By Azra Ameen
Hundreds took part in protests all over the island after Friday prayers calling on the government for speedy resettlement of the internally displaced Muslims and to take action against conspirators obstructing the resettlement of the Muslims of the North.
Subsequently, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama and several other Muslim organizations presented a communiqué to President Mahinda Rajapaksa explaining the plight of the Northern Muslims in general and the Uppukulam, Mannar Muslims in particular.
The letter explained that the Muslims in the Northern Province were subjected to ethnic cleansing by the LTTE in 1990, in order to make the North a mono-ethnic region following their policy to declare Tamil Eelam. Having languished away from their homes for nearly two decades, the Northern Muslim have now started returning to their old homes after years of suffering in IDP camps in Puttalam and other districts.
History of the dispute
In 1999, Tamil Catholic fishermen were sent away from the Vidattaltivu village in Mannar by the LTTE to build an LTTE base. Those fishermen found fishing opportunities in a Catholic village called Pallimunai in Mannar where they could not stay for more than one year due to the cultural differences they had with the village population.
Subsequently, they were accommodated in another predominantly Catholic village called Punankaddikoddu. However, the same problems arose with the local fishermen and they had to leave.
Finally, they were relocated to the current location called Uppukulam – Konthapiddy in 2002 by the LTTE, amidst protests by the Muslim fisherfolk of the area, who saw an agreement being signed between the Muslim fisherfolk of the area and the Vidattaltivu fishermen in the presence of Amuthan, the then Sea Tiger leader of the area.
The agreement signed on 16 March 2002 highlighted two main points, namely, that the Catholic fishermen would leave the area once the Vidattaltivu area is opened for fishing activities, and that these Catholic fishermen could not even build a hut in the area.
Even before the end of war, the village came under the government control and more Muslims returned. However, the Catholic fishermen obstructed them from engaging in fishing activities since the former did not want to share the fishing huts, which legitimately belonged to the Muslim fishermen.
Attempts made by the returnee Muslims to have their lawful fishing engagement free from hindrances yielded fruitless. After the end of the war, the Muslim fishermen were still deprived of their fishing rights as a result of the continued occupation by the Vidattaltivu fishermen.
All efforts by relevant officials and fisheries societies to get the fishermen to vacate Uppukulam having proved futile, a deadline was agreed upon at a meeting attended by all the fisheries societies of the area and state fisheries officers in 2011 to these Catholic fishermen to leave the place before 30 November 2011, which they again failed to abide by.
Afterwards, the Mannar Superintendent of Police held a meeting with both sides on 7 June 2012 at the Mannar Police Station, at which point the Vidattaltivu fishermen agreed to move out of Uppukulam, if they were provided with alternative locations for fishing.
At another meeting held in connection with the same matter, on 11 June 2012, the District Secretary and the Mannar Divisional Secretary offered an identified alternative location at Pallimunai to the Vidattaltivu fishermen. According to the Police report, the Vidattaltivu fishermen had agreed to shift. They had said they would shift within a few days after making a fishing dock at the new location.
However, reports state the Vidattaltivu fishermen failed yet again, to move out to the new alternative site provided to them. Thereafter, a third meeting was held on 26 June 2012, presided by the Mannar District Secretary, at which point, the report states that the Vidattaltivu fishermen agreed to move to the other new location within three days.
It was two weeks later that about 20 Uppukulam fishermen reportedly took possession of the Uppukulam Wadiya, in the course of which they had allegedly torn down and damaged a few huts.
According to the report issued by the Mannar Government Agent, during this dispute, the huts of the Catholic fishermen were demolished, but no damage had been caused to their goods or equipment. The Uppukulam fishermen left the place after the interference of the police.
Incident involving the Judge
On 15 July (Sunday), the Police summoned 13 prominent Muslim members of the village to Court, but the members did not attend the proceedings. On Monday, 16 June, as the 13 members didn’t attend the proceedings, Judge Anthonipillai Judeson ordered the Police to arrest those 13 persons, and provide police protection for the Catholic fishermen, to continue fishing in the same site, and had postponed the case for 23 July 2012.
On 18 July the court had summoned three other villagers. It was then that the Uppukulam villagers started taking to the roads.
According to sources, the demonstration went on for two-three hours peacefully and was incident-free, until the judge was alleged to have alighted from his bench and come out to the main road in his cloak. Then, the sources allege, the judge had ordered the police to either shoot, tear gas or baton charge and disperse the protestors.
It was then the police unleashed force on the demonstrators, on orders of the judge, and a tense situation arose with demonstrators running for safety, the sources alleged.
According to the police report, it was during that time the demonstrators had started throwing stones at the Court premises, which damaged a few windows of the newly-built High Court.
The Uppukulam villagers denied the allegations made by the police of throwing stones at the Courthouses and causing damage to the Court. Even more disturbing was the manner in which some among the protestors allegedly attacked the Mannar Court Complex, attacked police personnel and hurled abuse on the District Judge and Magistrate.
According to some of the villagers, “The shortcut to our village is from behind the Courts. When we were running for safety, we saw some others throwing stones. We didn’t want to stop and take a look at who was doing this, since our lives were more important to us than this,” they said.
They also believe that, these events were performed by some conspirators who are trying to cause communal problems.
Involvement of Bathiudeen
Likewise, the allegations that the Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen, had threatened Judge Anthonipillai Judeson has to be expeditiously investigated and dealt with through the due process of law.
Meanwhile, having learnt of the incident, the Minister was dispatched by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to bring peace to the situation. He left Colombo by helicopter and arrived in Mannar by 3.30 p.m., on the same day, by which time the protestors had already left the scene.
Bathiudeen is also accused of making two calls to the judge, according to the complaint made by the judge. The minister in his first call on 17 July, the day before the attack took place, had threatened the judge to issue a favourable judgment, in the absence of which, Mannar will erupt in violence. He is also accused of making another call on 18 July, after the attack on the Courthouse, in which he is alleged to have challenged the judge’s order on fishing location claims.
Minister Rishad Bathiudeen denied all the allegations made against him.
Lawyers from most parts of the island engaged in protests demanding the immediate arrest of Minister Bathiudeen.
The President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said, “The Bar Association strongly condemns the minister’s actions. This is the first time someone has displayed such contemptible conduct towards the judiciary. We don’t believe the government will take necessary action against Bathiudeen, which is why we have been compelled to take him to Court,” he said.
Secretary of the BASL, Sanjaya Gamage said, “We totally condemn the attack. We don’t know as to what really happened there, but we are going according to the statements issued by the judge. The judge has complained to us that the minister threatened him, so we are working on the basis of the complaint.
“We clearly see that the minister is involved in this. Any person can deny when convicted,” he said.
When questioned if any of the members of the BASL contacted the minister and got his version, Gamage said, “There was no need for the BASL to speak to the Minister. We believe the judge more than anyone else and we don’t see a reason why we should doubt him.”
Akkaraipattu, Kalmunai Lawyers’ Associations back Bathiudeen
With a large number of lawyers demanding action be taken against the minister, the Akkaraipattu and Kalmunai Lawyers’ Associations said, the BASL has passed a resolution without contacting the relevant parties involved in the incident. The BASL has rushed to conclusions.
President of the Akkaraipattu Lawyers’ Association, S.L.A. Rasheed said, “We totally condemn the attack and believe that it is a serious attack on the independence of the Judiciary.
“However, we still wonder if the BASL came to an early conclusion that the Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen, was the one behind this mayhem.
“We contacted the minister with regard to this, and he had denied all allegations and said that none of the members of the BASL had contacted him on this matter.”
President of the Kalmunai Lawyers’ Association, A.M. Rakeeb said, an impartial inquiry should have been held to ascertain the root cause of the incident before rushing to conclusions.
He also said, in the future, this kind of action should not affect the cordial relationship between the Catholic and Muslim communities living in Mannar and other parts of the country.
Bathiudeen denies allegations
Speaking to Ceylon Today, Rishad Bathiudeen said, when the incident took place he was at Temple Trees, discussing the Provincial Council Elections.
“It was at round 2 p.m., that I learnt of the incident and understood that I needed to be there for my people. I rang up Basil Rajapaksa and explained the situation to him, and asked him to provide me with a helicopter to go to Mannar.
“I went to Mannar with a few officers, a lawyer and with the Vanni District MP, Hunais Farook. When I reached Mannar, the demonstrators had fled. I learnt the actual cause of the incident and went to meet the Uppukulam fishermen,” he said, explaining what exactly had happened there.
Bathiudeen said the Uppukulam villagers had staged a peaceful demonstration 200 metres away from the Courthouse. “Their main objective behind the demonstration was to ask their lands back, and requested the authorities not to disrupt their fishing activities due to the judgment that was given.
He added, “They had been demonstrating peacefully for three hours. They saw and heard the judge asking the police to shoot if necessary. It was then that they started running for their lives.
“When I questioned them as to why they had thrown stones at the Courthouse and damaged the building, they said if they needed to do such a thing, they wouldn’t have stayed for so long. For three hours they had been standing under the hot sun with their families. If they had thought of doing such a degrading act, they would have done so at the beginning itself. They did not need to wait until the judge’s orders to shoot created chaos.
“They explained to me that the real cause of their demonstration was to create awareness and make the government aware of how much they were suffering, even after the war. They were asking the Court to give a judgment in favour of them.”
Denying allegations, he had threatened the judge, Bathiudeen said, “I have never met the judge, never spoken to him, not even seen him. There were no circumstances where I needed to discuss anything with the judge. I know the result of threatening a judge, so a sensible person will not do such a thing.
“I also ask the police to investigate this issue and take necessary action against those who damaged the Court like this. I condemn the attack on the Courthouse.
“There are so many conspiracies behind this incident. I am not afraid of anyone, I didn’t commit any wrong in this matter and I can definitely prove that. If it is proven that I was behind this incident and the allegations are true, I will accept the punishment they give,” Bathiudeen said.