The March of Folly Arbitrary detention unquestioned

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By 2017-12-05

By Rajiva Wijesinha

I was a bit startled to find on Saturday that those who had been arrested at Gintota a couple of weeks back, and then remanded on 18 November until 30 November had been remanded again. No one was allowed bail, and they have been put back in prison for a further two weeks. Sadly, I could find no reports of this in any newspaper, nor any worries by the usual run of human rights activists about what seems arbitrary detention.

Given the problems in the area two weeks back, I can understand the Police engaging in a trawl and putting people in jail to prevent any possibility of a recurrence of the violence, but now that the situation has settled down, it seems unconscionable that, without charges being made, all those arrested then should continue to be incarcerated.

Prophylactic detention

The usual run of activists will not, I suspect, worry too much because they will undoubtedly think it a good thing that there should be prophylactic detention as it were when there is any risk of racist attacks, but those same activists would not allow the same leeway with regard to the risk of terrorist attacks. Though I will write this week to the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission to ask what they are doing, and to the UN Resident Coordinator to ask that these persons also be visited by the UN Group on Arbitrary Detention, I suspect there will be no urgency about redressing the situation.

Some years back, when I was the Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I had some responsibility for such matters, though I had to accept that my authority was limited while we were under terrorist threats, but soon after the war ended, I was able to agitate more. What transpired is best illustrated by an extract from my second book on the Rajapaksa years, Failure in Reconciliation:

"We were also able to do a great deal with regard to those in custody on the basis of Emergency Regulations or the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This too had come up frequently in Geneva, and I had in the preceding year suggested that we should review cases actively and release those against whom there was no clear evidence. But this was not a matter I could push on since, given the scope and range of Tiger terrorism, I had to acknowledge that security considerations were paramount. Certainly I did not want the Ministry to be held responsible if people were released at our behest, and one of them ended up exploding a bomb in the city.

But after the LTTE had been vanquished I felt no such inhibitions and I found that the President too was willing to move. Towards the end of the year he appointed me to chair a committee to go into these cases. This included representatives of the Attorney General's Department, the Prisons, Military Intelligence and the Police, and I found excellent cooperation from all, with much greater willingness to share information than had been the case when no one could be certain where and when terrorism would strike.

One of the problems was of course the by now customary delay of the Attorney General's Department in making decisions, but I felt that one reason they had been slow was they could not run the risk of a mistake, and releasing someone who then caused mayhem. But we pointed out that that was not a grave risk now, and in fact the Department moved more quickly than earlier.

The goalposts were shifted and they accepted that the principle should be release unless there was hard evidence, whereas earlier the assumption had been that anyone who had been arrested should not be released unless innocence were clear. Working to the target now of releasing as many as possible, we were able in the few months in which I continued as Secretary to reduce the number of those in custody from over 4000 to just over 2000."

I can only hope that whoever is now responsible for such matters looks into this matter promptly, and ensures that arbitrary detention is halted.

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