18th March 2001
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The politics of justice

By Victor Ivan
Two very important observations on the Judiciary in Sri Lanka were published last week. One of them appeared in the latest report published by the Human Rights Committee which functions under the American State Department. The report says that the Chief justice of Sri Lanka has curtailed the number of human rights cases investigated by the judiciary on the pretext of preventing the piling up of cases.This action of the chief justice has denied the right of seeking redress through the judiciary even to those subjected to physical torture.

The other observation has been made by Justice D. Vigneswaran who has been recently appointed to the Supreme Court Bench. He stated that there isn't much room for promotions on the basis of age, experience, seniority and democracy in the field of justice and that there is no room for anybody to hold a high post without the approval of the executive. The picture made by these two observations is extremely fearsome.

Although there were occasions even during the UNP regime when the executive interfered with the judiciary and occasionally threatened it in public, the judiciary itself was able to maintain its independence and proceed with its work regardless of those interferences. In particular it was able to effect a striking progress in the sphere of human rights. Today, the situation is entirely different. The executive has been able to bring the judiciary into its grasp in such a manner that even an attempt to protect the independence of the judiciary has become impossible. Consequently the possibility of those who were denied human rights to go before the courts and seek redress is obstructed to a great extent. Although lawyers complain about this situation in private, none of them are prepared to speak in public. The Bar Association too is completely silent on the matter.

There is now a system by which almost every human rights case with some political importance is brought before a panel of judges which include the Chief Justice. The possibility of getting any redress from the Supreme Court for any wrong done on the part of the government is almost nil.

When the last parliamentary election was announced, former President of the UNP filed two fundamental rights cases (FR 577/2000 and FR 578/2000) against Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited and Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation for their direct support to the PA against the law. However, the case against ANCL was dismissed and the other was referred to the Human Rights Commission.

The action taken regarding the 17th amendment to the Constitution too, was contrary to law. The Chief Justice, while he was the Attorney General, had not only contributed to the preparation of the new draft law actively, but he had also taken part in the campaign launched by the government. The manner in which the panel of judges were appointed aroused opposition and doubt.

The policy followed by the Chief Justice in regard to cases relating to alleged illegal appointments and promotions given for political reasons (FR 607/99, FR 608/99 and FR 579/95) too were against the norms of justice. 

When a fundamental rights petition was filed by a doctor (FR 681/99) the Chief Justice, not only dismissed the petition, but also made this statement in open court. "This is a government medical officer. The government medical officers never do any work. They are never found at their places of work. What they know is only to strike. It is therefore necessary to punish government medical officers". Consequently the G.M.O.A. had to condemn that statement of the Chief Justice by a public announcement.

The policy followed in connection with the human rights cases relating to those subjected to cruel torture violates not only the international convention signed by Sri Lanka in 1994 but also the Torture Act.

Pararajasekaran Balasekaran who was allegedly arrested in Vavuniya and was subjected to inhuman torture filed a fundamental rights case (FR 547/98) in the Supreme Court. According to the report of the judicial medical officer, a PVC pipe had been inserted through his anus and his penis had been burnt at several places. There were a number of scars caused by injuries on his head and on his chest. The redress granted him by the Chief Justice was Rs. 15,085/-. That too was without any recommendation regarding the action that should be taken against those who were responsible for the torture.

In the fundamental rights case filed by media persons in connection with the alleged attack made by the Presidential Security Division against media persons who covered the UNP's protest movement, too, the Chief Justice appeared to be interested in getting a compensation for media persons who lost their cameras and thereby settling the question lightly rather than in inquiring whether there has been a violation of human rights. Does it mean that although smashing is illegal, assault is not illegal?

According to justice Vigneswaran, factors like seniority, excellence and competence have no bearing on promotions in the judiciary. Only those who can have the approval of the executive may get promotions. If such be the case, apparently rights are not for those who act according to law but to those who act after considering facts from a political point of view. The result of bringing the judiciary to the position of a branch of the ruling party cannot be justified under any circumstances.

The writer is the Editor of Ravaya


Bickering battle over budget blues

By Chandani Kirinde
imageParliament this week debated the first budget of the second People's Alliance government. Government legislators blamed the war in the north and east and increase in world oil prices for the economic down turn while the main opposition UNP felt that building a presidential complex was the main problem.

Arguments and counter arguments followed but most of them dealt little with the budget presented by Deputy Finance Minister G.L.Peiris but were bickerings about mistakes made by each other while in power.

Most PA legislators adopted their favourite lines which were " Do you remember what happened between 1977-94? You started this war and now we have to pay for its maintenance. Thousands of youth were killed while you gave weapons to the LTTE etc."

UNP members were not very novel in their counter arguments. Some went back as far as 1970 saying the country was heading towards a period of bread queues and the reimposition of ceilings on everything from land to housing to how many people one could invite for a wedding. Their catch phrase however was the President's "Maligawa", the construction of which they wanted stopped immediately.

JVP members made more economic sense than most of their colleagues from both the main parties, by sticking to various economic indicators to show the decline in the economy. They blamed it on gross mismanagement of the economy and said it had little to do with the war or the rise in crude oil prices but more with waste and corruption in the state sector.

But the JVP had its share of allegations hurled at it with its violent past coming back to haunt it time and again. Any mention of the misdeeds of the Government were met with shouts of " you killed so and so, you ruined the country's economy by calling strikes, you closed schools etc."

So it was the usual mud slinging match between the various parties and legislators with little substance in the way of what could be done to ease the burdens of the common man, whose cause all legislators claim to espouse.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe opened the debate on behalf of the Opposition calling on the government to reveal the conditions laid down by the IMF to grant money to the country.

The mention of the President's mansion by him and other UNP legislators caused the loudest uproar in the Chambers.

He questioned why work on the project had not been stopped in keeping with Professor Peiris's proposal for expenditure control and management where he said the construction of new buildings and non-priority projects would be postponed by six months, other than those funded by foreign aid.

Wimal Weerawansa, the JVP's Colombo district MP said the Government was admitting that the people were having serious economic problems but was asking them to wait for six months till they straighten things out. "Does this mean people have to starve in silence," he questioned?.

Deputy minister Ediriweera Premaratne, countered the UNP's call to stop the construction of the President's house asking why J.R.Jayewardene decided to build a new Parliament when there was an existing one. He said President's in all countries lived in grand houses and hence we should build an appropriate place for the President to live in.

"We need to build a nice residence for the president and it might be someone in the opposition who would be living there in a few years. Can the Opposition give an undertaking that if they take power in the country, their President would not live in the newly constructed residence," he queried.

Changing the line of attack, UNP's Mahinda Samarasinghe described the budget as "irresponsible, detrimental and insensitive"

Similar sentiments were echoed by most of his colleagues who said the people have been tricked by the Government into believing they would be given some relief before the new year but were instead being asked to tighten their belts for the next six months.

Mr.Samarasinghe's reference to a newspaper article by a Research fellow at the International Center of Ethnic Studies (ICEC) in Colombo- which said this was a war budget drew fire from Transport Minister Dinesh Gunawardena who accused the ICEC of being an organization supporting and advising the LTTE.

He said Mr.Samarasinghe was echoing the words of the LTTE who were the first to say that this was a war budget.

Several Government MP's painted a rosy picture of the country's economic situation. Minister of Ethnic affair's and National Integration Athauda Seneviratne said there were no shortages of clothes, vehicles, cement etc. in the country.

"You get children's clothes, ladies clothes, men's clothes, there are plenty of vehicles ranging from tractors, three wheelers, lorries and many new buildings are being constructed," he said.

Minister S.B.Dissanayake said Sri Lanka is the richest country in South Asia and was close to the level of any developed country. He said the country has come in for praise from the IMF and World Bank for its development programs.

Mahinda Rajapakse who made a speech that made sense said petty bickering among the two main parties must stop.

"We were given power because people were fed up of the UNP after 17 years in power. But we must stop talking about their mistakes and move forward to safeguard democracy," he said.

He was followed by UNP's Dr. Rajitha Senaratne who said minister Dissanayake was painting a rosy picture.

He launched a scathing attack on Mr.Dissanayke who he charged was heading the PA Government "Gestapo". He compared Mr.Dissanayake to Hitler's confidant Goering and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera to Hitler's Propaganda chief Goebbles.

"The country is heading for a dictatorship. We must reduce the power of the executive presidency and empower Parliament," he said.

JVP's Sunil Handunetti made an appeal on behalf of the public servants to restore their right to purchase duty free vehicles. We are all for removing the privileges of MPs but we must but not deprive poor public servants their rights." He said the reason, the government brought forward this proposal was due to the pressure from the JVP.

However his remarks did not go down well with Nandimithra Ekanayake who said the JVP was trying to take credit for the government's actions and pull the public servants into their trap.

"We are confident the war would be over by the time of the next budget. Then we will give the necessary pay hike to public servants and pensioners."

Another government minister who came down hard on the JVP was Forestry and Environment minister Mahinda Wijesekera. Mr.Wijesekera who was himself a member of the JVP during the 1971 insurrection said JVP members had no right to be in Parliament. "They said they would never come to Parliament but they are shameless. They refuse to change when the Soviet Union, China and even Cuba are shedding their socialist policies," he said.

The debate touched on various other budget unrelated subjects ranging from women's underwear to how the American Ambassador to Sri Lanka interfered in Sri Lanka's internal affairs.

UNP's Gamini Jayawickrema Perera was among number of UNP MPs who accused the PA of insulting the UNP for opening garment factories saying that Sri Lankan women were being used to sew underwear for white women but were now harping on how well the garment industry was doing.

The lone Sihala Urumaya legislator Thilak Karunaratne used his time to criticize the American ambassador Ashley Wills who on a visit to Jaffna had commented on Sri Lanka's ethnic problem.

"This is an interference in the internal affairs of the country. Will he be allowed to go to Srinagar and comment on the situation there," he asked.

As the debate progressed, it was evident that different legislators had their own measures for deciding if the country's economy was doing well or not? 

One said there were many Chinese restaurants springing up all over the place and looking at the people patronizing them, it was clear the economy was doing well. Another said the super markets were full and this was a sign of prosperity while yet another said the large numbers using mobile phones was a promising factor for the economic well being. 

If the legislators continue to use these as economic indicators and not the facts and figures that give the true picture, they would continue to live in their fool's paradise while the people continue to live in their harsh world of realities.

US Army in crisis over berets

Sri Lanka among the countries that got the contract
By Jamie McIntyre
WASHINGTON (CNN) The Army says it will not change its plans to issue all soldiers black berets, but it might have to delay the implementation.

Army troops were supposed to begin wearing the new black berets on June 14, but that is under review because more than 2 million berets were set to be manufactured in China and other countries, said Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff. 

Federal law requires the berets to be made in the United States. 

Seeking to defuse the battle of the beret, Shinseki on Friday said the elite Rangers unit will be switching colors, trading in their traditional black berets for tan ones. 

The move came after Rangers were outraged by last October's decision that most Army units will begin wearing black berets. The elite Rangers have worn black berets for decades. 

At a Pentagon news conference, Shinseki defended his decision for Army troops to wear black berets, saying "change is difficult and this is symbolic in that aspect." 

"These decisions are about our excellence as soldiers, our unity as a force, and our values as an institution," the general said. "The black beret remains the most relevant color for wear Army-wide today." 

He said he had anticipated backlash among Rangers when he made the announcement in October: "We expected there would be some push back."

Shinseki said the 75th Ranger Regiment requested they wear a different colored beret to set them apart and the Army approved.

"Now, the Ranger tan beret will continue to symbolize that great regiment and its challenges for the 21st century," he said. "Whatever those challenges are, Rangers will continue to lead the way." 

A statement from the 75th Ranger Regiment said the tan color is reminiscent of the numerous beach assaults in the European Theater and the jungle fighting in the Pacific Theater of World War II. It also represents the khaki uniforms worn by Rangers in the Korean and Vietnam wars. 

Special Forces will continue to wear their distinctive green berets and Airborne Forces will retain their maroon berets, Shinseki said.

Maj. Marcus de Oliveira of Fort Benning, Georgia, told CNN that Rangers throughout the regiment were asked about the new color.

"Most of them were in favor of this change," he said. 

China connection controversy 

Meanwhile, an entirely new controversy has emerged over beret contracts.

The United States has contracted with seven companies to make 4.8 million berets at a cost of $29 million. But one of those companies, headquartered in Britain, would manufacture the berets in China. 

That company is contracted to make 617,936 berets for $4 million, or roughly 13 percent of the entire U.S. contracts. 

Shinseki said the contract is under review, but said, "We haven't canceled anything yet." 

The contract also has come under scrutiny on Capitol Hill because a "Buy American" provision mandates such goods be manufactured in the United States. 

Under the current contracts, the berets would be manufactured in the United States, Canada, Sri Lanka, India and Romania, in addition to China. 

Rep. Lois Capps, D-California, sent a letter signed by 79 other House members demanding President Bush review the Defense contracts. 

"In its decision to purchase berets from foreign suppliers, the Defense Logistics Agency waived the Berry Amendment, the federal law which requires the Pentagon to buy clothing made in U.S. factories of 100 percent American components," wrote Capps. "We respectfully request that you immediately reconsider the Army's contract." 

The black beret will replace the current fold-up "overseas" cap, the saucer-like "service" hat and the brimmed baseball-style cap. 

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