Limbless heroes’ forgotten rights
Posted on March 8th, 2017
By Shivanthi Ranasinghe Courtesy Ceylon Today
The Cabinet has agreed to compensate the 16 prisoners killed during the 2012 Welikada Prison riots. Their families will get Rs Two Million each. The 11 injured will get Rs 500,000 each. In the attempt to bring the situation to control, some officers, including the Commandant of the Special Task Force DIG RMC Ranawana was injured. Some media reported that one injured officer, whose identity was not revealed, will also be paid the same amount as an injured prisoner. Out of the 27 prisoners killed, 11 will not be compensated, as they attempted to flee. The reason for not compensating the other injured officers, however, is yet to be revealed.
This announcement comes two days after our disabled servicemen packed their prosthetic limbs and camp beds to go home after 14 days of sitting/lying in front of the Fort Railway Station. Since 2015, this was their fourth attempt to get a pension to live out the rest of their lives.
They joined the forces in their youth, ready to even die for the country. Instead of their lives, they lost their limbs and with that their independence, and also their career. Due to an outdated system, as they could not fulfil their 12 years of service, they are only entitled to an allowance after their service ended.
We have been battling terrorism for 30 years, sometimes with multiple terrorist groups. In the early ’80s, India unleashed a large number of armed and financed groups to terrorize our country. By late ’80s, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam gripped the North and East whilst the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna ravaged the Hill Country and the South.
During these long, troublesome years, it had been our security forces that had been doing their best to minimize the danger.
When the scourge of terrorism was finally brought to an end in May 2009, it was not the West-led international community, the UN, nor the civil or human rights organizations that contributed to this peace, but our servicemen.
Yet, the system that was about to penalize the disabled servicemen was not timely addressed. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as the then Defence Secretary, had begun to address these issues from 2008. While a number of concessions were granted, overall progress had been very slow and it was only in December 2014, that the cabinet paper finally approved the system change.
As the government changed, granting a pension had again been put on the backburner. However, it is only now that the servicemen injured in the ’80s and ’90s are reaching their retirement age and is beginning to face life without full pay or pension, but just an allowance. As of 2015, this monthly allowance was around Rs. 12,500. Hence, the agitation from these servicemen to address this issue is getting stronger.
The incumbent administration, after the third protest, did work out a pension scheme from last month. However, the calculations were not as agreed and some got about Rs. 1,590 as the pension. Thus, the servicemen took to the streets again for the fourth time.
This is widely seen by many, even within the military, as a political movement, as this kind of agitation was absent, during the previous administration.
Perhaps, it is due to a general acceptance in the country that a political backing is needed to get anything done. Hence, we elect politicians who, more than his governing skills, might be more instrumental in getting a child admitted to a school, to get the coveted promotion, to carpet the road and to attend to numerous other goals. Recently, a certain minister released on social media a video clip of himself selecting tall men as security personnel and short men for labour work. He was very clear that it must be those who worked for his election campaign. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that these disabled servicemen too might be leaning on a political hand.
The real issue is not whether they have a political backing or not, but that they have been sent home for the fourth time with what appears so far to be an empty promise. They have vowed to return to the streets on 27 March, if that proves to be the case.
The government for reasons of its own had been unable to meet a genuine request by perhaps the most deserving citizens of this country. This issue should not have been left for this government or even the previous government. It should have been addressed when the first serviceman lost his limb. It was then, that the administration should have seen how this man will live out his life. The then military hierarchy too should have pressed for a solution.
At the ongoing Geneva sessions, the Sri Lankan delegations had got a proper scolding for not having done their homework, and accused that “a number of serious human rights violations” are continuing in Sri Lanka. Their list of victims includes human rights defenders, and those victimized by “violations, police abuse and excessive use of force”, but not these disabled servicemen.
In their list, they have also included crimes committed during the war against terrorism as not being addressed. It is curious as to why the UN is holding the Sri Lankan Government responsible, when those responsible for crimes against humanity such as Adele Balasingham, Rudra Kumar, and those who advocated and funded terrorism as Suren Surendran and Father Emanuel are all living freely and openly in the West. Thus, the UN must hold those host governments accountable for not addressing the crimes committed by these psychopaths.
Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams had accused the Sri Lankan delegation of not being serious about women’s rights. He had found fault with the delegation’s response that the existing laws as well as the Amendments to the Constitution currently underway will be sufficient to address these issues. He had asked governments and human rights activists watching Sri Lanka closely, not to let ‘her off the hook on the second round’. According to him, Sri Lankan Government has no excuse as Sri Lankan civil society groups have been engaged in steady dialog with the government.
Whether women in Sri Lanka are marginalized or penalized, and whether Adams who does not know that Sri Lanka is a sovereign and not a vassal country, has the answers for our women, is a matter for a different discussion. The relevant point here is that these civil groups have never taken up the rights of our servicemen.
It is these servicemen who put an end to Adele Balasingham’s macabre “freedom birds”, that brainwashed young men and women to become human bombs. Their reward was the opportunity to dine with Prabhakaran the night before their mission. It is these servicemen who gave young adults the freedom to fall in love, without facing a jail sentence. It is also these very servicemen who effectively stopped child conscription, allowing them today to enjoy their childhood and pursue education, living in the bosom of their family instead of being trained in a secret jungle camp to become cannon fodder.
If these civil groups are genuinely concerned about human rights, and are committed to women and children’s welfare, then they should recognize these servicemen as the true champions who safeguarded all these rights. They thus should have lent their voice to these men a long time ago. Adams berated the government delegation that this is the eighth review Sri Lanka is facing and thus should know the subject better. However, Adams and others, by their silence over this real human rights issue facing those who fought for human rights have also shown their ignorance of the issues weighing on Sri Lanka.
These servicemen are thus battling for their rights, more or less alone, as whatever political hand they are leaning on is a ‘hidden’ entity. On the other hand, there are a number of civil rights groups and human rights lawyers who are very concerned over the prisoners.
As the Welikada Prisons parapet wall beautifully displays, prisoners are humans. There is no question their rights should be safeguarded, irrespective of whether the inmates were sentenced to life or death, convicts or suspects or hardcore or not.
The question here is, when the government had failed to address the disabled servicemen’s needs and ensure them a life with dignity and independence, how did they manage to come up with a compensation scheme for prisoners, who went on a violent rampage.
The prisoner rights activists have tried to portray this as an organized spree of extrajudicial executions. Instead of any credible forensic evidence, their evidence comes from a couple of prisoners who claim to have witnessed the executions. They have taken cudgels against the international community for not paying attention to these so-called witnesses and wonder if it is because of the profile of the witness.
If that is the case, then in all fairness, none can blame them as these so-called witnesses do not look credible at all. They look as hardened as any underworld character as could be expected. Also, given the confusion and chaos of the situation, it is amazing the details these so-called witnesses have observed.
The events themselves speak of a different story. On 9 November 2012 a STF team of about 300 had arrived at the prisons for a special search for illegal arms, drugs and mobile phones. Activists claim that the STF carried weapons into the prisons against regulations. The fact is that the STF was tasked to search a compound for contraband that had a prisoner force of about 4,500.
Would a responsible commander take his team to such a situation unarmed is highly doubtful.
The search had been first conducted in the “L” ward that housed hardcore criminals. Despite the protests, the STF recovered a haul of contraband. Afterwards, the search had moved to the “Chapel” ward that housed those sentenced to long-term, life and death. There, the STF as a precaution had wanted to handcuff the prisoners. An altercation between the STF and the prisoners ensued, and quickly grew out of control. Though the STF used tear gas to control the situation, it failed and ended with the inmates from the “bingo” section breaking into the area to fight with the STF.
The prisoners quickly took control of the prison and a couple of officers and prison guards as hostages. As a siege ensued, the prisoners broke into the prisons armoury and were soon on rooftops, brandishing the weapons.
The surrounding area was cordoned off. Though the prison authorities tried repeatedly to convince the prisoners to give up arms, the prisoners refused. Instead, they opened fire at the STF, who shot back. Throughout the night, screeching ambulances, three-wheelers and even a pickup truck were seen rushing the wounded to hospital. In the confusion, a number of prisoners attempted to escape, some succeeding.
A power cut at around 6.30 and the heavy rains during the night added to the confusion. Finally, the Army was called in and at around 2 a.m. they managed to storm into the premises and bring the situation to control.
This is what recorded news tells us. What the government had failed to tell us though is on what grounds these prisoners are being compensated. The STF search had not been futile. The prisoners had been aggressive. They broke from their holding areas and fought with the STF, forcing them to leave the building. During which, prisoners took hostages, fired at the STF and tried to escape.
If excess force was used or prisoners were executed according to a targeted list as alleged by the activists, then what and where is the proof and who are the culprits? The government must also explain how the three-member committee came to the conclusion that these prisoners must be compensated and compensated in this manner. If they found of any wrong doing, should not those facts be produced in Court and their guilt proven according to the law of the land? Furthermore, should it not be the Court that must decide on the punishment as well as the compensation?
When prisoners are compensated for the consequences of rioting and disabled servicemen are left to languish on the roadside (as long as they do not become a public nuisance) waiting for a pension, it is as if the serviceman is the enemy, and not the hero, of our society.