Neighbourly give-and-take of fishermen

Govt. scrambles for MoU as Indo-Lanka fishermen keep getting their lines crossed
By Leon Berenger

Even as the Government on Friday released 136 Indian fishermen who were apprehended while poaching within the country’s territorial waters, the authorities on the other side of the Palk Straits returned the compliment when they sent back four Sri Lankan fishermen who had strayed into India’s territorial waters.

The Indians were apprehended by local fishermen in two separate incidents at Point Pedro and at Madagal on Tuesday and Wednesday, and later handed over to the local police, who in turn produced them in court which subsequently remanded them for 14 days.

The Inidian trawlers that were apprehended by Sri Lankan fishermen and then handed over to the authorities
An Indian coast guard takes down details of the Indian fishermen who were handed over to the Indian authorities by the Sri Lankan Navy on Friday.

However, on Friday, the Attorney General’s (AG) Department advised the police to file a motion in the same court, seeking the release of the Indians, purely on good faith and friendly relationship between the two countries.

Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Jaffna, Gamini Amarakone said that the police did not object to their release, since the instructions had come from AG’s Department. However, lawyers who watched the interest of the Sri Lankan fishermen said that no reason was given by the Magistrate for the release of the fishermen.

Prior to their release, the Indian fishermen were asked by the Magistrate if they admitted to have intruded into Sri Lankan territorial waters. The fishermen agreed that they had done so. The five lawyers who appeared for the Point Pedro fishermen, opposed the release of the Indians, saying their trawlers were intruding into the northern territorial waters on a daily basis and were responsible for removing a large chunk of rich marine resources from the area.

Naval spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya also endorsed the position of the lawyers, saying that, on any given day, between 500 to a 1000 Indian fishermen are spotted poaching in the country’s territorial waters. “This is not something new. It has been happening for some time since the end of the war”, Warnakuilasuriya said.

The detention of the Indian fishermen also sparked off noisy protests in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, as thousands of protesters took to the streets and attempted to march on Sri Lanka’s Consulate, but were prevented by the local police.The protesters were furious that some 200 persons were arrested, including the daughter of the state’s Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. They demanded that Delhi puts pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to release the fishermen without delay.

On Friday morning, an emergency meeting chaired by Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa with Navy Commander Vice Admiral Rohana Dissanayake in attendance, met at the Ministry of Defence to discuss measures relating to the Indian fishermen and the consequent diplomatic uproar across the Palk Strait.

According to sources, the decision to release the Indians came after this meeting took place.
Meanwhile, Government is drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with India, to reach a permanent solution to the fishing crisis on both sides of the Palk Strait.

Fisheries Ministry Secretary Dr. Damitha de Zoysa said the modalities of the MoU were currently being drawn up by the External Affairs Ministry and would be made available at the earliest. “At the moment, I am not aware of the exact nature of the MoU, since it is in the process of being drafted, but will be based on good faith and understanding between the two countries”, she added.

She further said that the 136 Indian fishermen who were released on Friday night, was in keeping with the good faith shown by the Sri Lankan Government. “We expect Delhi to reciprocate accordingly in such matters in the future as well”, she added.

Meanwhile, 24 Sri Lankan fishermen held in Indian jails for the past three months, were released and handed over to the Navy on the high seas of the Palk Strait yesterday afternoon, in apparent reciprocity on India’s part.

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