Responding to a question raised by Member of Parliament Douglas Devananda in parliament on the 3rd of December, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera said “this Government carried out a decision taken by the former Government in January 2013 to invite the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to visit Sri Lanka. In a letter dated 21 January 2013, the former Secretary of Defence, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has conveyed to the Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Ministry of Defence has no objection to an invitation being extended to the Working Group to visit Sri Lanka, and that the timing of the extension of the invitation should be decided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”.
He that there are no secret detention camps operating under the new government. “Despite the misinformation that some of the Members of this House may try to propagate, the visit to the Navy Base by the Members of the Working Group proved to those both within the country and outside the country who allege that there are still secret detention centres in operation in this site, that there are no such detention centres in existence anymore in the Navy Base in Trincomalee” he said.
I rise to respond to the questions raised by the Hon. Douglas Devananda.
First I would like to thank the Hon. Member of Parliament for the questions that he has raised, which relate to issues of importance for the realization of the vision for reconciliation and durable peace that the National Unity Government, led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, are committed to achieve.
The questions relate mainly to issues of land release, detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, alleged secret detention centres, the tragic suicide of a student from Kopai last week and implications of these issues to achieving reconciliation.
The journey that the Government undertook on the 8th of January with President Sirisena’s election was a challenging one. Almost 30 years of conflict, long years of terrorism, 10 years of descent towards autocracy and stifling of dissent, triumphalism and fear-mongering following the end of the conflict in May 2009, and an antagonistic, self-isolationist foreign policy had taken a heavy toll on democratic institutions, public officials, and society at large in our country. Difficult legacies to overcome.
When we formed the Government following the January 8th Presidential election, we were fully aware of the challenges that we would face.
I know that many complain that the promised change is not quick enough. Some both overseas and in Sri Lanka who do not wish the Government and the people of this country to succeed; do not wish to see a united Sri Lanka progress and develop in peace and resume its rightful place among the community of nations, claim that nothing has changed since the 8th of January.
I am not in any way attempting to provide excuses for any delays. But one must acknowledge that we have achieved much, though not enough, since the 8th of January. With Parliamentary elections held in August, and the National Unity Government formed thereafter, our journey has only just begun. Nevertheless, for the people who have suffered the agony of conflict and waited for long for justice; or for those who await information regarding the fate of their loved ones; and for those who have been languishing in detention; every day, every hour, every minute matters. We are conscious and seized of this fact. The Government, under the leadership of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, is determined to surmount all challenges and all obstacles to ensure that justice is done, and to ensure reconciliation, non-recurrence and a durable peace.
The Government is committed to finding a solution to the issue of those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Thirty-nine detainees out of 48 were released on bail in November. According to the information that I have, 48 detainees have been convicted and they are serving their sentences. 118 persons are in remand custody with their cases proceeding in court. Cases are being filed against 3 persons and 1 is to be rehabilitated.
The Hon. Member of Parliament has pointed out that in 1971 and in 1989 following the insurrections in the South, and in 1987 following the India-Sri Lanka Agreement, prisoners held under the PTA and other emergency laws, and combatants and those persons accused, charged and/or convicted under these laws were granted a general amnesty. This is indeed something that is worthy of consideration and will receive due attention.
The loss of yet another young life in connection with the issue of detainees is indeed tragic. I agree with the Hon. Member of Parliament that this is the time that all political parties and all citizens, irrespective of race, religion and language should unite to find solutions to problems no matter how frustrating such processes might be. There is a well-known saying that “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” It is time that we all unite, despite our ideological differences, to act with responsibility towards our citizens and work together to find solutions to the problems that have kept this nation divided for far too long since Independence.
The Hon. Member of Parliament has inquired about secret detention centres. As we have mentioned before, there are no secret detention centres in operation in this country under this Government.
However, if anyone in Sri Lanka or overseas has any information regarding any such facility that may be in operation, the Government will take upon itself the task of ensuring that such facilities are examined and action is taken under the due process of the law. The Government will not tolerate anyone holding another in detention under any circumstances, outside the purview of the law of this land.
As you are aware, this Government carried out a decision taken by the former Government in January 2013 to invite the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to visit Sri Lanka. In a letter dated 21 January 2013, the former Secretary of Defence, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has conveyed to the Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (External Affairs at the time) that the Ministry of Defence has no objection to an invitation being extended to the Working Group to visit Sri Lanka, and that the timing of the extension of the invitation should be decided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Working Group visited Sri Lanka after 16 long years, from 9-18 November this year. They also met with Parliamentarians in this very House and they were allowed to visit the Navy Base in Trincomalee.
This House is aware of the allegations against our armed forces personnel. This House is aware of the allegations about secret detention camps being maintained. Even if we scream at the top of our voices, saying that there are no secret detention centres in existence, such allegations will not go away until we prove that there are no such places in existence.
We all know the sacrifices made by our security forces personnel throughout the long years of conflict. Do they deserve to be hounded by allegations of this nature for the rest of their days? Is that what they deserve as a reward for the many sacrifices they have made to enable us today to build the future of our nation on the foundation of peace they have created for us?
It is the duty of our Government to take steps to ensure that the cloud that hangs over their heads is lifted once and for all. We owe it to them to clear their name. The way this can be done is not by standing in a street corner and shouting defensive slogans, as some of the Honourable Members of Parliament claim. It is not by sitting in protest in front of the Office of the UN or Embassies of Foreign Countries and antagonizing our partners, but by adopting sensible, meaningful, constructive approaches to these problems so that we lay these allegations to rest. It is by investigating into allegations through the due process of the law that we can do so. This is what legal systems and investigative and judicial processes exist for. So that they may be used for the innocent to be proven innocent and anyone guilty of any excesses to be brought to justice. This is the way responsible democratic nations that abide by the rule of law deal with issues.
Despite the misinformation that some of the Members of this House may try to propagate, the visit to the Navy Base by the Members of the Working Group proved to those both within the country and outside the country who allege that there are still secret detention centres in operation in this site, that there are no such detention centres in existence anymore in the Navy Base in Trincomalee.
The Working Group expressed gratitude to the Commander of the Navy and the Director of the CID for providing access to the Navy Base and the cells. This kind of cooperation is what will re-create trust in the eyes of the public and in the eyes of the families of victims as well as the international community that the Sri Lanka security forces are responsible and professional.
The Government takes the preliminary observations of the Working Group very seriously. The site referred to by the Working Group members who were accompanied on their visit to the site by CID officers was in fact sealed by the CID in April this year on the basis of a court order, on an ongoing inquiry. These investigations by the CID will proceed.
The Government upholds that all official places of detention must be ONLY those that are gazetted, and the official procedures for detention must be followed at all times. If there had been deviations from what is authorized and approved, such incidents will be investigated.
The Working Group has also brought to our attention instances of alleged harassment, perceived as carried out by Police officers including some instances of sexual harassment and violence against mothers or wives of disappeared persons. At times this is alleged to have been in exchange of promised information on their relatives’ cases. I take this opportunity to emphasise that the Government does not condone such harassment and will not tolerate any form of harassment against anyone including the families of missing persons under any circumstances. We are determined to take action against anyone who is found to have engaged in such harassment. The Government is in the process of formulating guidelines to be observed by the Police and security forces personnel in their interactions with the families of missing persons.
As this House is aware, since 2009, 47,300 acres of land have been released in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. This includes 19,143 acres in Jaffna; 19,704 acres in Kilinochchi; 2,888 acres in Mullaitivu; 2804 acres in Ampara; and 1,649 acres in Mannar. In March this year, 1000 acres were released in Valikkamam North. In Sampur 818 acres have been released and 237 acres in Trincomalee.
A Cabinet Paper is currently being prepared by the Ministry of Resettlement for the release of 6,000 acres of land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
I know that to a lot of people, even the release of land is not happening fast enough. This is not due to a lack of intent or a lack of will. The Government is determined to hand over land back to the people and to resettle the internally displaced. We are determined to ensure that only the land that is absolutely essential for clear and specific military requirements and for national installations remain under the charge of the security forces, and the large swathes of land that are not required for such purposes, are released.
As I said earlier there are many challenges that the Government has to overcome in bringing about the change that is envisaged. I explained the causes for such delays which include having to deal with bureaucratic bottlenecks, attitudes and perceptions.
The other week, a respected Tamil author poet, Jayapalan, was refused a visa to travel to Sri Lanka to participate in a literary event to be held in Jaffna on the basis that he was deported in 2013 when he came to visit his mother’s grave.
Even in our missions, Mr. Speaker, there are still some officials with the old set who seem to have forgotten there is a now a government, with a new vision and direction.
We acknowledge the suffering of the people; we recognize the mistakes of the past; we realise the need for this nation to introspect; we are aware of the weaknesses of our institutions. We will face these challenges. We will not seek to take cover by distorting concepts and principles such as sovereignty for narrow political gain. Instead, we will always strive to work towards the welfare of all our citizens. We remain open to honest and frank exchange of views and to dialogue with all concerned both within and outside the country. We have the confidence to face challenges and also seek help where we require assistance from the international community, for the benefit of our people.
Those who are sceptical about Sri Lanka’s ability to transform as a nation, and address problems, are many. They claim that there can never be justice in Sri Lanka; that there can never be recognition of all communities as equals. I say to such sceptics: don’t judge us by the broken promises, experiences and u-turns of the past. Let us design, define and create our future by our hopes and aspirations, and not be held back by the fears and prejudices of the past. Let us not be afraid to dream. Let us not be afraid to engage in meaningful dialogue aimed at finding solutions to problems as opposed to pointing fingers, heaping blame and scoring political points at the expense of future generations.
We are committed, and we require the patient understanding of all the right-minded citizens of Sri Lanka in this endeavour. The political parties and the politicians alone cannot achieve this. We need all the citizens of this country to work towards reconciliation. We need all to join hands with understanding to walk hand in hand in this journey to transform our country into a united, progressive, peaceful and prosperous nation.
The Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has the political will and the courage of their convictions to ensure that we take the country forward, breaking the barriers of ignorance, fear, prejudice and hate, and create a new Sri Lanka.