10th December 2000
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Tug of war holding up commissions: Hakeem

By Nilika de Silva
Minister Rauf Hakeem yesterday blamed the delay in establishing the three independent commissions on the tug of war between the Opposition and the Government.

Mr. Hakeem who laid down a 100 day deadline for the People's Alliance when supporting it at the October 10 elections insisted that the establishing of the three commissions is a necessity.

"I do not refute the fact that a moral responsibility to get this promise fulfilled is cast on me," Mr. Hakeem told The Sunday Times stressing it was agreed that the Government would set in motion a program of action to ensure the establishment of these commissions. 

However, Mr. Hakeem was non-committal as to what steps he would take in the event the deadline was not met by the PA government. "I'll cross the bridge when I come to it" he said. 

Chiding both the Opposition and the Government for the stance they are taking regarding the establishment of the three independent commissions- Elections, Public Services and Police-Mr. Hakeem said, "There is no doubt that both sides have their own parochial interests in this issue". 

It is important for the minorities to first be convinced as to which of the sides is genuinely interested in a lasting solution rather than achieving or remaining in power, he said. 

The problem is that while the UNP insists on having the three commissions separately, the Government is adamant that it can only be part of an overall constitutional reform process, he said. 

Mr. Hakeem further stated that "The behaviour of some Government politicians during the last general elections has resulted in weakening her (the President's) argument, though it has its own merits."

Mr. Hakeem who last week called for the inclusion of Muslim representation at future peace talks stressed that the SLMC must represent Muslim interests.

"We must have the assurance that the Muslim political dimension in the North-East has got to be structurally and institutionally addressed," he said.

"If not a ceasefire at least a cessation of hostilities is essential for fruitful talks to begin," Mr. Hakeem said.

He went on to state "We have seen in the experience of Northern Ireland, Palestine and any other trouble spots that agreements reached are being continuously renegotiated." 

Catholic Bishops take Madhu initiative for peace in Lanka

The Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka reiterating their appeal for a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict through all-party talks, yesterday announced an unprecedented move to bring the hallowed statue of Our Lady of Madhu from the north to the south as part of the peace effort.

After a plenary session last Thursday and Friday, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka expressed full support for new peace initiatives with third party mediation within the framework of a unitary state but giving maximum devolution of power to the north and east.

The Bishops also called upon the parties in conflict to take steps to create a climate of mutual goodwill and trust through a de-escalation of offensive actions and an easing off of different forms of restrictions placed on the people in the conflict areas, Ratnapura's Bishop Malcolm Ranjith said in a statement issued on behalf of all Bishops.

The Bishops said the Madhu shrine of the Queen of Peace had for generations being a haven where Sinhalese and Tamils gathered and prayed together in harmony. Thus the Bishops believed that the statue of the Queen of Peace in Madhu should be brought for a pilgrimage in Chilaw, Colombo, Kurunegala and Anuradhapura in March next year.

The Archbishop of Colombo with the Bishops of Mannar and Chilaw will coordinate this programme while Bishop Malcolm Ranjith will coordinate the peace initiative.

The Bishop called on all people of goodwill to intensify prayers for peace and cooperate fully in creating a better environment to restore ethnic harmony.

Judge reported to CJ for allegedly pressing his case

By Chris Kamalendran
The Judicial Services Commission (JSC) has referred to the Chief Justice a case of a High Court judge who complained to the police about the loss of his wife's gold chain and thereafter allegedly used undue pressure on the police regarding the investigations.

Judicial sources said the matter has now been referred to the Chief Justice for further action after they recorded statements from 15 persons, mostly jewellery shop owners in Galle, who have made the complaint against the judge.

The investigation was initiated following a complaint made by the United Traders and Workers Association of Galle about the incident involving the judge which had taken place in the middle of this year.

According to the complaint a special police team armed with a search warrant from the Balapitiya Magistrate's Court had carried out a search of a jewellery shop on the basis that a gold chain allegedly stolen from the judge's wife had been pawned by the thief at this particular shop.

A suspect arrested in connection with the theft is reported to have confessed that the jewellery had been pawned at the particular shop which was searched.

A petition signed by some 50 jewellery owners complained that the judge and the wife were present during the police search and put undue pressure on the police officers by directing them how to carry out the search.

They claimed that the police had carried out the search and finding that there were no suspicious looking items had obtained a signature from the manager of the shop to this effect.

However on the instructions of the judge certain jewellery items were removed and taken to the judge's residence for further inspection.

Later one of the employees of the jewellery shop had been taken into custody and remanded. The judge had also allegedly given directions that a lawyer should not be retained by the accused.

The jewellery shop owners in their petition addressed to the Chief Justice and the JSC said that the judge had allegedly unduly got involved in a police investigation and had also put pressure on retaining a lawyer for the accused.

The jewellery shop owners said they were willing to co-operate in the investigations.

Athas case put off again

The case against two Air Force officers who allegedly threatened The Sunday Times Defence Columnist Iqbal Athas at his residence, was taken up before Colombo High Court Judge Andrew Somaw-ansa. on Monday and postponed for February 16 and March 21 and 22, next year.

In the case the two officers Flt.Lt. H.M. Rukman Herath, a bodyguard of a former Air Force Commander, and Sq.Ldr. D.S.P. Kannangara, the officer in charge of the Special Airborne Force (SABF) have been charged with illegally entering the residence of Mr. Athas and threatening him and other members of his family. 

When the case was taken up on Monday the court was informed that the first accused's lawyer Mr. A.R.C. Perera had taken up a foreign posting and the lawyer currently handling the case wanted more time to prepare for the case.

The Attorney General has filed indictment against the two Air Force officers for committing criminal trespass, intimidation and unlawful entry, with weapons, into the residence of Mr Athas, on the night of February 12, 1998. 

The two Air Force officers were taken into custody by the CID on a complaint made by Mr. Athas and produced before the Gangodawila Magistrate for an identification parade. They were remanded after Mr. Athas and his wife Anoma identified them but were later released on bail. 

On an application made by defence counsel, the Magistrate ordered the two Air Force officers to appear before the CID on the last Saturday of each month.

When the case came before Gangodawila Magistrate N.V. Karunatilleke, a further 26 airmen of the Special Airborne Force (SABF) were produced four months later along with 200 others at an identification parade, but none of them were identified by the three prosecution witnesses. 

Tangle in the Internet

The Information Department responding to last week's story in The Sunday Times about a mistake made in the Government's website on a meeting between President Kumaratunga and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the website was run by the Presidential Secretariat.

The website Policy Information Research Unit (PIRU) is the official website of the Government operated by the Presidential Secretariat and not the Information Department.

The Sunday Times had inadvertently said the website was operated by the Information Department.

Poor HR record highlighted

By S.S.Selvanayagam
Human rights abuses in the Asia-Pacific region including Sri Lanka are committed with impunity and often with the connivance of the authorities, while abuses in policing systems are closely connected to political control, international organisations said in reports to mark Human Rights Day today.

Detainees were routinely tortured or ill-treated in police custody in almost every single country, they added.

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in its reports yesterday expressed concern about Sri Lanka's degenerating police and judicial systems.

The report says that, deprived of many powers by Emergency Regulations and other special legislation, the Sri Lankan judiciary's ability to intervene on important human rights issues has been reduced.

At times even disposal of dead bodies has been allowed without reference to the judiciary. On October 28 young men were massacred at a rehabilitation detention centre at Bindunuwewa, Bandarawela. The National Human Rights Commission's preliminary report states that 60 armed policemen were present at the time and that they shot two detainees trying to escape their attackers.

Clearly the massacre was carried out in connivance with the policemen present, acting under instructions from higher officers, AHRC said.

While amounting to a crime against humanity, the incident has been investigated as though purely a question of individual murders, and the burden of proof has been shifted to the survivors, it said.

The state is obliged to conduct proper criminal investigations and take prompt action to prosecute offenders. 

However, judging from the Sri Lankan Government's treatment of over 30,000 cases of disappearance between 1988-1992, and the thousands more thereafter, no satisfactory prosecutions are likely for reason of "insufficient evidence", it said.

Denial of justice and abuse of police power in Sri Lanka is often justified by reference to the ongoing civil war and human rights abuses committed by the LTTE insurgents. However, under no circumstance can the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity - such as the October massacre and disappearances campaigns of the 1990s - be justified, it said.

Teacher allegedly assaulted

By Shane Seneviratne
A school master of a leading school in Gampola was allegedly badly beaten up by a clerk and labourer at the Divisional Education office in the area when he called over there to attend to an official matter, police said. 

The school master has been admitted to the Gampola hospital.

The staff of the school have lodged a strong protest and are demanding that action be taken against the two employees of the Gampola education office. 

ASP Ranjith Kasthuriarachchi of the Gampola Police told The Sunday Times that the two suspects have fled their homes and a special team has been deployed to arrest them.

JVP at Norway again

By Shelani de Silva
The JVP is scheduled to carry out a mass protest on Wednesday (13) at Hyde Park calling on the Government to put a halt to peace talks and asking Norway not to get involved in the ethnic issue. The protest which will commence at 3.30 p.m. is expected to draw party supporters from all parts of the country.

JVP spokesperson Wimal Weerawansa told The Sunday Times that Wednesday's protest is the first in a series of protests to be carried out within the next two weeks.

No bonus in Paradise

By Tania Fernando
The staff of SriLankan Airlines claim they will not be receiving the annual bonus unlike last year.

Most staff members who spoke to The Sunday Times said the management has made no annoucement to date as to whether the bonus will be paid this year. 

It is understood that due to losses incurred by the airline no annual bonus will be paid to the staff. However, it is learnt that as per the collective agreement signed, the staff will receive the 13th month salary only. When contacted Sri Lankan Airlines Chief Executive Officer Peter Hill's secretary told The Sunday Times 'once the decision is announced to the staff, the media can take it from there'.

Deadly dust

By Nilika de Silva and Faraza Farook
Employees of the Ceramic World factory at Malwana are wary about returning to the work rooms after a second batch of workers were taken ill from dust poisoning

Labour Ministry authorities believe this substance to be 'glass wool', a fine fibre which they say may have undergone a change due to cleaning substances used in the cleaning of the ceilings of the factory buildings. 

When the problem first occurred on November 27, the factory was closed for a week after over 200 employees were admitted to hospital complaining of nausea and difficulty in breathing. Washing and vacuuming of the buildings from rooftop to floor took place and tabletops were relaid after which the company resumed work. 

However, days after the factory reopened, 49 workers fell ill and were admitted to the Colombo National Hospital.

It is believed that the glass wool deposited in 'item boxes' (the boxes containing the figurines) would have been disturbed when the boxes were opened by the workers. 

Within an hour of reporting to work on Wednesday, the girls had begun to fall ill one by one.

In the first incident, the girls affected were from the kiln department and in the second episode the girls were from the painting department. 

Though the factory reopened following careful examination by the Labour Department and the Board of Investment, it is believed that the officials may have failed to look into the possibilities of the fine dust settling inside the item boxes and in the old stocks, 

The girls who have to brush the figurines before painting them would have inhaled the dust.

"Following the first incident, we provided the employees with masks as a precautionary measure. But they hardly wear them," the Company's Senior Manager (Personnel and Administration) Ajith N. Jayatilake said.

He said in the 14 year history of the company, this was the first time such an incident had been reported.

Mr. Jayatilake said the company Ceramic World was suffering colossal losses due to extended closure of the factory."We have not been able to keep to our deadlines due to this and we fear our foreign orders are likely to get cancelled," he said.

The Colombo National Hospital reported that at least 225 were affected in the first incident while the number of casualties of the second episode was 49. However, Mr. Jayatilake said only 25 were affected the second time and said he was unaware that there were more.

Meanwhile, clean up operations were once again underway at the factory site in Malwana located inside the Biyagama Export Promotion Zone. The item boxes believed to contain the irritating substance were being washed and transported to a warehouse in a different location so as to protect the workers when they returned to work. 

The factory workers were reporting to work but were not working as they were awaiting the green light from the Occupational Hazards Division of the Labour Department. 

Occupational Hazards Division head Dr. Ranjith de Alwis who was at the factory supervising activities told The Sunday Times that the symptoms seen in the patients were consistent with glass wool exposure. 

Dr. de Alwis' division was investigating into the fibre aspects that could have lead to the allergic reaction and to the suitability of the work environment for the workers to return.

He said the Employees Council was working together with the authorities to decide when the premises would be suitable to restart work. Even after work begins, Dr. de Alwis said certain departments, which are likely to aggravate the situation or result in a recurrence, would be asked to delay their operations.

The company's employees themselves were engaged in the clean up operations to ensure a perfect job, as private contractors may not be committed to the task. Dr. de Alwis said the workers should take collective responsibility to ensure a conducive working environment. 

Senior Manager of Ceramic World stressed that as the victims of the two incidents would not suffer long term effects they were not entitled for compensation under the Workers' Compensation Act. But they would continue to receive payment even on the days that they were warded and all necessary medical expenses would be borne by the company, he said. 

Even though there was apprehension over a repeat of the incident, over 1000 workers who depend on this factory for their livelihood had no option but to report to work. 

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