constitutional cases opposed to the current administration.

    In Muslim civil society Hejaaz is the face and voice of moderation; the balance that is required to build a cohesive multi- ethnic community with a Sri Lankan identity. Clearly not an agenda or goal of this administration as can be seen from the virulent anti Muslim rhetoric condoned ( if not encouraged) by the Administration in the media.

    We need more people from the Catholic Church, including the Cardinal and his old school to stand up for justice for Hejaaz. The Govt has lost the moral ground and it’s sad to see that they are attempting to pervert justice by coercing confessions from innocent children.
    This is time for us to stand up and be counted.

  3. charles+horenegae says:

    The bottom-line is justice must prevail.

Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.

Related

Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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Desperate Sri Lankans seek risky foreign jobs amid tough IMF reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – After working 11 years in Saudi Arabia as a driver, Sanath returned to Sri Lanka with dreams of starting a transport service company, buoyed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 presidential victory.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 shattered his dreams. Once an aspiring entrepreneur, he became a bank defaulter.

Facing hyperinflation, an unbearable cost of living, and his family’s daily struggles, Sanath sought greener pastures again—this time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I had to pay 900,000 rupees ($3,000) to secure a driving job here,” Sanath (45), a father of two, told EconomyNext while having a cup of tea and a parotta for dinner near Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

Working for a reputed taxi company in the UAE, Sanath’s modest meal cost only 3 UAE dirhams (243 Sri Lankan rupees). Despite a monthly salary of around 3,000 dirhams, he limits his spending to save as much as possible.

Sanath has been in Abu Dhabi for 13 months but had to wait six months before driving a taxi and receiving no salary.

TOUGH REALITIES

“I had to get my UAE driving license. I failed the first trial, and the company paid 6,500 dirhams on my behalf, agreeing to deduct 500 dirhams monthly from my salary,” he explained.

“So far, I have repaid only 3,000 dirhams.”

To raise the 900,000 rupees for the job, Sanath borrowed money from friends and pawned jewelry.

“I don’t know if I was cheated by the agent, but I must repay that money and also send money for my family’s expenses,” he said, glancing at a photograph of his family in a Colombo suburb.

Working night shifts in busy Abu Dhabi, Sanath said, “If I can secure 9,000 dirhams monthly through taxi driving, I will earn 3,000 dirhams in the month after deductions for the license fee and any traffic fines.”

Sanath came to Abu Dhabi with seven other Sri Lankan men through an employment agency in the Northwestern town of Kurunegala.

“Only two of us have withstood the tough traffic rules and payment deductions for offenses,” he said. Some of his colleagues are still job-hunting, while others have returned to Sri Lanka.

Sanath is one of around 700,000 Sri Lankans who have left the island in the last two years due to the economic crisis that forced the country to adopt difficult fiscal and monetary policies, including higher taxes and costly borrowing, exacerbating the cost of living.

FOREIGN EXCHANGE EARNERS

From January 2022 to the end of March 2024, at least 683,118 Sri Lankans migrated for foreign employment through legal channels, according to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau.

They have sent $11.31 billion in remittances through official banking channels during the same period, central bank data shows.

Many Sri Lankans leave on visit visas, hoping to find jobs later, often guided by friends already working abroad. The economic crisis has pushed them to seek better opportunities abroad, despite the risks.

Sri Lankan authorities struggle to stop such risk-takers, who sometimes resort to illegal migration, despite warnings about human trafficking.

In Myanmar, 56 Sri Lankans caught in an IT job scam were detained earlier this year, and the government is still repatriating them.

At least 16 retired Sri Lankan military personnel have been killed in the Russia-Ukraine war after being misled by unscrupulous recruiters. Officials estimate that over 400 retired military officers may have left for similar reasons.

DISPERATE TO LEAVE

In March, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry warned against visiting any nation on open visas, urging Sri Lankans to emigrate only through registered agencies.

Despite the risks, many Sri Lankans are desperate to leave.

Abu Salim, a 32-year-old former rugby player, came to Dubai on a visit visa hoping for a banking job, which he never got.

Now freelancing in an insurance firm, he said, “I survive, and my relatives don’t see my struggle. It’s stressful, but still better than Sri Lanka right now.”

Suneth, a former top garment merchandiser, is also job-hunting in Sharjah after quitting his initial job in Sharjah.

“My worry is the visa. I must find a new job before it expires,” he said.

Many Sri Lankans in the UAE work multiple jobs, compromising their sleep and health to make ends meet. (Abu Dhabi/May 24/2024)

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