Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa presented a cabinet paper in the first week of December for the establishment of a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry (SPCOI), under the SPCOI Law (1978) to investigate government officials who had conducted ‘witch hunts’ of other public officials during the time of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition Government as well as ‘third parties’ who had driven those investigations.
A commission established under this under the SPCOI Law (1978) shall have following powers:
“8. Notwithstanding of the any of the provisions of the Evidence Ordinance, or any other written law, to admit any evidence whether written or oral, which might be inadmissible in any other court in civil or criminal proceedings.” and “9.2. Any report, finding, order, determination, ruling or recommendation by a commission under this law shall be final and conclusive, and shall not be called in question in any court or tribunal by way of writ or otherwise.”
A news web site that supports the governing political party reported that the first cases at the SPCOI will be against former Ministers Rajitha Senarathna and Champika Ranawka.
Commenting on the proposed SPCOI, lawyer Kishali Pinto jayawardena wrote that it “has sinister implications that must be recognised in all their gravity.”
The same news site reported that the government has decided to file treason charges against Attorney at Law J.C. Weliamuna and Upul Jayasuriya for initiating an unconstitutional process to oust the Chief Justice Mohan Peiris in January 2015. Both of them are leading lawyers in Sri Lanka and were active supporters of the previous government.
Cases against Human Rights Violations
Investigations on some human rights violations including attacks against journalists has come to a standstill and all responsible investigating officers have been transferred.
Director, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) SSP Shani Abeysekara has been transferred as the personal assistant to DIG, Galle district. ASP B.S. Tisera has been transferred as the personal assistant to DIG, UVA province. The officer-in-charge of the Organised Crimes Investigation Unit of the CID has left the country for safety reasons.
In relation to the investigations carried out by those officers PM Rajapaksa has said that “”Members of the intelligence services were persecuted, harassed, and jailed by the previous government on false charges. It was not just the intelligence services that had to face this situation. The entire high command of the armed forces during the war against the LTTE was brought before the police with a great deal of media publicity to answer to all kinds of allegations. The people have elected a President with an overwhelming mandate, to rectify the injustices of the past five years.”
On 13 December Sumith Perera, a Police Inspector made a complain against former Director of the CID, Shani Abeysekara accusing him for pressurising to implicate Namal Rakapaksa for the killing of Wasim Thajudeen. Meanwhile AG department has instructed the police to arrest and produce IP Nishantha Silva for killing a person called ” Army Suranga.
Surveillance on the NGOs
The NGO Secretariat which was under the Ministry of National Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages has been placed under the Ministry of Defence.
The office of the Consortium of Non-Governmental Organisations in Ampara district has been disrupted by the frequent-inspections and questionings conducted by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) of the Police. The TID was questioning particularly about the activities or involvement of personalities of three NGOs, the Center for Human Rights and Development, Viluthu Centre for Human Resource Development and the Centre for Policy Alternatives. All these NGOs are based in Colombo. The TID has also instructed the consortium to inform about all public events so that they could also monitor the arrangements.
A person calling himself a police intelligence officer has visited number of NGOs in Colombo asking whether they can help him to distribute some wheel chairs.
Alleged abduction of a Swiss Embassy Employee
On 12 December the CID informed Colombo Chief Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne that there was no evidence to show any connection to an alleged abduction of the Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Banister Francis. President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa both have publicly stated that the abduction story has been created to discredit the Government.
“Given these unambiguous pronouncements by the men in charge, what hope of an impartial inquiry? What chance for truth? What room for justice, for anyone who earns the Rajapaksa ire by countering their narrative?” wrote Tisaranee Gunasekara.
On the other hand President’s Counsel Upul Kumarapperuma appearing on behalf of the alleged victim informed the Magistrate that his client had been checked by foreign and local doctors attached to the Swiss Embassy and two doctors mentioned in their medical report that the victim had been sexually abused and assaulted. The two doctors also mentioned that the alleged female victim had been suffering from a mental health condition.
Lawyer Kumaraperuma complained to the Magistrate that he has been targeted by individuals and media for appearing in this case.
Issuing a statement on 11 Dec 2019, Colombo based Think Tank Center for Policy Alternatives said that it is “alarmed with the conduct of several media institutions, including State media and others, who have acted in a manner to deliberately reveal the identity of the alleged victim and that of her family which raises serious issues of privacy and protection.”
Meanwhile Presidential Media Division issuing a press statement in Sinhala on 12 Dec 2019 stated that President Rajapaksa has praised the local media coverage of the alleged abduction story.
Freedom of Expression issues
Within the first month of Rajapaksa presidency two online media institutions has been inspected/searched by the police and two journalists have been assaulted by pro government groups.
On 6 December Daily Mirror /Lankadeepa Aluthgama Correspondent Thusitha Kumara de Silva and his wife were assaulted over an exposure of an illegal toddy business.
On 8 December Jaffna-based political analyst and senior lawyer 64 year old S. A. Jothilingam’s house was raided by a group of unidentified persons. They ransacked household but took away two smartphones that were used by the activist.
On 10 December Former Editor of the Digital and New Media Unit of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (Lake House) Madhuka Thaksala Fernando was attacked and issued death threats by group of ruling party supporters.
On second week of December 2019 a popular non religious musical programme called Kandula conducted by Catholic clergyman Brother Charles Thomas was banned by group monks in Matugama. They threatened to use force and destroy property if the programme is held as planned.
On second week of December 2019 Eravur police called secretary of the Batticaloa district Tamil Media Union, Nilanthan for an investigation following a complaint made by the divisional secretary against him over incident happened in February 2019. The Union has condemned the police action.
Commenting on the media freedom in the country at present, a senior journalists and commentator Victor Ivan has told The Hindu that “No doubt that there is a big fear factor now, a lot of journalists who merely covered and followed issues as part of their job now they feel threatened under the new government.”
Echoing the same sentiments political analyst Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda wrote that “It is not a pleasure for a political commentator to impose self censorship. But will I be imprisoned if I write according to my conscience? Will I be abducted and be made to disappear? Will I have to provide a statement to the Police? Will unknown men on motorcycles circle my home? Has the time for political commentary without fear, restraint and doubt ended? These uncertainties are not my own but I believe are haunting other journalists in this country as well.”
Notwithstanding all these developments, President Rajapaksa assured editors and heads of media institutions that “the media freedom will not be hindered in any form during his tenure. Opportunity is available for any reasonable criticism, President said adding that he expects every media institute to fulfill its obligation towards the country while engaging in favourable media reporting to uphold the country’s reputation.”
The wall painting wave that has spread like a wild fire in the South of Sri Lanka is another unexpected development related to freedom of expression. Although it appeared as a spontaneous activity, without a backing form a proper authority no one can paint public walls in the country. Most of these painting are expressions of war triumphalism and Sinhala Buddhism. President Rajapaksa has publicly praised the wall painting wave saying it is “an artistic trend originated among the youth who love their country” and wanted the of media to encourage them.