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Sunday February 5th, 2023

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 President’s address to the nation- Full text

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe in an address to the nation on the 75th independence day, calling for an end of divisive politics, minority discrimination and politics of deceit.

He promised maximum devolution within a unitary state.

After independence the country was divided on race, religion and region, he said.

“We were divided to a point of developing suspicion and animosity against each other,” he said.

“Various groups exploited this division to gain power and created further rifts among the people. Instead of rejecting such groups, we accorded power to these very same groups.”

“In politics, lies were spread instead of the truth. Politicians who spoke the truth were rejected by the people.

“Those who pointed out the real situation of the country and sought related remedies were hardly given a place. Yet, those who satisfied people with their lies gained greater acceptance.

The full statement is reproduced below:

Most Venerable Maha Sangha and the clergy, my fellow citizens, all Sri Lankans abroad, dear children,

Today, I will not be delivering a traditional Independence Day statement. I am not going to dwell on the freedom we gained. While honouring those who were dedicated and worked hard for the country’s freedom, including the late Mr. D.S. Senanayake, I will focus on regaining the freedom that we have lost today.
Around 75 years ago, the esteemed ‘London Times’ newspaper carried an editorial stating that “It is our desire to see Sri Lanka become a Switzerland in the East, very soon.”

They had not expressed a similar vision for any other country in the East.

However, what has happened to us today?

Today, we are facing an unprecedented economic crisis, hitherto never experienced.

Why have we to face such a situation? Who is responsible for such?

Let’s be truthful. All of us are more or less responsible for this situation. None of us can point fingers and blame each other.

We made mistakes from the beginning. Efforts were made to rectify those mistakes, though it was not possible to correct them completely.

The policy followed by the late Mr. D.S. Senanayake in securing the country’s freedom was to unite all Sri Lankans. He believed that everyone, be it Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher, should forge ahead as Sri Lankans.

However, after independence we divided in terms of race, religion and region. We were divided to a point of developing suspicion and animosity against each other. Various groups exploited this division to gain power and created further rifts among the people. Instead of rejecting such groups, we accorded power to these very same groups.

In politics, lies were spread instead of the truth. Politicians who spoke the truth were rejected by the people. Those who pointed out the real situation of the country and sought related remedies were hardly given a place. Yet, those who satisfied people with their lies gained greater acceptance.

We got trapped in a consensual political culture. Our characteristic was to be depended on borrowed resources and we borrowed even more.

We adopted the notion that, “The government is a spring of resources”. Many were of the view that the duty of the rulers was to distribute the various resources obtained from that spring, among the people. Accordingly, job opportunities were provided and various goods and equipment were also distributed. Cash was also made available.

In most instances, we did not vote on behalf of the country. Instead we voted for a candidate in order to receive a job, to gain admission to a school for our children and to have a tender passed etc. We worked for political candidates expecting personal favours in return.

Most of us contested not for the country, but for personal power, for greater perks and to earn a little more.

We were trapped in promises and endured slogans which finally resulted in the gradual collapse of the country’s economy. We borrowed increasingly to fulfil election pledges and proved the slogans shouted at the protests were correct.

We borrowed more for consumption rather than for investment. However, according to the Buddhist Philosophy one should take loans for investment purposes and not consumption. While we are talking of Buddhism, our action is not in keeping with the Buddha’s teachings.

Lee Kuan Yew, who visited Sri Lanka to study and formulate a strategy to rebuild Singapore, said after many years, that . “This situation has arisen in Sri Lanka due to unnecessarily prioritising politics. If Sri Lanka was followed as a role model, even Singapore by today would have perished.

In fact, we have reached the point of destruction. There are those who want to keep perpetuating this wound forever, though I don’t wish. Let’s seek to heal this wound though it’s difficult and painful. If we endure the suffering and pain for a short period of time, we can get the wound healed completely.

We have no way out of this crisis with short cuts as that some political parties are pointing out.

We have only one way to get rid of this situation, if we want to overcome this crisis and achieve real economic and social freedom. Remember, if we miss this path due to misplaced political agendas, we would neither have a future nor a country.

On several occasions, I pointed out the seriousness and danger of the looming economic crisis we are facing today. I have already said that the first six months of this year will be extremely difficult. We have to face this difficult situation in our stride, although unwillingly, for the sake of the country.

Although a large number of people in this country got out of poverty with the free education and expanded the middle class, today the country has turned into a land where it is impossible to fulfil their aspirations. I see the youth who should be working hard in different fields in this country are creating long queues to obtain passports. We need to change this situation too.

To achieve this end we should modernize the economy and open it to the world. The corrupt political factionalism that deceives the people making them dependants and poor for ever should also be changed. This is the “system change” that the youth of this country have been demanding for over a long period of time.

My government therefore has embarked on new path of reform to fulfil the needs of the youth. Even though those decisions that have to be taken for it are painful, it has to be done in order to overcome.

We have to move away from narrow politics in order to be rid of this crisis situation. We must face this challenge together as children of one mother and make our fullest contribution to strengthen the path towards the successful development of this country. We must all move forward as Sri Lankan nationals leaving aside all differences.

Hence the basis and foundation for a strong new economy has already been formulated. We are successfully completing the difficult stage required to get support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). We expect to get their consent without delay.

We cannot be satisfied just by strengthening the economy. The entire system needs to be changed. All areas of this political system, the legislature, parliament, Executive, state machinery, etc. should be modified to suit the modern era. The nation, and we should benefit from this change. More space should be created in the new system, for representation and opinions of young people and women in particular.
For this system modification, we are proposing a number of orders to the Parliament.

Additionally, immediate action needs to be taken in relation to the unique issues that the people in the North and East face. A cabinet subcommittee for this purpose has already been established.

All political parties are informed of its decisions and their implementation dates. Thereby those tasks are carried forward. We have given priority to activities such as release of land and prisoners.

Furthermore, measures are being taken for the maximum division of power in a unitary state. However, we’ll never consent to the division of this nation.

I’m not attempting to treat the superficial condition with painkillers. But to treat the root cause of the malaise. It is challenging and difficult, but it’s our only option.

I know that many of the decisions I have been compelled to take since assuming the presidency have been unpopular.

However, because of those decisions, today no citizen of this country will die of dehydration in oil queues. You won’t starve without gas. Not curse without fertilizer.

Therefore, regardless of the obstacles the anarchist political forces seek to create, I will continue this new reform program with the majority of people who love this country.

We can become a developed country by 2048 if we work and move forward in a united and planned manner envisioning peace and reconciliation. There is the potential to become a developed country which is not begging from any other nation in the world. True freedom can be achieved and it is possible.

It is our collective responsibility to build a new country in which our children can compete with the rest of the world. Therefore, I urge all parties to come together to overcome this difficult period.
Let’s unite! Let’s join hands!

With joined hands let’s embark on a united journey over the next 25 years, as we have planned. Let’s further nurture those plans in accordance with the views of all parties. Let’s get stronger. Let’s make them more systematic and streamlined.

Not only should all of us who live in Sri Lanka join this effort. But the Sri Lankans living in the different countries around the world should also shoulder this journey. Everyone should be united. Everyone should contribute to the achievement of these goals as much as possible.

Let us devote ourselves, unite as children of one mother. Let us make our country one of the most developed in the world by 2048, when we will celebrate 100 years of independence.
Thank you all.

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Sri Lanka critical on independence day, opportunity to rectify our errors: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka going though a critical time as the 75th anniversary of independence from British rule is being marked on February 04, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said.

“Our 75th Anniversary of Independence from colonial rule is being observed during an extremely critical and challenging time in the  country,” he said in an independence day message.

“It is, indeed, a decisive moment. However it presents an opportunity for us not only to review our strengths and gains as a  nation but also to rectify our errors and failures.”

Sri Lanka is now in the grip of the worst currency crisis in the history of its intermediate regime, central bank with the rupee falling from 182 to 360 to the US dollar in the current credit cycle.

President Wickremesinghe, is taking unpopular political decisions to stablize the country under a program with the International Monetary Fund, as his predecessors had done before him.

Sri Lanka got independence from the British on February 04, 1948.

At the time economic bureaucrats did not have the power to depreciated the currency by printing money to manipulate interest rates down, but were strictly rule bound and no IMF programs were necessary.

In August 28, 1950, a group of economic bureaucrats were given ‘monetary policy independence’ to print money undermining a peg with gold (1.99 grains of gold) and the US dollar – which was also on a gold standard at 22 units an ounce.

At the time the rupee was only 4.76 to the US dollar.

Sri Lanka joined the IMF the next day, on August 29. Economic bureucrats who mis-targeted rates have since take the country to the IMF 16 times.

As money was printed and forex shortages emerged the population rapidly lost their economic freedoms. First first exchange controls, then trade controls were brought to enable the central bank to continue printing money for extended periods, and avoid prudent monetary policy.

In 2005 Sri Lanka got market access. In 2022 the country defaulted as other market access countries with monetary instability had done in the 1980s and 1990s. Market access countries in the 1980s and 1990s were mainly in the Latin America.

“There is a new economic and social reform agenda before the country  with the objectives focusing first on recovery and then on renewed  development,” President Wickremesinghe said.

“It is imperative for us to unite in its implementation so  that we can emerge with a high level of economic prosperity.”

However there is no attempt to change the flexible inflation targeting under the IMF program, giving monetary policy independence to economic bureaucrats.

Highly discretionary flexible policies where money is printed to reach a 5 percent inflation target is to be legalized as part of the program, just as similar regime was set up in 1950 the day before IMF membership was obtained.

The full statement is reproduced below:

President’s Independence Day Message

Our 75th Anniversary of Independence from colonial rule is being observed during an extremely critical and challenging time in the  country.

It is, indeed, a decisive moment. However it presents an  opportunity for us not only to review our strengths and gains as a  nation but also to rectify our errors and failures.

Since 1948, we have, as a nation, undergone many tests and travails –  from riots, insurgencies and war to natural disasters.

These  experiences have left us with a sense of inculcated resilience that  has made us revive better when faced with adversity. Therefore, I am  confident that even at this juncture we will pool our energies as the  daughters and sons of one mother to rise up from the current economic  abyss and build back stronger.

There is a new economic and social reform agenda before the country  with the objectives focusing first on recovery and then on renewed  development. It is imperative for us to unite in its implementation so  that we can emerge with a high level of economic prosperity.

I pledge  today to make the extremely difficult though vital decisions to  achieve this goal with courage and determination. I anticipate the confidence and support of you, the people of our country, in this  endeavour.

I also take the opportunity to thank you, the Sri Lankan expatriate  community, for your contribution towards the development of our  motherland despite your distance. I would like to invite you to join  us in securing a bright future for the younger generation of Sri  Lankans who are at the vanguard of economic and social development. 

Your faith and investment in the unique and creative ideas of our talented youth who lack capital could give considerable hope and be of  immense benefit to our country in this crisis.

On this historic anniversary, let us all resolve to meet the  challenges of this year with further patience and fortitude.

I extend warm felicitations to you, Sri Lankans, here and aboard.

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Sri Lanka welcomes sovereign bondholders’ letter to IMF

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s State Finance Minister welcomed the letter sent by the island nation’s sovereign bond holders to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over their willingness to engage in debt restructuring talks.

“The Sri Lankan government welcomes the letter sent by bondholders to the IMF,” Minister Shehan Semasimghe said in his twitter platform.

“We continue to engage in good faith dialogue with our private creditors to find a solution that will help us achieve debt sustainability and will enable Sri Lanka’s economic recovery.”

Sri Lanka’s bondholders on Friday wrote to the IMF and expressed their willingness to engage in debt re-structuring talks but also raising matters related to the domestic debt re-structuring and economic assumptions and forecasts.

More on bondholder views here: Sri Lanka sovereign bond holders not looking for domestic hair-cut

Named themselves as ‘The Ad Hoc Group of Sri Lanka Bondholders’, the group noted that the finalization of an agreement will be subject to the satisfaction of the certain conditions including the central government’s domestic debt – defined as debt governed by local law – is reorganized in a manner that both ensures debt sustainability and safeguards financial stability.

It also asked the gross domestoc fiinancing to be limited to 8.5 percent of the GDP while keeping the  annual gross financing needs not exceeding 13 percent of GDP in the each year between 2027 and 2032 and allowing for central government annual foreign currency debt service to reach 4.5 percent. (Colombo/Feb04/2023)

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