4th March 2001

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No legal aid for troops facing torture charges

By Laila Nasry

Security forces personnel accused of torture in fundamental rights cases have been left in the lurch as the Attorney General's Department has stopped legal representation under a new scheme implemented in accordance with the UN Convention Against Torture.

The scheme is among a series of measures being taken to improve the human rights record and to prevent suspects from being tortured while in detention, Attorney General's Department officials said.

Accordingly, on Thursday the AG's Department declined to represent three army officers facing torture allegations in a fundamental rights petition filed by a carpenter from Batticaloa. But it represented the Army Commander, the Police Chief and the Batticaloa prisons Superintendent respondents cited in their official capacity or on technical basis.

The first and second respondents in this case officers in charge of two army camps in the east represented themselves in courts while the third respondent, the head of Batticaloa's Counter-Subversive Unit, made an appeal to the AG's Department to reconsider its decision, but it was turned down.

The AG's Department officials said that whether to appear or not for a law enforcement officer in a torture-related case would depend on the nature of the allegation.

The AG's Department's decision has caused concern in the armed forces as it would hamper efforts to obtain information from LTTE suspects.

The AG's Department officials said that a special unit Prosecution of Torture Perpetrators Unit set up three months ago to curb intense torture and degrading treatment allegedly taking place in police stations and detention camps had stepped up its activities.

The unit was set up in accordance with the Convention Against Torture Act no: 22 of 1994, a piece of legislation that ratified the UN Convention against Torture.

The unit refers torture allegations to the Criminal Investigation Department for a full probe and initiates legal action.

Sinhala group to the rescue

The Sinhala Jathika Sangamaya is to launch a free legal aid scheme to help security forces personnel, who are charged with excesses and violation of fundamental rights while in the course of operations against the LTTE.

SJS President S. L. Gunasekera, an attorney-at-law himself, told The Sunday Times that his group came up with the idea to help security forces personnel because several legal aid groups were assisting suspected LTTE cadres and thus implicating troops.

"In most cases, security forces personnel have to bear the legal cost. This is unfair, after all they are making much sacrifice to safeguard the integrity of Sri Lanka. Thus the SJS feels that it is our duty to provide free legal aid," Mr. Gunasekera said.

He said the legal aid would be available to any person in the Armed forces and Police and it was not a ruse to enlist members for the SJS. Mr. Gunasekera also said the SJS would extend legal aid to any Sinhalese who suffered injustice or discriminated against just becasue they were Sinhlaese.

Tiger roar now turns to plaintive plea

News Analysis

By Neville de Silva

The LTTE's latest diplomatic defeat has forced its chief spokesman in London, Anton Balasingham to quickly change his tune.

Today's plaintive plea is in marked contrast to the Tiger's roar heard at the London Arena three months ago when the LTTE celebrated Eelam Heroes Day with Anton Balasingham playing the lead role as the LTTE's head honcho in the UK.

Lamenting the British Government's decision last week to ban the LTTE along with 20 other terrorist organisations 10 days after bringing its new anti-terrorism law into force, Balasingham was quoted as saying that it would adversely affect the on-going peace process.

"The British decision to include the LTTE on the list of proscribed terrorist organisations will impose severe restraints on the current peace initiatives undertaken by the Norwegian Government to resolve the Civil War".

Balasingham's tone lacked the machismo and heavily-upbeat note he struck at the London Arena. Preaching to the converted, Balasingham won rounds of applause by virtually challenging the British Government to ban the LTTE.

"We have also told the British Government that if you lay a hand on us we will not come to the peace talks.

Whether it is peace initiatives by European countries or any one else's attempts at bringing peace, we will close the door to peace. Thereafter we will really become terrorists". (much applause).

Referring to the anticipated ban Balasingham said: "The intention of this is to curb financial assistance that we are receiving from our people here. It is the same in America. The ban imposed on the Tigers in America was also to prevent funds from going to them. But what is happening there is, unlike earlier, we are collecting more funds(more applause). The Tamils who were sleeping have woken up with patriotism and we are getting more money. Therefore we welcome such bans,bring it here and our people will give more money".

In a final note of bravado Balasingham whipped the faithful into a moment of ecstasy with challenging words addressed to the British authorities: "Sir, so you can impose the ban. But later you cannot come and knock on the doors of Balasingham for negotiations".

The problem with the LTTE was that it refused to read the writing which started appearing on the wall. Balasingham and his Tiger hierarchy were so imbued in their importance that they failed to recognise the first tentative moves by the British authorities in the second half of last year.

The first move came from the Charity Commissioner who took into his possession the accounts books of a Tamil organisation supposedly involved in rehabilitation, called TRIO.

The Charity Commissioner apparently suspected that the funds collected by the organisation was not going entirely for the rehabilitation of Tamils in the north.

Three other organisations had also come under investigation. The British authorities had information from Canadian sources to show that the so-called rehabilitation organisation was already suspect in Canada.

Another false move by the LTTE came later in the year when it organised the screening of LTTE videos depicting its military victory at Elephant Pass. Among the schools in Middlesex hired for the occasion were government run schools.

The Sri Lanka High Commission in London protested strongly to the British Government and its education authorities. Apologising for what had happened school authorities said in defence that they had been told this was for a cultural event.

As pointed out at the time, the LTTE had begun to over reach itself. Its climax was Balasingham's Eelam Heroes Day performance and the money collected that day.

Balasingham is now suggesting that the peace process would be impaired as a result of the British ban because the Sri Lanka Government would be even more belligerent. But as Balasingham's own words at the London Arena indicate it is the LTTE which says it will not enter talks if it is harmed. The LTTE's immediate tactic is to try to convince those at the centre of the peace process, that it is now in danger of coming apart because of British action.

But its long term strategy is to fight the ban legally, as it has done in the United States, Canada and elsewhere when faced with similar problems.

It is still not clear when the House of Commons will debate the proscription which has also to go to the Lords for approval before becoming operational. With the Labour Government anxious to have some other Bills taken up before parliament ends before the elections, it is not certain whether the proscription list could get on the Agenda of the current session.

If not it would have to wait till after the election which could be as early as April as some observers suspect. If so Home Secretary Jack Straw's list would not be debated until the new parliament meets.

The LTTE is counting on its supporters in the current parliament to press its case during the debate and demand that its name be struck off the list.

But the House and the Lords will have to debate and approve the list in toto and not piecemeal.

The LTTE's opportunity of mounting a legal challenge will come if representations on its behalf to the Home Secretary are rejected. This gives the LTTE the chance to take it up before the Proscribed Organisations' Appeal Commission which was set up before Home Secretary Straw brought the law into operation on February 19.

This is the opportunity for the LTTE to try and make international capital.

However what is doubtless worrying the Tigers is whether the British ban might influence other European Union countries to take a far tougher attitude towards the group's operations in the continent.

In the meantime the LTTE is not taking unnecessary chances. Just before I left London on Tuesday many signs of the LTTE visible in some Tamil-owned shops appeared to have been quietly removed. One video shop which had a prominent photograph of the LTTE leader with a garland around it no longer occupies the previously prominent place.

In fact it is not even to be seen. Veluppillai Prabhakaran has disappeared again.

Light up amidst cut down

The Government appeared to be ignoring its own instructions to cut down on the use of electricity to avoid a power crisis, as it decorated the city's roundabout with colourful lights to celebrate the SLFP's convention today.

While hundreds of institutions, have been forced to switch to generators or refrain from using electricity for the purposes of air conditioners, name board displays etc. the Government went ahead taking power supply from the mains to adorn the city.

Little blue bulbs illuminated some city roundabouts at least three days prior to the celebrations today.

Pix by J.Weerasekera and Iresha Waduge

US expresses concern over media restrictions here

The US State Department's annual international report on human rights has observed that Sri Lankan media organisations were given limited access to information on local issues, often on national security grounds despite provision in the Constitution for freedom of speech and expression.

The Department in its Country Report on Sri Lanka for 2000 highlighted strict censorship imposed on local and foreign media especially with regard to news concerning the military and the security situation.

The report also pointed out the failure by the ruling party to keep its campaign promises to divest itself of its media holdings. "The Government has failed to reform the press law and privatize government-owned media as promised during the 1994 election campaign," the report said.

Moreover, the report drew attention to the trend among some journalists to practice self censorship in fear of being intimidated. Reference to several cases of intimidation was also made.

Referring to The Sunday Times Editor's case the report stated, "The editor of a leading national newspaper who was found guilty of defaming the President in 1997 appealed the verdict that year. On December 5, an appellate court upheld the lower court's ruling. The editor appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. Another defamation case filed by the President in 1995 led to the September 5 conviction of an editor of another important English-language weekly. The editor received a two-year jail sentence, later suspended; he appealed.

"Other defamation cases filed by the President against editors of major newspapers critical of the Government or supportive of the opposition remained pending. Journalists viewed these cases as frivolous and intended only to intimidate and harass the media."

Mention of The Sunday Times Defence correspondent Iqbal Athas' case was also made.

The report said, "In February 1998, armed men attacked a journalist who regularly reported on defence matters, including corruption in military procurements. The Government criticized the attack; it subsequently arrested and indicted two air force personnel in the case, including the bodyguard of a former commander of the air force. A formal indictment was handed down in 1999. Courts postponed the hearings several times during the year".

The discrimination against Tamil journalists was also noted. The report observed the complaints from regional correspondents working in war zones of arbitrary arrest and detention and difficulty in obtaining media accreditation.

The lack of recognition on the part of the LTTE for freedom of speech and expression and its restrictions on media organisations under its control were observed in the report.

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