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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

What is sauce for Azath Salley is not sauce for Bodu Bala Sena

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has reportedly obtained a detention order to keep Azath Salley, the former Deputy Mayor of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), in custody, for an additional three months, according to the family of the detained politician.
Salley has been kept in custody by the CID since last Thursday (2) after he was arrested under the much loathed and despised Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and 120 of the Penal Code. He has been accused of inciting ethnic disharmony.

Clause 2.1 (h) of the PTA states that, “Any person, by words, either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise causes or intends to cause commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill-will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious group” shall be guilty of an offence under the Act.

Sweeping powers
The PTA grants sweeping powers to the law enforcement agencies and enables them to keep suspects in prolonged detention, and to extend the detention period by producing the suspect before a judge, once every three months.
The continuance of the special terrorism legislation such as the PTA, even four years after the end of the war, is justified by the fear psyches, such as the Diaspora bogeymen and the revival of the Tamil Tigers. However, Azath Salley’s plight is a stark pointer as to how the PTA has been abused and used, as a means of a witch-hunt against the opponents of the regime.

Salley’s story highlights three fundamental errors in the law enforcement system: In the first place, the arrest smacks of a political witch-hunt. Second, the incident is a stark remainder as to how the PTA is being abused to cater to the whims of the political leadership. The abuse of the PTA in this magnitude has potential to turn this country into a Kafkaesque nightmare for its citizens, especially for those who are critical of the current regime.
Third, the selective arrest of Salley under the purported charges of inciting racial disharmony is quite disturbing, especially in the context that the government has given a free reign to Sinhala Buddhist hardline groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sinhala Ravaya (SR) and so forth, which espouse a heavy dose of extremism.
‘Unofficial police’

For instance, the General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, at a rally held in Maharagama earlier on, called on its supporters to act as ‘unofficial police’ in order to protect and promote Buddhist interests. In other words, the venerable monk was calling for vigilantism by his supporters.

Other members of his group have, on various occasions, heaped diatribe on the Muslims, and reiterated the exclusivist status of the Sinhala Buddhist.

Sinhala Ravaya, another extremist group which competes with the BBS for a receptive audience and followers, has launched protests in front of Muslim-owned business establishments. Disparate activists of those groups have been unleashing hateful propaganda online, and in the real life. Some customers of some of the Muslim commercial establishments and a group of youthful activists who launched a night vigil against the Bodu Bala Sena had been targeted by a sinister campaign of character assassination.

However, sauce for the goose is not sauce for gander. In the eyes of the government, while Sinhala Buddhist extremism is permissible, the same liberties should not be accorded to the Muslims, even when the rhetoric of the Muslim activists may have been in response to the Bodu Bala Sena.

Residual effect
The detention of Salley could have its own repercussions. The Bodu Bala Sena and its ilk would view it as a triumph, while Muslims would feel being persecuted. Disenchantment could harden the opinion of the Muslims. Where free speech and exchange of ideas in a civilized debate are constrained, the proponents’ of those ideas tend to go underground. For example, the 6th Amendment to the Constitution, which imposed a prohibition against the violation of the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and resulted in the expulsion of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) from Parliament, was preceded by a period of increased militant activism of the nascent Tamil militant groups, which culminated with their total disengagement from the Sri Lankan State.

Also, the arrest of Salley under the PTA highlights the residual effect of the special terrorism laws, which, at one point of time in the country’s recent history, had been quite useful. Special terrorism legislations are a necessary evil for the States that have been pitted against ruthless terrorists and insurgent groups.

Terrorists and insurgents in general exploit freedoms that are available in our societies and are guaranteed under our constitutional systems and the rule of law, in order to destroy those very structures and to recreate new ones. It was due to those limitations of the traditional legislations that special legislations were enacted to fight terrorism. Sri Lanka was no exception and this country had been held ransom by terrorists and insurgents of three rebellions, who exploited whatever the liberties that were available in our societies to destroy those societies in order to create, (a) a communist dictatorship (by the JVP), and (b) a monolithic Tamil Eelam (by the LTTE). Democratic States, though the degree of democracy of each of them may vary, are generally forced to the wall by the terrorists and are often forced to fight with one hand tied to its back.

In this backdrop, the States may have to increase their freedom of action and suspend some of the freedoms and enact special legislations, so that the democracies won’t fell prey to terrorists. Those are unpopular measures, but they are a necessary evil.

A number of fragile States in Africa were turned into veritable hellholes by cross-dressing cannibals and drugged youthful warlords, because weak governments tend to be sitting ducks to ruthless and determined terrorists. Therefore, strong governments are sometimes a blessing.

However, the blessing becomes a curse when those very governments abuse those very laws which are meant to be used with utmost caution in order to cater to its political agendas.

The special terrorism legislations are supposed to be temporary.

They are not expected, under any circumstance, to be a permanent fixture of the legislation. However, Sri Lanka is a case in point where the special legislation which was meant to be temporary has become permanent. Any rational threat assessment is unlikely to support the continuance of the PTA, four years after the end of the war. However, political prerogatives require that it remains a fixture, so that the executive is at liberty to indulge in a witch-hunt of its enemies.



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