20th August 2000

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Focus on Rights

Batalanda and the question of impunity

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

The resurfacing of former SSP Douglas Peiris and the resultant excitement of the state media comes across as being distinctly déjà vu. For one remembers another time, another place and another man in the same enchantingly sordid circumstances. And once one is forgiven that dubiously pornographic one liner, it does not need much effort to pinpoint the precise manner in which former SSP Pieris can claim kinship with DIG Premadasa Uduga-mpola. Again, if one cares to go even further, one would understand why drawing these parallels are far more important than the 'pot calling the kettle black" clamour of the Government and the Opposition arguing over who supplied which forged passport to former SSP Peiris at which moment in time.

One would then fully understand the larger issue of impunity for public officers implicated in severe human rights violations in Sri Lanka. And incidentally, one would then see how domestic laws and international obligations continue to retreat helpless in the face of naked political expediency in this country. It is necessary for this purpose therefore, to go back a little in time. Specifically to the 1988-1989 era where the deaths of lawyers Wijedasa Liyanaratchi, Kanchana Abeypala and Charitha Lankapura stood out against a mass and brutal disposing of individuals by the State in the name of counter insurgency. Take Liyanaratchi for example. Initially a 'disappearance' in 1988, his arrest was subsequently acknowledged. He was acknowledged to have died of over 200 injuries sustained while in custody.

While no one individual has yet been convicted for his murder, DIG, Southern Range Premadasa Udugampola was seriously implicated in the circumstances leading to his death. Three police officers including then Senior Superintendant of Police, Tangalle Division SP Karawaitage Dharmadasa were charged and tried in the High Court of Colombo in 1989. They were convicted of wrongfully confining Liyanaratchi but were acquitted of his torture and murder on the basis of insufficient evidence. DIG Udugam-pola who had given orders for the arrest was not even charged. His evidence at the trial was roundly disbelieved by the Colombo High Court, which referred to the "highly incriminating circumstantial evidence" against the DIG and stated that the orders authorising Liyanaratchi's detention had been fabricated after a mutilated Liyanaratchi was moved from Tangalle to Sapugaskande. He was admitted to hospital on the next day where he died. Meanwhile, Udugampola continued to serve as head of the Bureau of Special Operations in Colombo.

It was only in 1992, when he learnt that his contract was not going to be renewed that he went underground and commenced to release a number of affidavits on death squad killings. Subsequently, after being assured an amnesty under the caretaker government of D.B. Wijetunge, we saw the ludicrous spectacle of Udugampola filing a further affidavit going back on his disclosures in his earlier affidavit. What he did since then would be commented upon at a later stage in this analysis. At this point however, what concerns us are the similarities between this and the current sequence of events concerning former SSP Douglas Peiris. Like DIG Udugampola, former SSP Peiris has now sworn to certain facts in an affidavit with regard to past death squad killings. Whether at a later point of time, like his predecessor, he would swear a further affidavit going back on the contents of this month's affidavit remains to be seen. The affidavit itself however, does not proceed on mea culpa reasoning. On the contrary, the tenor of his argument appears to be that he was compelled to refrain from interfering in the ongoing ruthless counter insurgency drive due to political pressure brought on him. This is however a stance completely contrary to the findings of the Batalanda Commission. In its Report, the Commissioners attach no such sanctity of aloof non-involvement for former SSP Douglas Pieris. Instead, the Commissioners' strongest findings are against him for having "masterminded and executed the Counter Subversive Unit operations from the Batalanda Housing Scheme", thus becoming directly responsible for the detention and torturing of persons in Batalanda.

While the former SSP is cast as the villain of the piece, as it were, the Commissioners come to more arguable findings of indirect responsibility against other senior police officers such as Nalin Delgoda and Merril Guneratne who are found to have participated in discussions on counter subversive activities presided over by then Industries Minister Ranil Wickreme-singhe at Batalanda. The Commission meanwhile also finds former SSP Pieris guilty on quite a different basis. This is regarding his direct implication in the abduction and detention of a Sub-Inspector of the Peliyagoda Police Station who had been investigating the disappearance of another colleague of his, Rohitha Priyadarshana. Priyadarshana, a police officer attached to the Sapugaskande Police station had allegedly incurred the SSP's wrath by apprehending suspects without political bias. SSP Peiris was found to be indirectly responsible for Priyadarshana's disappearance as well. The Batalanda Commission recommended comprehensive investigations to be initiated against him and other police officers implicated along with him under the Penal Code. The former SSP himself did not appear before the Commission having fled the country by that time while an affidavit later submitted by him was rejected on the grounds of it not being authentic. It is in this context that the events of the past weeks revolving round the former SSP continue to be troubling. It is here also that the issue of impunity becomes relevant. In DIG Udugampola's case, we had him appearing subsequently before national television and affirming that his conscience is clear, that he had done his duty by his country and that he would act in the same way again if called upon for the sake of the nation. Again, we had him not only resurfacing recently at Opposition political rallies at Wayamba but claiming to have advised President Kuma-ratunga on the selection of security personnel in the 1993 and 1994 elections. Similarly, from whatever perspective, the "Douglas conspiracy", as one newspaper headline had it, cannot be anything but distasteful. In the first instance, his return at this point of time has naturally led to the Opposition insisting that this was an engineered return in order to discredit the Opposition before the elections, a plan that went wrong by the former SSP being arrested at Katuna-yake on his forged passport.

More to point, the resultant sight of him 'singing like a canary', as the prison cant goes, raises disturbing memories of the amnesty offered and accepted by DIG Udugampola for his silence in the early nineties. The difference is however that what DIG Udugampola traded for his silence, former SSP Douglas Pieris appears be assured by his volubility. The end question is the same. Would this lead to him being allowed to slip away not only from the ongoing non summary murder case against him in the Gamapaha Magistrate's Court but from specific investigations with regard to the Batalanda murders and connected incidents? If so, it would only amount to nothing but an expedient political amnesty given by the State to a police officer against whom exist allegations of torture and widespread disappearances amounting to severe human rights abuses. A more contemptuous flouting of our obligations not only under the numerous international conventions that we have signed but also the rationale as to why we chose to enact a Sri Lankan Torture Act cannot, of course, be imagined.

Disease scare in Argentina

At sanitary checkpoints like the one near Chivilcoy, 100 miles (160 km) west of Buenos Aires, Argentina is waging a war of perception against its costly foot-and-mouth disease scare.

A virtual army of police and veterinarians in white lab coats wait patiently by the side of the deafeningly noisy two-lane highway, players in Argentina's bid to convince the world it has the potential outbreak firmly under control.

At the first sight of a cattle truck lumbering down Ruta 5, police spring into action, waving the mildly surprised driver over to the side of the road and asking him for documentation. Seven veterinarians quickly descend on the truck, climbing on the trailer to pore over the cattle crammed in back, randomly checking their mouths, toenails and tongues for sores.

It is all part of a very public, very serious show as Argentina's beef export industry, which rang up $828.6 million in sales in 1999, sweats under the spotlight of world markets.

Argentina, the world's No. 4 beef exporter, last week suspended fresh beef exports to most of the Americas after 10 Paraguayan cattle grazing in Argentine pastures tested positive for the antibody that causes foot-and-mouth disease.

The disease does not affect humans but many of the world's largest beef importers do not import from countries with infected herds, so Argentina is bending over backwards to demonstrate that a potential outbreak has been squashed.

No cases of the disease or the virus that causes it have been found in Argentina since its cattle were declared free of the disease without vaccination requirements barely two months ago. A spokesman for Argentina's Agriculture Ministry told Reuters he expected a unilateral suspension of beef exports to the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Central America and Venezeula to be lifted in about 45 days.

But everyone knows the decision to resume importing Argentina's renowned grass-fed beef ultimately rests with those countries, which are demanding to see visible signs that the disease no longer threatens. Analysts and industry officials alike acknowledge that the economic cost of the disease scare will depend entirely on the duration of the export ban.

So, following a nationwide ban on all movement of cattle not directly bound for slaughterhouses, random sanitary controls have been set up on highways thoughout the country to ensure the safety of Argentina's 50 million head of cattle.

"By doing this we prevent people from moving their herds from ranch to ranch, so if there was any case of virus it wouldn't be transmitted," Luis Ferro, the veterinarian in charge of the Chivilcoy inspection site, said.

Punishment for truck drivers nabbed without proper documentation for their cattle is swift and harsh. "The truck is escorted to a slaughterhouse run by the government where all the cattle are immediately destroyed, and the owner has no right to compensation," Ferro said.

By 3 p.m. on a recent weekday, the 30 or so cattle trucks that had passed by the checkpoint all had proper documentation and their cattle were given a clean bill of health. A few trucks heading back to the ranch were checked for documentation to prove their vehicles had been totally cleaned and disinfected.

"That's an extraordinary measure we're taking right now to show people we have things under control," Ferro said.

All 3,500 cattle suspected of coming into contact with the Paraguayan cattle found to have the antibodies were destroyed and tests of Argentine cattle so far have turned up negative.

Antibodies like those found in the cattle smuggled into Argentina from Paraguay can be present if an animal has been vaccinated for the disease or has had contact with another vaccinated animal, phytosanitary agency Senasa says.

The truckers, fully aware of the economic importance of keeping Argentina's status as free of foot-and-mouth disease without vaccinations obtained just over two months ago do not seem to mind the delay at all.

"This is good for business. I want this to end as quickly as possible and it's a shame that it happened in the first place, so soon after we got cleared," said Angel Faldukei, a rancher taking his cattle to Buenos Aires' Liniers market.

"Meat gets cheaper in other countries and then we ranchers lose money and pay the consequences," he said,, shaking his head while his 35 cattle jostled around in back on a windy afternoon, spilling dried manure pellets onto the road.

Argentina's recent clearance by a Paris-based accreditation agency meant it was preparing to open up key markets such as Japan, South Korea and Mexico.

Senasa is also taking the extra measure of ordering random premortum and postmortum analyses of cattle that enter the Liniers market, Argentina's most important cattle auction site.

The United States alone accounted for $126 million of Argentine beef exports in 1999, while Canada snapped up another $28.6 million worth. Argentine exports to the $440.8 million European Union market have continued.

Argentina last week closed its border with Paraguay to certain animal byproducts and livestock imports.

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