Month: August 2019

මරණ දඬුවම: අධිකරණමය ඝාතන සඳහා වන අවසර පත්‍රය

First published on Anidda newspaper of 7th July 2019 and then at https://www.vikalpa.org/?p=35292 also on 7th July 2019

පසුගිය වසරේ ඔක්තෝම්බර් 02 වන දා ඉරානය විසින් සෙයිනබ් සෙකාන්වාද් නමැති 24 හැවිරිදි කාන්තාවක් මරණ දඬුවමට පැමිණෙව්වේ ඇය සිය ළමා කාලයේ සිදු කළැයි කියා චෝදනා එල්ල වූ වරදක් සම්බන්ධයෙනි. ජාත්‍යන්තර නීතිය යටතේ ඇයව මරණ දඬුවමෙන් නිදහස් කළ යුතුව තිබිණි. ඇය අනෙකුත් බොහෝ ළමා මනාලියන් මෙන්ම ස්ත්‍රී-පුරුෂ සමාජභාවය පදනම් කර ගත් ප්‍රචණ්ඩත්වයෙන් දිවි බේරාගත් අයෙකු විය. දුප්පත් සහ ගතානුගතික පවුලක උපන් ඇය ව වයස අවුරුදු 15දී විවාහ කර දී තිබුනේ හිංසාකාරී සහ ප්‍රචණ්ඩකාරී පිරිමියෙකුට ය. තමාව නැවත නැවතත් දූෂණයට ලක්කළ තම සැමියාගෙන් සහ මස්සිනාගෙන් තමාව ආරක්ෂා කර දෙන ලෙස දෙමාපියන් සහ අදාළ බලධාරීන්ගෙන් ඇය අයැද සිටි නමුත් ඒවාට ඇහුම්කන්දීමක් සිදුනොවීය.  වයස අවුරුදු 17දී ඇය ඇගේ සැමියා මරණයට පත්කොට තිබුණ අතර පොලිසියේ දරුණු වධහිංසා හමුවේ සෙයිනබ් තමා එම අපරාධය කළ බවට පාපොච්චාරණය කළාය. අවසානයේ ඇය වෙනුවෙන් නීතීඥවරියක පත්කළ පසු නඩු විභාගයේදී තමා පෙර කළ පාපොච්චාරණය ඉල්ලා අස්කරගත්ත ද, ඒ වනවිට ඇය ඉතා ප්‍රමාද විය: ඇයට මරණ දඬුවම නියම කෙරිණ.

ඇලිස් නුන්ගු තම හිංසාකාරී සැමියාගේ බීමත් ප්‍රහාරවලින් තමා සහ තම මහලු මව බේරාගැනීම ට උත්සාහ කරන අතරතුර ඔහුව මරණයට පත්කිරීම නිසා මරණ දඬුවමට නියම කෙරුණ මලාවියානු කාන්තාවකි. ඇයට මරණ දඬුවම නියම වීමට පෙර වසර ගණනාවක් තිස්සේ ඇය දරා ගත් අධික හිංසාවන් ගැන අවධානය යොමු කළ අධිකරණය අවසානයේ 2015 දී ඇයව වහාම නිදහස් කරන්නට නියෝග කරන ලදී.  HIV ආසාදිතව, අනුකම්පා විරහිත ජීවන තත්ත්වයන් යටතේ සහ ආහාර හිඟකමින් පීඩා විදිමින් ඇයට මරණ දඬුවමට කැප ලැයිස්තුවේ වසර 12ක් පුරා කල්මරන්නට සිදුව තිබිණි. නිදහස් වීමෙන් සති කිහිපයකට පසුව තම මව සමීපයේ දී ඇලිස් මියගියා ය.

ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ මරණ දඬුවමට නියම කෙරුණ ලැයිස්තුවේ කාන්තාවන් සිටිය ද එසේ මරණ දඬුවමට මුහුණදෙන ඔවුන්ගේ ස්ත්‍රී පුරුෂ සමාජභාවය මත පදනම් වූ විවිධ මාන ගැන එතරම් තොරතුරු සොයාගැනීමට නොහැක. නමුත් අන්තර්ජාතික පර්යේෂණ පෙන්නුම් කරන ආකාරයට මරණ දඬුවමට ලක් කෙරෙන කාන්තාවන් ස්ත්‍රී පුරුෂ සමාජභාවය පිළිබඳ අගතිගාමී අදහස්වල බහුවිධ ආකාරයේ ගොදුරු බවට පත්වේ. ස්ත්‍රී පුරුෂ සමාජභාවය මත පදනම් වූ සමාජ සම්මතයන් කඩ කරන බවට පෙනී යන කාන්තාවන් වැඩි වශයෙන් මරණ දඬුවම ලැබීමට ඉඩ ඇති අතර, මිනීමැරීමේ අපරාධය සිදුකිරීම නිසා මරණ දඬුවමට නියම කෙරෙන බොහොමයක් කාන්තාවන් නිතරම පාහේ ස්ත්‍රී පුරුෂ සමාජභාවය මත පදනම් වූ ප්‍රචණ්ඩත්වය යන සන්දර්භය තුල තම පවුලේ සාමාජිකයින් මරා දැමීම සම්බන්ධව දඬුවම් ලැබූවන් ය. උදාහරණයක් ලෙස ජෝර්දානයේ මරණ දඬුවම හිමි කාන්තාවන් 16ක් අතුරෙන් එක්කෙනෙක් හැර අන් සියල්ලන්ම වරදකාරියන් කෙරුණේ හිංසාව පිණිස විභවයක් නිර්මාණය කරන සම්ප්‍රදායික බලයක් දරාසිටින සැමියෙකු, පියෙකු හෝ නැන්දම්මා කෙනෙකු වැනි පවුලේ සමීප සාමාජිකයෙකු මරාදැමීම නිසා ය.

පසුගිය ජුනි 14 වෙනිදා ඇමෙරිකා එක්සත් ජනපදයේ චාල්ස් රේ ෆින්ච් නමැත්තා සියලු චෝදනාවලින් නිදොස් කොට නිදහස් කෙරුණේ මරණ දඬුවම නියම කර වසර 43කට අනතුරුව ය. මේ වසරේම පෙර අවස්ථාවක, ඇමෙරිකා එක්සත් ජනපදයේ ක්ලිෆර්ඩ් විලියම්ස් නමැත්තා එසේ චෝදනාවලින් නිදහස් කෙරුණේ වසර 42කට පසුව ය. 1973 වසරේ පටන් පුද්ගලයින් 10 දෙනෙකු නිදොස් කොට නිදහස් කිරීම සඳහා වසර 30කට වඩා බැගින් කල් ගතව ඇත. ඔවුන් සියල්ලන්ම කළු ජාතිකයින් වූහ. එරට වසර 36ක් පුරා වාර්ෂිකව නිදොස් කොට නිදහස්වීම් ලැබූ පුද්ගලයින්ගේ සාමාන්‍ය අගය 4කට වැඩි අගයක පවතිද්දී එසේ නිදහස් වූ ලැයිස්තුවේ පිළිවෙළින් 165වෙනි සහ 166වෙනි පුද්ගලයින් වූවේ විලියම්ස් සහ ෆින්ච් ය. 2019 ජුනි 20 වන දින එම නිදහස් වීම සිදු වූයේ එරට 1500 වන පුද්ගලයා මරණ දඬුවම යටතේ මරා දැමීම සිදුවීමට ඉතා ආසන්නයේය.

 අධිකරණමය ඝාතන සඳහා ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ නව අවසරය

අවසන් වරට ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ මරණ දඬුවම ක්‍රියාත්මක කිරීම 1976 දී සිදු වී ඇති අතර එදා පටන් මරණ දඬුවම යොදාගැනීම සඳහා තාවකාලික තහනමක්  පැවත ඇත. අප නීතියේ මරණ දඬුවම සඳහා ප්‍රතිපාදන පැවතීම සහ අධිකරණය විසින් එසේ මරණ දඬුවම සඳහා නියම කිරීම් නිතිපතා සිදුවුවද 1976න් පසු සිටි ජනාධිපතිවරු මරණ දඬුවම සඳහා අවශ්‍ය වරෙන්තුව අත්සන් නොකළහ.

නමුත් වධහිංසාවට ගොදුරුවූවන් වෙනුවෙන් සහයෝගය දක්වන අන්තර්ජාතික දිනය යෙදුනු පසුගිය ජුනි 26 වෙනිදා මාධ්‍ය විසින් ප්‍රකාශ කළේ ජනාධිපති මෛත්‍රීපාල සිරිසේන වසර 43ක් පුරා ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ පෙර ජනාධිපතිවරුන් පවත්වාගෙන ආ තාවකාලික තහනම ඉවත්කරමින් කෲර, අමානුෂික සහ අවමන් සහගත දඬුවමක් වන මරණ දඬුවම නැවත ගෙන ඒමට කටයුතු කරන බවයි. පසුගිය වසර කිහිපය පුරා අධිකරණයෙන් බලාත්මක නොකෙරුනු ඝාතන සම්බන්ධව අපකීර්තියට පත් ශ්‍රී ලංකාව දැන් සිටින්නේ අධිකරණය විසින් බලාත්මක කරන ඝාතන සම්බන්ධයෙන් අපකීර්තියට පත්වීමට ඉතා ආසන්නයේය.

මරණ වරෙන්තුව සඳහා අත්සන් කෙරුණ පුද්ගලයින් 4 දෙනා කවුරුන්දැයි තවමත් නිවේදනය කොට නැත. මේ වසරේ ආරම්භයේදී මරණ දඬුවමට නියම වුණ ලැයිස්තුවේ නම් 1299ක් විය. ඔවුන් සියලුදෙනාත්, ඔවුන්ගේ පවුල්වල සාමාජික සාමාජිකාවනුත් ඔවුන් හෝ ඔවුන්ගේ ආදරණීයයන් එම පළමු නම් 4ට අයත්දැ’යි සහ ඔවුන්ගේ වාරය කොයි මොහොතේ පැමිණේදැයි බලවත් වේදනාවෙන් සහ කම්පනයෙන් සිටිනවා විය යුතුය. බන්ධනාගාර නිලධාරීන් උපුටා දක්වමින් මාධ්‍ය විසින් කියා සිටියේ මරණ දඬුවමට නියමව ඇති පුද්ගලයින් ආතතියට පත්ව, ආහාර නොගනිමින් සහ ක්ලාන්ත ගතියෙන් පෙළෙමින් කල් ගතකරන බවයි.

මරණ දඬුවමට විරුද්ධ විය යුත්තේ ඇයි ?

මරණ දඬුවම යනු නැවත හැරවිය නොහැකි වර්ගයේ දඬුවමකි. එසේ දඬුවම පැමිණවීමෙන් අනතුරුව මතුවෙන නව සාක්ෂි සලකා බැලීමට අවකාශයක් එය විසින් ලබා නොදෙන නිසාය. උදාහරණයක් ලෙස, නව තාක්ෂණය තුළින් සාක්ෂි විමසා බැලූ කල, යමෙකු වැරැදි විනිශ්චයක් හරහා අයුතු ලෙස වැරදිකරුවෙකු කර ඇතැයි පෙනී යා හැක. එසේ අයුතු ලෙස වරදකරුවෙකු වූ බව නව සාක්ෂි මගින් සනාථ වී දශක කිහිපයකට පසුව මරණ දඬුවමෙන් නිදහස් වුණ මිනිසුන් පිළිබඳව සිද්ධි ගණනාවක් ලොව පුරා වාර්තා වී ඇත. ශ්‍රී ලංකා මානව හිමිකම් කොමිසම පෙන්වා දෙන ආකාරයට ඇමෙරිකා එක්සත් ජනපදය, කැනඩාව සහ එක්සත් රාජධානිය යන රටවල අයුතු ලෙස වරදකරුවන් කෙරුණ පුද්ගලයින් පසු අවස්ථාවලදී මරණ දඬුවමෙන් නිදහස්ව ඇත. කොමිසමට අනුව, ඇමෙරිකා එක්සත් ජනපදයේ නඩුවක දී, අපරාධ කිහිපයකට වරදකරු කෙරුණ පුද්ගලයෙකු වසර 23කට පසු නිදහස් වී ඇත්තේ, පසු කලකදී අදාළ විමර්ශන නිලධාරියා සහ විනිසුරුවරයා තම දඬුවම් පැමිණවීම යුක්තිය නිසියාකාරව ඉටු නොවීමක් ලෙස ප්‍රකාශ කිරීමෙන් අනතුරුවය.

ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ නීති පද්ධතිය තුළ නඩු පැවරීමේදී නිර්දෝෂී පුද්ගලයින් වරදකරුවන් කෙරෙන ආකාරයෙන් සිදු වන විෂමාචාර ද මානව හිමිකම් කොමිසම විසින් නිරීක්ෂණය කර ඇත. නඩු පැවරීමේදී සහ අභියාචනයේ දී දුප්පත් සහ පීඩිත මිනිසුන්ට පහසුවෙන් ළඟා කරගත නොහැකි, ගුණාත්මක බවින් යුතු නීති ආධාර හිඟකම ඇතුළත්ව අපරාධ යුක්ති පද්ධතියේ ඇති බරපතල ඌනතා විශේෂ කොටගෙන, අන් සියලු ස්ථානවල දී මෙන්ම ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ද අයථා දඬුවම් පැමිණවීම් සිදුවිය හැක. ඒ නිසාවෙන් අයථා දඬුවම් පැමිණවීම්වලට මුහුණදීමට වඩාත් ඉඩ ඇත්තේ දුප්පතුන් ය.

එමෙන්ම මරණ දඬුවම ලබා දීම මගින් ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ හෝ ලෝකයේ වෙනත් කිසිදු රටකින් අපරාධ වළක්වා හෝ අඩු කර ඇති බවට සාක්ෂි නොමැත.

මත්ද්‍රව්‍ය ආශ්‍රිත අපරාධ ඇතුළුව අපරාධ වැළැක්වීම සම්බන්ධයෙන් ගන්නා වැඩදායී පියවර වෙත සහයෝගය ලබාදෙමින්ම, මරණ දඬුවමට විරුද්ධ වීමට හැකියාව පවතී. සිවිල් හා දේශපාලන අයිතීන් සහ ආර්ථිකමය, සමාජයීය හා සංස්කෘතික අයිතීන් යන දෙකම සියලුම දෙනා වෙනුවෙන් සහතික කරමින් අපරාධ වැළැක්වීම පිණිස ක්‍රියා කිරීම තීරණාත්මක ය. යම් බන්ධනාගාර රැඳවියන් බන්ධනාගාරගතව සිටියදී මත්ද්‍රව්‍ය ආශ්‍රිත වැරදි සිදුකරන්නේ නම්, බන්ධනාගාර තුළ මත්ද්‍රව්‍යවලට අවසර දෙන බන්ධනාගාර නිලධාරීන් වගකිවයුත්තන් කරමින් බන්ධනාගාර තුළ ආරක්ෂාව තර කළ යුත්තේ නව තාක්ෂණයේ භාවිතය ද එක්කරගනිමිනි.

අන්තර්ජාතික බැඳීම් සහ ප්‍රවණතා

මරණ දඬුවම සඳහා තාවකාලික තහනමක් ඉල්ලා සිටි එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ මහා මණ්ඩල යෝජනාවට එතෙක් මෙතෙක් අනුමැතිය පළ කළ වැඩිම රටවල් ගණන වූ රටවල් 121 අතරට පසුගිය දෙසැම්බර් මාසයේ ශ්‍රී ලංකාවද අයත් විය. මෙහි දී මරණ දඬුවම ඇති නිසා අපරාධ වැළකෙන බවට ඇති අදහස සම්බන්ධයෙන් ඔප්පු කළ හැකි සාක්ෂි නොමැති බව ද, මරණ දඬුවම බලාත්මක කිරීමේදී සිදු විය හැකි මොනයම් හෝ යුක්තිය නිසි ලෙස ඉටු නොවීමේ අත්වැරදීමක් ආපසු හැරවිය නොහැකි හා ප්‍රතිකර්ම නොමැති එකක් ලෙස ද හඳුනා ගන්නා ලදී. මරණ දඬුවම තහනම් කළ රටවල් දිරිමත් කෙරෙන සහ මරණ දඬුවමේ අඛණ්ඩව යෙදීම පිළිබඳව මහත් සැලකිල්ලක් දක්වන ගෝලීය ප්‍රකාශනයකට ද ශ්‍රී ලංකාව එක් විය.

ඉන් මාස 6කට පසුව දැන් ශ්‍රී ලංකාව පෙනී සිටින්නේ මරණ දඬුවම අහෝසි කිරීම වෙත ගමන් කිරීම වෙනුවට පැවති දීර්ඝතම තාවකාලික තහනම ආපසු හරවන අවස්ථාවකට ඉතා ආසන්නයේය. මත්ද්‍රව්‍ය ආශ්‍රිත වැරදි සම්බන්ධයෙන් ලබා දෙන මරණ දඬුවම ජාත්‍යන්තර නීතිය යටතේ අනීතික ඝාතන ඝණයෙහි ලා සැලකේ. එසේම එය ශ්‍රී ලංකාව ද පාර්ශ්වයක් වන සිවිල් හා දේශපාලන අයිතීන් සඳහා වන අන්තර්ජාතික ප්‍රඥප්තියේ 6 වන ව්‍යවස්ථාව මේ හරහා උල්ලංඝණය කරයි.

ඇම්නෙස්ටි ඉන්ටනැෂනල් සංවිධානයට අනුව අධිකරණය බලාත්මක කරන මරණයට පත් කිරීම් සිදු කරන සේම, මරණ දඬුවම නියම කිරීම සිදුකරන රටවල් ගණනෙහි දක්නට ඇත්තේ අඩුවීමකි. එම සංවිධානය පවසන්නේ රටවල් 20 කින් ලබාගත් දත්ත අනුව 2017 වසරේ 993ක්ව පැවති එවන් මරණයට පත්කිරීම්, 2018 වසරේ 690ක් ලෙස වාර්තා වී තිබුනි. එය 2017ට සාපේක්ෂව 31%ක අඩු වීමක් වන අතර, පසුගිය දශකයේ ඇම්නෙස්ටි සංවිධානය වාර්තා කර තිබූ අඩුම අගය ද වේ. ඇම්නෙස්ටි සංවිධානය 2017 වසරේ රටවල් 54කින් ලබාගත් දත්ත අනුව, මරණ දණ්ඩනයට නියම කිරීම් 2591ක් වාර්තා වී තිබූ අතර, එම සංඛ්‍යාවේ අඩුවීමක් පෙන්වමින් 2018 වසරේ අවම වශයෙන් එවන් නියම කිරීම් 2531ක් වාර්තා කර තිබුණි. වසර 2018හි අවසානය වන විට ලොව පුරා මිනිසුන් 19,336ක පිරිසක් මරණ දඬුවමට නියමව ඇති බවට දැනගන්නට ලැබිණ. රටවල් 170කට අධික ගණනක් මරණ දඬුවම අහෝසි කර හෝ නීතියෙන් හෝ භාවිතාවෙන් තාවකාලික තහනම් කිරීම් හඳුන්වාදෙමින් මරණ දඬුවම නැවැත්වීමට හිතකර තත්ත්වයක් ඇති කිරීමට ක්‍රියා කර ඇත. රටවල් 40කට අඩු ගණනක් මරණ දඬුවම ලබාදීමේ භාවිතාව දිගටම පවත්වා ගෙන යාම සිදුකරයි.  එක්සත් ජාතීන්ගේ සංවිධානයට අනුව 2019 මැයි 23 වන දා වන විට සිවිල් සහ දේශපාලන අයිතීන් පිළිබඳ අන්තර්ජාතික ප්‍රඥප්තියේ, මරණ දඬුවම අහෝසි කිරීම පිණිස වන 2වන වෛකල්පිත ප්‍රොටොකෝලය රටවල් 87ක් විසින් ස්ථිර කර ඇත.   ‍

ඝාතනවලට එරෙහි ආගමික ඉගැන්වීම්

කතෝලිකයෙකු ලෙස මා විශ්වාස කරන මූලික දේශනයක් වන්නේ “ඔබ (කිසිවෙකුත්) නොමැරිය යුතුය” යන්නයි. මරණ දඬුවම යනු ” කවර ආකාරයකින් සිදු කළ ද මානව ගෞරවයට නින්දා කෙරෙන අවමන් සහගත පියවරක්” ලෙසත්, “කිතුනු දහමට පටහැණි” ලෙසත් සහ මනුෂ්‍ය ජීවිතය පූජනීය බවටත්, සෘජු සහ නොවෙනස් ප්‍රතිපත්තිමය ස්ථාවරයක් ෆ්‍රැන්සිස් පාප්තුමා ගනු ලැබ ඇත. කෙසේ වෙතත් පසුගිය වසරේ ජූලි මාසයේ කොළඹ දී සිදු කළ ප්‍රකාශයක අගරදගුරු අතිඋතුම් මැල්කම් රංජිත් හිමිපාණන් කියා සිටියේ ඇතැම් අවස්ථාවල දී මරණ දඬුවම ක්‍රියාවට නැංවීම සම්බන්ධයෙන් තමාගේ සහය හිමිවෙන බවයි. ඔහු ප්‍රකාශ කළේ බිහිසුණු අපරාධ සිදුකරන්නන්ට ඔවුන්ගේ ජීවත් වීමේ අයිතිය අහිමි කළ යුතු බව සහ අධිකරණයෙන් ලබාදෙන ඕනෑම දඬුවමක් බලාත්මක කළ යුතු බව ය. කාදිනල්තුමාගේ ප්‍රකාශයෙන් සති දෙකකටත් අඩු කාලයක දී අගෝස්තු 1 වෙනිදා බිෂොප්වරුන් වෙත ලිපියක් නිකුත් කළ වතිකානුව කියා සිටියේ අහිංසක මිනිසුන්ගේ ජීවිත ආරක්ෂා කිරීමට වුව ද මරණ දඬුවම යොදා ගැනීම අනුමත නොකළ යුතු සහ අනවශ්‍ය දෙයක් ලෙසය. 2018 අගෝස්තු 9 වෙනිදා ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ බිෂොප්වරුන්ගේ සම්මේලනය මේ අනුව යමින් වතිකානුවේ ලිපිය පුළුල් ලෙස උපුටා දක්වමින් සහ ස්වකීය ප්‍රකාශයක්ද නිකුත් කරමින් පහදා සිටියේ ඔවුන් නිසැකවම මරණ දඬුවමට එරෙහි බවය. කාදිනල් රංජිත් හිමිපාණන් ද තම පෙර ස්ථාවරය වෙනස් කරමින් මෙම ප්‍රකාශයට එකඟතාව පළ කර තිබිණි.

එසේම බෞද්ධයින් බහුතරයක් වාසය කරන මේ රටෙහි බුදුදහමේ එන පළමු ශික්ෂාපදය ඝාතනවලින් වැළකී සිටීම යි.(පාණාතිපාතා වේරමණී සික්ඛාපදං සමාදියාමි)

මරණීය දඬුවම – නැතහොත් අධිකරණය විසින් බලාත්මක කරන ඝාතන, ජීවිතයේ පූජනීය බව පවත්වා ගැනෙන ආගමික හා ආධ්‍යාත්මික අගයන්ට ද, ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ අන්තර්ජාතික බැඳියාවන්වලට ද පටහැනි ය. අප එයට විරුද්ධ විය යුතු වන්නේ සිවිල් හා දේශපාලන අයිතීන් පිළිබඳ අන්තර්ජාතික ප්‍රඥප්තියට අනුකූලව  මරණ දඬුවම අහෝසි කිරීම ඉල්ලා සිටින 2 වන වෛකල්පිත ප්‍රොටොකෝලයට එකඟ වෙමින් දීර්ඝකාලීනව බලපැවැත්වෙන පරිදි මරණ දඬුවම අහෝසි කිරීමටත්, කෙටිකාලීනව බලපැවැත්වෙන තාවකාලික තහනම එලෙසින්ම පවත්වාගැනීමටත් අවධාරණයෙන් ඉල්ලා සිටිමිනි.

Death Penalty: License for Judicial Killings

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/06/30/news-features/death-penalty-license-judicial-killings on 30th June 2019

Last year, on October 2, Iran executed a 24-year-old woman, Zeinab Sekaanvand[. Born into a poor and conservative family, she was married at the age of 15 to a man who had turned abusive and violent. She appealed to the authorities and her family to protect her from both her husband and her brother-in-law, whom she claimed had raped her repeatedly, but her pleas went unheard. When she was still a child at 17, her husband was found dead, and she confessed to the crime under police torture. At her trial hearing – when she was finally appointed a lawyer – she retracted her confession, but it was too late: the court sentenced her to death.

Alice Nungu, was a Malawian woman who was sentenced to death after killing her abusive husband while defending herself and her elderly mother from his drunken attack. In 2015, a court heard about the intense abuse that Alice endured before sentencing, and ordered her release. She had languished on death row for over 12 years, fading from HIV, inhumane living conditions, and lack of food. Only weeks after her release, Alice died, with her mother by her side.

Research indicates that women who are sentenced to death are subjected to multiple forms of gender bias. Women who are seen as violating entrenched gender norms are more likely to receive the death penalty and most women are sentenced to death for the crime of murder, often in relation to the killing of family members and in a context of gender-based violence.

This year, in the United States of America (USA), Charles Ray Finch and Clifford Williams Jr., were exonerated 43 years and 42 years after having been sentenced to death[4]. Williams and Finch were the 165th and 166th persons respectively to be exonerated after being given the death penalty in the USA, over a period of 36 years, an average of more than four exonerations per year.

Sri Lanka’s new license for Judicial Killings

Sri Lankan judges have been handing down death sentences, with the number increasing from 96 in 2010 to 217 in 2017. However, the last execution was in 1976 and since then, there has been a moratorium on the use of death penalty.

But on June 26, the International day in support of Victims of Torture, media announced President Sirisena had brought back the death penalty, a cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, breaking the 43 year long moratorium upheld by all Sri Lankan presidents.

The names of the four persons against whom the death warrant has been signed is yet to be announced. As of early this year, 1299 persons were reported to have been on the death row[6]. All those on the death row, and all of their families, must be in agony and trauma, not knowing whether they or their loved ones are amongst the first four to be executed or when their turn might come. Media quoted Prison officials saying most on the death row were stressed, not eating and feeling faintish after the President’s announcement.

Why say NO to the Death Penalty

The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment which grants no space to consider new evidence that may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction. As has been mentioned above, people wrongly convicted have been released from death row decades after they were put there as new evidence has shown that they were wrongfully convicted.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has noted allegations of prosecutorial misconduct leading to conviction of innocents in Sri Lanka. Like everywhere else, wrongful convictions are possible in Sri Lanka, especially given the serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, quality, legal aid for the poor and vulnerable – during trial and appeal. Thus, it is the poor who are more likely to face wrongful convictions.

There is no evidence in Sri Lanka or in any part of the world that the death penalty has prevented or reduced crimes.

It is possible and necessary to oppose the death penalty and support strong measures to address crime, including drug related crimes. It is crucial to work towards prevention of crime, by guaranteeing all human rights for all – both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.

If some detainees are engaged in drug-related offences from within prison grounds, security in prisons must be strengthened, including through the use of new technology and holding prison officials accountable for allowing drugs inside prisons.

International commitments and trends

In December last year, Sri Lanka was amongst the 121 countries that endorsed a United Nations General Assembly Resolution noting that any miscarriage of justice in the implementation of the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable and that there is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty. Sri Lanka also joined the collective global expression of deep concern about the continuing application of the death penalty and encouraged states which had moratoriums to maintain it. Six months later, Sri Lanka has abandoned its own moratorium, instead of progressing to abolish the death penalty.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government is reported to have announced that it is in the process of abolishing the death penalty or scrapping the mandatory death penalty. Nepal’s 2015 constitution has prohibited any law to be made that prescribes the death penalty. Over 170 countries have either abolished the death penalty or taken a position in favour of ending executions by introducing moratorium sin law or practice. As of May 23 2019, 87 countries had ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights calling for the abolishing of the death penalty.The number of countries implementing judicial executions as well as passing death sentences is on the decline. According to Amnesty International, there have been at least 690 executions in 2018, down by 31 percent from 2017 (at least 993 executions). Death sentences passed in 2018 has also declined to 2,531 in 2018 from the 2,591 reported in 2017. At least 19,336 people were known to be under the sentence of death globally at the end of 2018.

Religious teachings against killings

As a Catholic, a fundamental precept I believe in is “Thou Shall not Kill”. Pope Francis has said that the death penalty is “an inhuman measure that humiliates human dignity, in whatever form it is carried out” and that it is “contrary to the Gospel.” The Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have unequivocally opposed the death penalty through its statement dated August 9 2018. The first precept of Buddhism is to abstain from killings (Pānātipātā veramanī sikkhāpadan samādiyāmi).

The Death Penalty – or Judicial Killings – is against Sri Lanka’s international obligations and religious and spiritual values, which uphold the sacredness of life. We must oppose the death penalty in any form – in the short term to maintain the moratorium, and in the long term to abolish the death penalty for all crimes and ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which calls for the abolition of the death penalty.

Death Penalty: License for Judicial Killings

First published at https://groundviews.org/2019/06/28/death-penalty-license-for-judicial-killings/ on 28th June 2019

Last year, on October 2, Iran executed a 24-year-old woman, Zeinab Sekaanvand, who was a child at the time of her alleged offense. Under international law, she should have been excluded from the death penalty. She was also, like many child brides, a survivor of gender-based violence. Born into a poor and conservative family, she was married at the age of 15 to a man who had turned abusive and violent. She appealed to the authorities and her family to protect her from both her husband and her brother-in-law, whom she claimed had raped her repeatedly, but her pleas went unheard. When she was 17, her husband was found dead, and she confessed to the crime under police torture. At her trial hearing – when she was finally appointed a lawyer – she retracted her confession, but it was too late: the court sentenced her to death.

Alice Nungu, was a Malawian woman who was sentenced to death after killing her abusive husband while defending herself and her elderly mother from his drunken attack. In 2015, a court finally heard about the years of intense abuse that Alice endured before sentencing, and ordered her immediate release. She had languished on death row for over 12 years, fading from HIV, inhumane living conditions, and lack of food. Only weeks after her release, Alice died, with her mother by her side.

Though there are women in the death row in Sri Lanka, not much information is available about gender dimensions of those facing the death penalty. But international research indicates that women who are sentenced to death are subjected to multiple forms of gender bias. That women who are seen as violating entrenched gender norms are more likely to receive the death penalty and that most women are sentenced to death for the crime of murder, often in relation to the killing of family members and in a context of gender-based violence. In Jordan, for example, of 16 women on death row, all but one was convicted of killing a close family member who traditionally wields authority, creating the potential for abuse: a husband, a father, or a mother-in-law.

Two weeks ago, on June 14, in the United States of America (USA), Charles Ray Finch was exonerated of all charges, 43 years after he had been sent to the death row. Earlier this year, also in the USA, Clifford Williams Jr., was exonerated 42 years after having been sentenced to death. Since 1973, exonerations had taken more than 30 years each for ten persons. All of them have been black. Williams and Finch were the 165th and 166th persons respectively to be exonerated after being given the death penalty in the USA, over a period of 36 years, an average of more than 4 exonerations per year. The 166th came just before the 1500th execution on June 20, 2019.

Sri Lanka’s new license for Judicial Killings

Sri Lanka last’s execution was in 1976 and since then, there has been moratorium on the use of death penalty. Although death sentence remained in our laws and courts regularly imposed the death penalty, successive Presidents didn’t sign the death warrant.

But on June 26, the International day in support of Victims of Torture, media announced President Sirisena had brought back the death penalty, a cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, breaking the 43 year long moratorium upheld by all Sri Lankan presidents. Sri Lanka, a country notorious for extra-judicial executions for last several decades, is on the verge of becoming notorious now for judicial executions.

The names of the four persons against whom the death warrant has been signed is yet to be announced. As of early this year, 1299 persons were reported to have been on the death row. All those on the death row, and all of their families, must be in agony and trauma, not knowing whether they or their loved ones are amongst the first four to be executed or when their turn might come. Media quoted Prison officials saying most on the death row were stressed, not eating and feeling faint.

Why say NO to the Death Penalty

The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment which grants no space to consider new evidence that may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction. As has been mentioned above, people wrongly convicted have been released from death row decades after they were put there as new evidence has shown they were wrongfully convicted. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has pointed out that persons wrongly convicted had been later released from the death row or prison from countries such as USA, Canada and the United Kingdom. The Commission has pointed out a case in the USA, where a convicted man was released after 23 years in prison for several crimes, and the lead investigator and the judge later had claimed his conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

The Commission has also noted alleged prosecutorial misconduct leading to conviction of innocents in Sri Lanka. Like everywhere else, wrongful convictions are possible in Sri Lanka, especially given serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, quality, legal aid for the poor and vulnerable – during trial and appeal. Thus, it is the poor that are more likely to face wrongful convictions.

There is no evidence in Sri Lanka or any part of the world that the death penalty has prevented or reduced crimes.

It is possible and necessary to oppose the death penalty and support constructive measures to address crime, including drug related crimes. It is crucial to work towards prevention of crime, by guaranteeing all human rights for all – both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. If some detainees are engaged in drug-related offenses from within prison grounds, security in prisons must be strengthened, including through the use of new technology and holding prison officials accountable for allowing drugs inside prison.

International commitments and trends

Last year December, Sri Lanka was amongst the 121 countries, the largest number ever, that endorsed a United Nations General Assembly Resolution calling for a moratorium on the Death Penalty. Sri Lanka joined 120 other countries in noting that that any miscarriage of justice in the implementation of death penalty is irreversible and irreparable and that there is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty. Sri Lanka also joined the collective global expression of deep concern about the continuing application of death penalty and encouraged states which had moratoriums to maintain it. Six months later, Sri Lanka now appears to be on the verge of reversing the longest moratorium, instead of progressing to abolish death penalty. Death penalty for drug related offenses also violates article 6 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party to and is considered to be unlawful killings under international law.

According to Amnesty International, the number of countries implementing judicial executions as well as passing death sentences is on the decline. Amnesty says there have been at least 690 executions in 20 countries in 2018, down by 31% from 2017 (at least 993 executions), representing the lowest number of executions that Amnesty International has recorded in the past decade. Amnesty had recorded at least 2,531 death sentences in 54 countries in 2018, a decrease from the total of 2,591 reported in 2017. At least 19,336 people were known to be under sentence of death globally at the end of 2018. Over 170 countries have either abolished the death penalty or taken a position in favour of ending executions by introducing moratorium in law or practice. Fewer than 40 countries continue to uphold the practice. According to the UN, as of 23rd May 2019, 87 countries had ratified 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights calling for the abolishing of the death penalty.

Religious teachings against killings

As a Catholic, a fundamental precept I believe in is “Though Shall not Kill”. Pope Francis has been forthright and taken a consistently principled position that human life is sacred and the death penalty is “an inhuman measure that humiliates human dignity, in whatever form it is carried out” and that it is “contrary to the Gospel.” However, last year, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, in a statement issued in July, said that he supports the implementation of the death penalty in certain cases. He said perpetrators of gruesome crimes could be considered as having forfeited their own right to life, and whatever punishment was given by courts should be implemented. Less than two weeks after Cardinal Ranjith’s statement, the Vatican issued a letter to bishops on August 1 categorically stating that the death penalty is inadmissible and unnecessary even when used to protect the life of innocent people. The Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka followed this up with a statement of their own on August 9, 2018 that quoted extensively from the Vatican’s letter and made it clear that they unequivocally oppose the death penalty. Cardinal Ranjith had reversed his earlier position and signed up to this statement.

The first precept of Buddhism in this Buddhist majority country is to abstain from killings (Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi).

The Death Penalty – or Judicial Killings – is against Sri Lanka’s international obligations and religious and spiritual values, which uphold sacredness of life. We must oppose it, demanding in the short term to maintain the moratorium, and in the long term to abolish the death penalty from domestic laws and ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that calls for the abolition of the death penalty.

Read “The Solution to Drug Trafficking in Sri Lanka“. Also read more content around the death penalty here

World Refugee Day and Refugees in Sri Lanka

First published at https://groundviews.org/2019/06/19/world-refugee-day-and-refugees-in-sri-lanka/ on 19th June 2019

June 20 is World Refugee Day, coinciding with a time Sri Lanka faces its most serious refugee crisis since 2014.

Though not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Sri Lanka is bound by international customary law and human rights treaty obligations – such as the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), to which Sri Lanka is a party to – to respect principle of non-refoulment, which prohibits the return of persons to a country when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person or persons would be at risk of harm. This includes risks to right to life, death penalty, torture, sexual and gender based violence, female genital mutilation, prolonged solitary confinement, denial of fair trial, degrading living conditions, lack of medical treatment etc.

The Sri Lankan government has an agreement with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which allows UNHCR to register those seeking refugee status and carry out refugee status determination. According to UNHCR statistics, there are 862 refugees (those who have been granted refugee status) and 829 asylum seekers (those whose refugee applications are pending) in Sri Lanka as of April 30, 2019. Those who have been granted refugee status await permanent resettlement in another country. Between January to April 2019, 26 refugees had departed to Canada and United States of America for permanent resettlement, but I’m also aware of several refugees who have been stuck in Sri Lanka for several years despite being granted refugee status. These refugees come from 15 countries in South Asia, Middle East and Africa. 1,362 were from Pakistan and 200 from Afghanistan. Others were from Bangladesh, Eritrea, India, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Nigeria, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

The majority are Ahmadiyya Muslims, while there are also significant number of Christians and other Muslims. These communities have suffered threats, attacks and killings by extremist groups, with little to no protection from the State against these attacks. A few persecuted human rights activists, journalists, bloggers, atheists and gay persons have also sought refuge in Sri Lanka.

Life as refugees in Sri Lanka

UNHCR provides those recognised as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food to live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves, with their savings and contributions from relatives, friends and other well-wishers. Among the refugees I have met are medical doctors, journalists, lawyers, government officials, teachers, graphic designers and beauticians. But the Sri Lankan government doesn’t allow refugees to be employed legally, denying them the opportunity to be gainfully occupied and earn an income to cover the costs of their temporary stay in Sri Lanka. In desperation, some refugees had worked in shops and as construction workers, but I have been told several instances where employers had refused to pay them the agreed amounts and they were helpless in claiming what was due to them.  They end up contributing to the Sri Lankan economy by renting our rooms, houses, buying things from our shops, and spending on three-wheelers and buses.

Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop skills that they could utilise in seeking employment during their stay in Sri Lanka (if allowed to do so) and their countries of resettlement. Government hospitals provide free healthcare, but sometimes refugees have faced hostility in hospitals. There is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to them, despite the unfamiliar circumstances they have been compelled to live in, and the trauma they have faced due to the violence and discrimination that had compelled them to leave. Despite the large number of abandoned government buildings across the country, the government doesn’t provide housing. Some landlords have been reluctant to rent rooms and houses to refugees, while others have exploited their vulnerability by charging higher prices. The children are not included in the government’s “free education” policy, and thus, many children are unable to go to school. Refugees are also not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi.

Reprisals and hostility against refugees after Easter Sunday bombings

Along with Sri Lankan Muslims, the small refugee and asylum seeker population, especially around Negombo, bore the brunt of reprisals and hostilities after the Easter Sunday bombings. Some refugees were subjected to physical violence and others faced threats of violence as about two third of the refugee population were evicted from the rooms and houses they were renting. Some house owners were sympathetic towards refugees, but were threatened by mobs and neighbours to evict the refugee families. The majority of those evicted were Pakistani Ahmadiyya Muslims and they sought shelter in two Ahmadi mosques. Others were accommodated in the garage and verandas of the Negombo Police station. Conditions in these three camps during April and May were unbearable, with many including children falling ill, due to severe congestion, lack of shelter in sun and rain, lack of toilets and sanitation facilities. They have been used to cooking for themselves and some found it difficult to adjust to Sri Lankan style food that was provided.

Appeals to the government, Christian churches, Buddhist temples, NGOs and private individuals to find better accommodation didn’t bring positive results. Two facilities run by churches and an NGO respectively were offered in April, but fell apart due to protests by Buddhist monks and others. The Governors of the Southern and Northern provinces offered to renovate facilities in their provinces, and finally, more than a hundred refugees, including children, were moved to a camp in the North in two phases, closing down the camp at the Negombo police station.  The Negombo police must be commended for accommodating, supporting and protecting about 170 refugees, by sharing their minimal facilities.

Many refugees had to leave behind their meagre belongings and basic essentials including clothes, medicine and children’s supplies. Some kind house owners had kept these safely till they could be collected, but I also heard and personally experienced situations where some house owners had acquired some of the properties, sold or disposed them.

Refugees and asylum seekers were also evicted in Kandy and suburbs of Colombo, through written and verbal notices, largely due to the instigation by police and neighbours. It took huge efforts for them to find new accommodation.

Now, nearly two months since the Easter Sunday bombings, life in the three camps remains difficult despite efforts by UNHCR, some government agencies, NGOs and well-wishers. The population in two Ahmadi mosques have decreased from about 1000 to about 700, with some having returned to their original rooms and houses and some having left for Canada and USA. During a visit to one of the camps earlier this week, I observed that facilities, like temporary accommodation and toilets, have improved compared to late April, but families have been separated for nearly two months now at two of the camps, as there are no facilities for them to stay together. Those in the camp in the North are not allowed to move out or have visitors.  In addition to the three camps, some refugees are also detained in an overcrowded detention facility.

In May, a refugee family with 4 children, who had been evicted from their home in a suburb of Colombo, travelled to Jaffna at the invitation of a host family there. The host family registered them at the police on the day of the arrival, but the next day, senior government officials opposed this. The distraught and exhausted refugee family was compelled to travel back to Colombo. But over the last month, a few Sri Lankan families and one church have come forward to host refugee families and some have started to rent their rooms and houses to refugees again.

Way forward

Supporting and protecting people terrorised in their own countries is a global challenge. Compared to about 28.5 million refugees worldwide, out of which Pakistan is hosting about 1.4 million and Bangladesh is hosting about 900,000, we have a relatively tiny refugee population of about 1700 to care for. About a million Sri Lankans have benefited and still benefit from international protection, though they also face challenges in the countries they are seeking refuge and when they try to return to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan politicians, religious leaders, media and civil society must try to raise awareness about refugees in Sri Lanka. That refugees, like citizens and all other foreign visitors coming for tourism, business, studies, sports etc., are subject to the laws of the land. That refugees have rarely been accused of criminal charges. That most refugees coming to Sri Lanka are minorities in their own countries who have been terrorised and had to flee to save their lives. That they are here temporarily till they find permanent resettlement. That they contribute to the Sri Lankan economy and don’t receive even basic assistance like housing, food, education, transport from the Sri Lankan government.

We need to extend maximum support to UNHCR to carry out their mandate and also develop an independent and comprehensive national mechanism to assess well-founded fears of refugees coming to us. We need to consider offering basic needs such as housing, food, employment, education and healthcare to refugees staying with us temporarily and in the long term, consider offering permanent resettlement to at least few refugee families.

We should never stoop so low as to deport, stop or discourage people terrorised in other countries coming to us seeking care, support and protection temporarily. We must welcome them warmly and feel proud that they have chosen to come to us in their time of trouble and desperation. Responding sensitively and humanely to refugees – our brothers and sisters – is a test of our laws, politics, spirituality and conscience.

May 18 and Mullivaikkaal Kanji

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/05/26/news-features/may-18-and-mullivaikkaal-kanji on 26th May 2019

May 18, 2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the Sri Lanka civil war.

This year, perhaps due to tragedy of the Easter bombings and also coincidence with the Vesak festival, (a sacred day for Buddhists), there were no large triumphant victory parades or memorials for dead soldiers in Colombo. But there were military memorial events in the North, after the 18th – such as an event to remember fallen soldiers and policemen, organised by the Northern Governor’s office and the Ranaviru Seva (services for War Heroes) Authority, in coordination with the Security Forces Headquarters – Jaffna, on 20th May.

There had been advance plans made for civilian remembrances by Tamils in the North. But in the days leading upto May 18, organizers expressed fear and uncertainties, triggered by the questioning of some organizers by the armed forces, arrests of Jaffna university student leaders, a large number of checkpoints, and emergency regulations. But several memorial events nevertheless went ahead.

A church

On the 18th morning, I went to the Uruthirapuram Catholic church for the annual service to remember Fr. Sara – the parish priest in 2008, who accompanied his parishioners as they were displaced and cornered in Mullivaikkaal.

He experienced the fears and suffering of the last phase of the war and died on May18. Testimonies in the church both by youths and elderly persons was moving, some breaking down and crying as they recalled how they ran over dead bodies to save their lives. Those killed and injured in war and in the Easter bombings were remembered, along with Muslims and Refugees, who faced reprisal attacks and hostilities after the bombings.

There was no formal memorial event after the church service, but some individuals had brought flowers, and laid them at the two monuments outside the church – one for Fr. Sara and other for all those killed. It was a simple, solemn and local community led memorial. The main organizer, the present parish priest, was part of a small group of committed and courageous Catholic clergy who had opted to remain with the people till the end of the war, for which he was punished with 100 days in detention in horrible conditions.

I then went to Mullivaaikaal beach, where the war came to a bloody end. Locals as well as many others from the North and East were present.

Amongst those present were those whose family members were killed, or disappeared after surrendering to the Army. Community activists who had been campaigning to regain military occupied civilian lands were also there. Tamil politicians were present, but they didn’t play any significant part.

Lamps were lit and “Mullivaikkaal Declaration” was read out, though many present had tears in their eyes and seemed too overcome with emotion to listen and understand.Foreign Tamil media were visible, but mainstream English and Sinhalese media were conspicuously absent.

That night, I stayed with a friend in an in interior farming village in the North. I was invited to join a moving and intimate family memorial in the house, led by my friend’s teenage daughters who told me that they were having this event at home as they couldn’t go to Mullivaikkaal. Their grandparents and parents also joined.

The event involved moments of silence, some music, lighting of lamps. The memorial was around an abandoned empty metal cup that my friend had picked up in his first visit to Mullivaikkaal after the end of the war. It had left a deep impression on him, and he had then installed the empty cup in the living area of the house, covered in a glass case, in a manner similar to religious statues and symbols are present in most Sri Lankan homes. That day, it was draped in fresh white flowers woven together by one of the girls.

A survivor’s memories

One of those I traveled with that day was a young girl of about 20. She was born in a refugee camp and lived a life of displacement. She had no loud cries or strident demands, but had vivid memories of the last phase of the war in 2009, of hiding in bunkers as shells and bombs rained on them and people fell dead and injured around her.

She and her family were first displaced from the North West coast, near Adampan in the Mannar district, and were displaced multiple times in 2007-2009 in places such as Illupakadavai, Mulankavil, Vatakachi, Suthanthirapuram, Valayarmadam and finally in Mullivaikkal. Her akka (elder sister) had registered her and another young sibling as the akka’s own children.

Her brother had been taken away by the LTTE, had managed to escape few times, only to get caught again, and finally, the LTTE had tied him up to await death but he somehow survived. She and her family had tried to escape the war zone, but the LTTE had shot at them as they tried to flee, and her sister had been injured. There were many other horror stories, too many and some too sad to narrate.

A few friends had planned to organize a discussion followed by a public memorial at a busy Colombo roundabout, but we had reluctantly postponed it considering the security context.

However, a memorial was held in a café in Colombo last week. Though the comfortable café seemed a different world to the North I had experienced on 18th May, the interest in knowing what had happened, by some who came, and the commitment of those who organized it, was inspiring.

Mullivaikkaal Kanji

“Mullivaikkaal Kanji (porridge)” was a striking feature of 18th May in the North. This plain and simple food was all the hundreds of thousands in precarious situation in bunkers, tents and on the move could eat in the last few months of the war. Ten years later, there are calls to have “Mullivaikkaal Kanji” for one meal on 18th May, to remember what happened.

Kanji was served along the Northern roads and after the Mullivaikkaal memorial. My friend’s family had only Kanji for lunch that day.

Having Mullivaikkaal Kanji for one meal across the country on May 18 could be one way Sri Lankans can unite, commemorate and express solidarity with the war dead, their families and survivors.

Refugee crisis in Sri Lanka after the Easter Sunday bombings

First published at https://groundviews.org/2019/05/04/refugee-crisis-in-sri-lanka-after-the-east-sunday-bombings/ on 4th May 2019

“Pakistanis a country where suicide bombings happen on a regular basis, mobs gather and kill minorities and people who think differently, houses and settlements are attacked, people are forced to leave their houses. I left my house once before in the state of fear that I could be killed or imprisoned because an allegation of blasphemy was brought against me. I was scared, sleepless, hungry and unable to go back to my home, all was lost in just matter of a few hours. In fear and extreme shock my wife and I left Pakistan, came to Sri Lanka. We left friends family and relatives, jobs and house behind. But now Sri Lanka has become the same, we have been forced out of the house that we lived in, today at noon a mob gathered outside our house and few people were violently kicking at the door. A person pushed me, slapped me and grabbed me by the collar.  There were two policemen behind him, they said ‘you have to go to the police station” Pakistani Refugee, standing outside the Negombo Police Station on 27 April 2019.

A Pakistani man who had been living in a rented house on Sea street in Negombo, told me how a mob had come to the house where he lived with his wife and 2 young children aged 4 and 2 and half years, kicked him and threatened to kill him, following which his house owner had forced him to leave with his family. A Pakistani woman narrated how a mob came to her house on Lewis Place in Negombo and threatened to attack her family unless they left the house immediately. Many left with only the clothes they were wearing, or with meager belongings, leaving behind vital document and basic essentials including clothes, medicine and children’s supplies.

Refugees to Sri Lanka become refugees within Sri Lanka

In the last two weeks, after the Easter Sunday bombings, I have heard many such stories from refugees around Negombo. House owners also told me mobs had threatened to destroy their houses if they hosted refugee families. This led to about 1200 refugees and asylum seekers (asylum seekers are those whose refugee applications are pending) being compelled to live in three make-shift refugee camps (two Ahmadi mosques and the Negombo Police station) in absolutely horrible conditions, with minimum toilet facilities and lack of water. Many are compelled to sleep in sitting positions due to lack of space.

The situation at the two mosques, both of which are not equipped to accommodate overnight stays, are terrible, with rain in the last few days making the situation worse. Both mosques are guarded by the police and army, with some locals, including Buddhist Monks, demanding them to be evicted from the largest refugee camp hosting about 700.

At the Negombo police station, about 175 including about 40 children live in a garage with no walls, on rough floor, sharing a couple of toilets that resident policemen had been using. The police had been helpful, kind and generous to share their meagre facilities, but the situation has become unbearable to the refugees and even the police.

Desperate appeals were made to organizations and churches to accommodate the refugees living at the Negombo police station in a more suitable place with better facilities. Many were scared to open their doors, but a few dared. However successive attempts to relocate them from the police station have failed due to mob violence and threats. When a group was taken to a church centre, local groups led by Buddhist Monks protested, police couldn’t assure security and they were brought back to the Negombo police. When a group of women and children were being taken to another institution, news was received of protests led by a local politician and the bus turned back, bringing them back to Negombo police. On two other occasions, they were loaded into buses to be taken to a pre-booked hostel in Colombo and a school in Negombo, but these two also failed due to lack of security assurances from police.

Re-displacement around Colombo

Negombo is not the only area refugees face hostilities and evictions since the Easter bombings. Four Afghan refugees living in a house near Kandy were evicted by the owner last week, after inquiries by a local gang followed by police raids, despite the raids not finding anything incriminating. Even the guest house they moved to is trying to evict them. An Afghan refugee was evicted from the house he was staying this week in Dehiwela. Another Afghan refugee living in Ratmalana, was called “enemy” by a neighbour, who had threatened to beat him. He and his family lives in fear, mostly holed up inside the house they rent. In Moratuwa, the house owner had asked an Afghan refugee family with children to leave after the police expressed doubts about their refugee documents.

Many guesthouse owners had refused to accept Afghan and Pakistani refugees, despite them having legal documents to reside in Sri Lanka. Muslim house owners are been particularly afraid, especially of inciting further hostilities from local people.

According to an Afghan refugee in Panadura, “previously people used to smile, now they view us with suspicion and hostility. This makes us fearful of travel. When I was looking to rent a room, the guest house owner shouted that ‘all Muslims are terrorists’. I tried to find other guest houses, but no one is willing to accommodate.’

Who are these refugees?

These refugees and asylum seekers have come to Sri Lanka seeking protection due to persecution they faced in their own countries. Some are Ahmadiya and Shia Muslims from the Hazara ethnic community, while others are Christians, all persecuted by Muslim groups. They belong to religious minorities who have suffered threats, attacks and killings by extremist groups, with little or no protection from the State against these attacks. Many refugees here are those persecuted under Pakistani law for blasphemy which is an offence punishable with death. A few persecuted human rights activists, journalists, bloggers, atheists and gay persons have also sought refuge in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and there are no national procedures for the granting of refugee status. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), based on a 2005 agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka, registers asylum seekers and carries out refugee status determination. Successive Sri Lankan governments have welcomed them to stay in the country temporarily, till they find permanent resettlement in other countries. As of 31st March 2019, there were 851 persons who have been accepted as refugees awaiting resettlement in other countries and another 819 whose refugee applications are pending (asylum seekers)[1]. They come from about 15 countries, with majority of 1341 being are from Pakistan and 201 from Afghanistan[2]. There are also several whose applications for permanent resettlement in Canada is being processed. In the first three months of 2019, 20 refugees had departed for permanent resettlement[3]. The long application and review process, with several years intervening between application, interview and decision on refugee status being communicated, results in increasing uncertainty and fear for those seeking asylum. While the current crisis was unforeseen, systemic deficiencies have and continue to heighten vulnerabilities for refugees.

Refugee life in Sri Lanka before the Easter attacks

UNHCR provides those recognized as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food and live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves. Few Muslim and Church groups and NGOs have been supporting them with education, accommodation, food, healthcare etc. But these have been very minimal and only few have benefited.

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t ensure the right to housing, food, education, healthcare or legal employment for asylum seekers and refugees. No permanent or even transitional shelter is provided by the government. They are not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi, even though this could be done fairly easily and at little extra cost. The treatment and services available to asylum seekers and refugees at public hospitals and clinics is often lacking in terms of care and compassion. In some cases, the provision of treatment is at the discretion of authorities and asylum seekers and refugees who seek medical care are made to feel like they are seeking a privilege, rather than exercising a basic right. Despite being forced to flee having experienced and witnessing atrocities, violence and discrimination, anxieties about family and friends they left behind and finding themselves in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment, there is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to asylum seekers and refugees.

Although the Sri Lankan Constitution guarantees “assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels”, this is not extended to refugee and asylum children. The refugee children between 6 – 10 years have access to schooling through UNHCR’s support, but children of secondary school age, do not have any access to formal schooling. Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the many government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop vocational skills that they could utilize in seeking employment and living independently in Sri Lanka and their countries of permanent resettlement.

Why fear refugees?

Hopes of temporary respite for the crisis arose when the Governors of the Northern and Southern provinces came forward to host refugees. This has been communicated to the President, UN and other officials and many discussions have been held. But the around 1200 refugees still remain in the three camps, despite the worsening situation. A few Northern Tamil politicians are reported to have opposed hosting refugees in the North, but refreshingly, other Tamil politicians, civil society activists and clergy in North have welcomed refugees. It is now up to the central government to consider these generous offers and finalize interim arrangements to resolve this crisis, respecting rights and dignity, including freedom of movement. It is essential that UNHCR presence is strengthened and the UN takes a proactive role, with space for civil society and religious leaders. In view of new threats to refugees, foreign governments must also come forward to expedite offering permanent resettlement to those who have been granted refugee status by UNHCR.

As stated earlier, much of the fear and anger towards refugees stems from a lack of awareness and understanding. Like all Sri Lankans, tourists and other foreign nationals, refugees are bound by the laws of the land. I’ve heard of foreign tourists being arrested on suspicion of being involved in serious crimes such as drug peddling, but I have not heard such reports about refugees.

Few in Sri Lanka seem aware of religious or ethnic minorities living in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan and the crimes committed against them, including by Muslims. This ignorance, coupled with hostility and suspicions towards Muslims following the Easter attacks has led to wave of reprisals against refugees in Sri Lanka.

Caring for people terrorized in their own countries fleeing to other countries is a global challenge. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans have sought and received international protection and support in numerous countries. Compared to about 28.5 million refugees worldwide, out of which Pakistan is hosting about 1.4 million and Bangladesh is hosting about 900,000, we have very tiny refugee population of less than 1700 to care for.[4]

We as Sri Lankans should feel proud that refugees terrorized in their own countries, have trusted us and come to us, hoping that we would welcome them, care for them, support them and protect them, during a temporary stay of few years. We must not fail them, we must open our hearts and doors to them.

[1]UNHCR monthly update of 31stMarch 2019

[2]Ibid

[3]Ibid

[4]https://www.unhcr.org/en-lk/figures-at-a-glance.html,https://data2.unhcr.org/en/country/pakand http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20Bangladesh%20Operational%20Update%20-%20March%202019.pdf

Police garage turns into a refugee camp

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/04/28/news-features/police-garage-turns-refugee-camp on 28th April 2019

The Negombo Police was a strange sight last week with children, women and men camped out in the garage, on rough floor with no walls and proper sanitation facilities. They were there as they had no other safe place to go.

These were some of the refugees and asylum seekers, who had fled persecution in their own countries. They are not allowed to work, their children don’t go to school, but they are allowed to live here temporarily, based on an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the aftermath of Easter Sunday bombings, mobs in Negombo had broken into some of their residences and beaten up some of them. People who had been letting out rooms had also been pressured to ask the refugees to leave immediately. With no place to go, they had to rush to the Negombo Police station.

Appeals were made to various church institutions and other groups to host these refugees. Most were scared and declined. A few dared, but angry local mobs turned up and insisted that the refugees should be evicted. On one occasion, the mob had arrived even before the refugees got there. The police and the armed forces couldn’t assure them safety, so they were displaced yet again.

It was from one such shelter that two buses with tired, scared faces arrived at the Negombo Police station on Friday evening. But the police refused to host them, didn’t allow them to get down from the buses and insisted we take them ‘somewhere else’. A few of us including a Catholic nun and three priests tried to make the police understand that they have no homes to go to and insisted we can only move them with an assurance of safety. Appeals were made on the phone to government officials. Finally, the police agreed to let them stay the night, without a solution as to where they would have to stay in the days, weeks and months to come.

Some of the house owners who had been compelled to evict these refugees, had visited them to see how they were faring and with some bringing food. The police had allowed them to use their washrooms providing them sanitation facilities. A policeman on night duty had given up his fan to provide some comfort to children not falling asleep and another had made milk for crying children. But how long can an already over-streched police host a refugee camp?

It’s the duty of the State with the UNHCR, to protect and support this vulnerable community, who had suffered so much. If Negombo and the sourroundings are not safe, other options should be considered.

As we grieve the lives lost in the bombings, support the injured and their families, we must also stand in solidarity with asylum seekers and refugees. It’s an opportunity to extend social and political hospitality to those in need and most vulnerable. It is not enough to open our hearts, we must open our doors as well.

Christians and Religious Freedom under fire

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/04/21/opinion/christians-and-religious-freedom-under-fire on 21st April 2019

From February 3 to April 14 this year, across Sri Lanka, there has been some sort of disruption against a Christian worship service every Sunday – on 11 successive Sundays to be specific.

Christians in Sri Lanka suffer violations of their right to religion and belief regularly, but most incidents do not make it to the news – or even to the Twittersphere. But the attack on the Methodist Church Centre in Anuradhapura, last Sunday, which was also Palm Sunday, a day of religious significance for Christians, was widely reported because of the forthright personal testimony and determined efforts of the President of the Methodist Conference, Bishop Asiri Perera, who had experienced the attack first hand.

In the past two months, this same church centre had obscenities shouted and stones pelted at it. A Municipal Councillor and villagers had forcibly broken in and threatened the priest and worshippers with assault. The Sunday before the Palm Sunday attack, they had cancelled the service due to intense pressure about the legality of their premises and services.

Types of violations

The violations reported this year against Christians include forcible entry to places of worship while services were ongoing, disrupting services, damaging properties, throwing stones and gathering outside places of worship in a threatening manner. Those leading prayers, hosting prayer services and participants have been threatened and obscene language used against them. Among the more serious violations was an assault of two females in two different incidents, a death threat and a threat to burn a place of worship.

At least 15 police complaints have been filed, some dealing with several violations. In some cases, police had refused or been reluctant to take complaints, sometimes going to the extent of siding with the alleged perpetrators, mocking and admonishing victims. On some occasions, police had refused to take matters to courts, demanded that victims file private plaints, and even refused to offer protection.

The right to Religion or belief cannot be restricted under any circumstances in the Sri Lankan Constitution. But one of the most regular violations have been questioning the legality of Christian prayers and places of worship, by Government officials, police, bhikkus and ordinary persons, often demanding registration, authorisation or approval from an official. Only on a few occasions have the police insisted on the right to freedom of religion or belief of Christians.

Numbers

This year, at least 13 churches and one individual have been affected in nine districts, with about 35 incidents and about 70 violations. Some churches have been affected multiple times, with multiple violations, such as disrupting a service, assault, death threats, shouting obscenities and damage to property.

Such violations against Christians have occurred regularly in Sri Lanka over several years, under successive governments.

A report by Verite Research in 2014 reported that a state institution or public servant was recorded as the key perpetrator of religious violence against Christians in 175 incidents (18%) out of 972 incidents examined between 1994 and 2014. Many of these have been diligently documented for years by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka. 226 incidents of violence against Christians have been reported between January 2015 – June 2017 and 86 incidents in 2018. Many of the Christians under attack have been small rural Christian communities.

They have had little support from Churches which wield more political-social influence such as the Catholic Church, and various inter-religious bodies operating at local and national level. Though I have focused on the situation of Christians here, Muslims too have been under fire in Sri Lanka, with some of the harshest violence against them being concentrated within a few days in towns such as Aluthgama in 2014 and Digana in 2018. There have also been reports of violations against Hindus.

Way forward

Impunity has served as a licence for continued violence against religious minorities. Despite compelling evidence in some incidents, there has been a reluctance to use the existing legal framework to arrest and prosecute those responsible. Ironically, the ICCPR Act was recently used to imprison a writer and suppress free expression based on complaints by a Buddhist group that the writer has caused pain of mind to Buddhists and insulted Buddhism, but the same Act has not been used to arrest and prosecute those responsible for blatant and serious violations against Christians. Political will and legal action is essential to protect the rights of religious minorities.

Asserting rights sensitively would help, but it is unfair to expect victims to compromise and tolerate violations of their inalienable rights. Rather, the ‘good’ among the majorities, especially, Buddhists, must proactively protect the rights of religious minorities being persecuted and the more influential Christian churches must show support and solidarity to smaller and more vulnerable churches.

Unless and until all persons and communities, especially, the minorities and the vulnerable, can freely practise their religion without fear, religious harmony and co-existence will be a myth.

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Examples of violations against Christians in 2019

1. As a female pastor and worshippers were preparing for a Sunday worship service, a mob of around 200 led by some bhikkus had forcibly entered the church premises, demanded to stop the worship, threatened the worshippers in obscene language, and damaged furniture and roofing sheets. A bhikku had threatened the Christians with death if they refused to stop their worship. The mob had also dragged a female worshipper on to the street, threw her at the feet of the bhikkus, and beaten her, and she had to be hospitalised. Some of the bhikkus had lodged a complaint, claiming the pastor was breaching the peace. At an inquiry, the monks and villagers had demanded the pastor stop conducting her services and only engage in worship in private. The Officer-in Charge (OIC) had told the pastor to comply with the demands of the monks and said the police wouldn’t provide her with further protection.

2. While a Sunday worship service was ongoing, bhikkus and a group of youth had forcibly entered the place of worship, shouting in obscene language and threatened the worshippers. Later, the policemen in civil clothes had tried to compel the pastor to attend an inquiry within 15 minutes, despite the pastor’s request for adequate time to consult his lawyer.

3. While a Sunday worship service was ongoing, a bhikkus had stood outside taking pictures of the premises and later, a group of around 35 villagers had gathered and stoned the premises. They had forcibly entered the place of worship and demanded to stop the worship immediately and threatened to burn the building if they refused to comply. A few days later, the pastor’s residence was stoned by unidentified individuals. The Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of the police had refused the pastor’s request to refer the matter to court and told him to file a private plaint.

4. A pastor had received a copy of a letter addressed by a Divisional Secretary (DS) to the OIC of the local police, instructing the latter to stop Christian religious worship activities, claiming the place of worship was not registered with the DS. A few days later, while the Sunday service was ongoing, around 30 individuals, two police officers and the Grama Niladhari had questioned the pastor and told him to meet with the DS the following day. The DS had demanded the pastor stop his religious worship activities immediately and threatened to confiscate the pastor’s home (received through a tsunami resettlement scheme) if he refused to comply.

5. A group of 30 individuals had arrived at a place of worship and demanded to speak to the pastor, who was not there. Two individuals had then assaulted the female owner of the premises.

6. While a pastor and his wife were visiting a congregant’s home, a group of villagers had damaged the front door of the house and a cross hanging on it. The group had demanded to know about approval to carry out worship activities in the village and threatened the pastor. They had scolded the pastor’s wife in obscene language and attempted to assault the pastor. The police had been reluctant to take down the complaint.

7. Villagers had threatened a Christian not to invite a pastor to conduct bible studies in his home. Later, when he had gone to lodge another complaint to the police about threats to his life, he was arrested, based on a false allegation of assault. After he was released on bail, a government official had told him to stop having bible studies at his house.