Will President Sirisena get into a soup in his haste to protect military officers?

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BY Gagani Weerakoon

The United States (US) earlier last week launched a blistering verbal attack against the International Criminal Court (ICC) and threatened sanctions against its Judges if they proceed with a probe into alleged war crimes by Americans in Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton made the announcement in a speech to the Federalist Society, a conservative group, in Washington, DC, on 10 September.


“Today, on the eve of 11 September, I want to deliver a clear and unambiguous message on behalf of the President. The US will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate Court,” Bolton said.


“We will not cooperate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”


In 2016, the Hague-based Court said that members of the US Armed Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency might have committed war crimes by torturing detainees in Afghanistan.


On the ICC, Bolton said that if any investigations go ahead on alleged US war crimes, the Trump administration will consider banning Judges and prosecutors from entering the country, put sanctions on any funds they have in the US financial system, and prosecute them in US Courts.


Bolton said that the main objection is to the idea that the ICC could have higher authority than the US Constitution and US sovereignty.


“In secular terms, we don’t recognize any higher authority than the US Constitution,” he said. “This President will not allow American citizens to be prosecuted by foreign bureaucrats, and he will not allow other nations to dictate our means of self-defence.”


 “The ICC constituted an assault on the constitutional rights of the American people and the sovereignty of the US,” he said.
Bolton said the US would “not sit quietly” if the ICC came after it, Israel, or other US allies.


Following Bolton’s remarks, the ICC said that they would continue its work as an independent and impartial institution, backed by 123 countries.
“The ICC, as a Court of law, will continue to do its work undeterred, in accordance with those principles and the overarching idea of the rule of law,” it said in a statement.


Bolton also announced the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, DC, because of the Palestinian attempt to get the ICC to investigate Israel for crimes committed during its decades-long occupation of Palestine.


The National Security Adviser’s announcement drew applause from the conservative crowd but was sharply criticized by Palestinian leaders and officials.


Incidentally, Bolton’s outburst comes at a time Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena is bracing himself to present Sri Lanka’s case before the UN General Assembly on 25 September to clear its military officers of war crime charges levelled against them by the international community led by the USA.


President Sirisena declared his plans to give a clean chit to the military officers before UNGA at a time where several top ranking military officers, including country’s Chief of Defence Staff have been linked to several pending cases of murder, assault and kidnap.


Former Navy Commander and incumbent Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne left the country to visit Mexico on Monday (10) morning, just hours before he was supposed to appear before the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) .


Admiral Wijegunaratne will represent Sri Lanka at the 2018 Independence Celebration of Mexico. He is due in Sri Lanka on 19 September, the CDS Office said.  


Admiral Wijegunaratne’s visit to Mexico comes in the midst of news reports stating that the CID had summoned him to record a statement in connection with the former allegedly helping a suspect in the case concerning the alleged abduction and disappearance of 11 Tamil youth in 2008 and 2009, to evade the law. The CID was planning to arrest the Admiral when he visited the CID to give his statement, the reports said.


On 29 August, Colombo Fort Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne ordered the CID to arrest Wijegunaratne if there was enough evidence that he had helped the main suspect in the aforementioned incident, Navy Officer Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi alias Navy Sampath, to hide.


Navy Sampath was arrested by the CID on Lotus Road in Colombo on 13 August. He was carrying a fake identity card at that time.  


Meanwhile, President Sirisena came under scathing criticism by his 2015 Presidential Election campaign supporters as they alleged that the President should take the responsibility for Admiral Wijegunaratne leaving the country to participate in 208th Independence Commemoration Ceremony of United Mexican States.


 Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya, co-convener of the National Movement for Social Justice said: “Wijegunaratne can’t leave the country without the knowledge of the President, who is the Minister of Defence. It is becoming increasingly clear that the man who replaced Mahinda Rajapaksa has become a replica of the former President.”


Wijesuriya added that the President must focus on abolishing the Executive Presidency. “Instead, he is talking about the importance of appointing the next Prime Minister. The President gives long speeches about his vision, but it’s clear that he has no idea about the rule of law.

 Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is no better. Maithripala Sirisena now calls us, the people who brought him into power, NGO agents. This is a lesson that we should never forget.”


SPECIAL CABINET


Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and at least 10 ministers were out of the country when the weekly Cabinet meeting was held on Tuesday. The meeting was rather lukewarm and only major proposal that was passed unanimously being the decision to ban animal sacrifices for religious purposes.


However, President Sirisena on Wednesday afternoon got his officials to call all Cabinet Ministers to be present for a special Cabinet meeting on Thursday (13). A senior Cabinet Minister said the President summoned all members to be present in Colombo by 12 noon but they were not apprised of what was going to be discussed at the meeting.


Many Ministers were out of Colombo and had gone to their electorates because it was a non-Parliamentary week. However, “All Ministers were asked to report back to Colombo,” he added.


However, by Thursday morning it was widely speculated that the urgent Cabinet meeting was to discuss primarily about the speculations on arresting the country’s top-most military figure.


The President as expected has stressed the need to prevent Police allegedly harassing military officials, over various criminal investigations.  
Addressing Ministers, the President noted that Police should not arbitrarily arrest, detain, interrogate and record statements from any military official, unless there is ample and irrefutable evidence against them, in which case a case could be filed in a Court of law. He further emphasized that when incidents where officers of the Armed Forces are alleged of wrongdoing, it will cause a loss of faith in the public in the Armed Forces.


President Sirisena said the continuation of such activity, akin to those of Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne and former Army Intelligence Chief Amal Karunasekera recently released on bail over the journalist Keith Noyahr abduction and assault case, will cause the public to lose faith in the Tri Forces. 

He said Wijegunaratne being summoned to the CID over an ongoing investigation, has created tension among the public and it was to clarify these matters that Ministers were summoned for a special Cabinet meeting.


He noted that individuals directly accused and involved in the case of the abduction and disappearance of 11 youth in the Kotahena area in 2011, should be charged for the crimes instead of embarrassing military officials by summoning them to record statements.


He has also noted that the Head of State and Commander in Chief should be informed before action against any high ranking military officer is taken.


Reliable sources told Ceylon Today that Ministers Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Patali Champika Ranawaka had extensively expressed their opinions with regard to the matter.

 Many complaints were aired by Ministers against the Police and law enforcement authorities. However, the Minister of Law and Order was not present as he was overseas on an official visit.


Even though the members of the Cabinet were asked to be tight-lipped about what was discussed, the President on Friday arranged a meeting to address heads of media institutions.


President Maithripala Sirisena told the Media yesterday (14) that he had summoned the IGP, Head of CID, the Attorney General and other senior officials earlier in the week and given them a dressing down about the way in which they were handling cases involving Armed Forces personnel.
“I told them not to drag these cases,” he told a press conference held at President’s House in Colombo.


Ceylon Today learns that the meeting took place on 11 September where he had ordered them to charge these personnel in Courts or if there was no case, to exonerate them.


“The way the CID is going about these cases is wrong. As a result, there is confusion in the Media reports which have an impact on the public both here and abroad and in turn allegations are levelled against the Government of carrying on a witch-hunt against war heroes,” he said.


There are a number of on-going CID investigations into alleged crimes that were committed during the last Government, he said.


These include the killing of Sunday Leader founder Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, the abduction and assault of Keith Noyahr, the latter an Editor attached to The Nation, the disappearance of Cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda and the alleged abduction and disappearance of 11 youths who were taken supposedly to extort ransom.


“These are serious crimes and those responsible must be brought to book and punished. But no-one has been charged yet,” the President noted.


He also pointed to cases involving several senior Armed Forces officers who have been arrested, kept in remand for some time and then released on bail.


“At the special Cabinet meeting on 13 September I told the Ministers that the CID has arrested various people and some of them are in remand while some have been released on bail. 

For instance, in the case where these 11 youths were abducted and disappeared, the CID arrested a number of persons, all Security Forces personnel and released them on bail except for one. 

This brings me to the case of the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ravi Wijeguneratne. The allegation against him is that he assisted one of the persons accused of the abductions to escape from the country. The CID has not issued a charge sheet against any one of them. Now the people who are accused in this case are on bail and at home and no charges have been filed against them. But the CID has obtained an order to arrest the Admiral”, he said.


SF’s behaviour questioned


Apart from discussing about military officers being ‘embarrassed’ President Sirisena also had come hard on the recent remarks made by Minister Sarath Fonseka.


“He’s making statements which are completely unbecoming and not fit for his post. He should mind about responsibilities at his hand and let the Army Commander take care of the Army,” he stressed.


The President also said if this continued he, especially as the Commander in Chief and the Government will have to review whether such individuals are deserve to hold positions like Field Marshal in the country, a senior Cabinet Minister said.


The ongoing rift between Minister Fonseka and Army Commander Lt. General Mahesh Senanayaka reached new heights with the Fonseka childishly drawing similarities between the Army Commander and Dictator Idi Amin because of their choice of ‘bald’ hairstyle. 

 “The Army Commander acts with a distorted mind. He should know how to maintain his hair like a respected public officer. He is bald, like Idi Amin,” he told journalists after attending an event in Kelaniya on Monday (10).
Fonseka told journalists that the Army Commander was only a Brigadier when he was leading the war.


“If he thinks he knows more than us, he is just sitting on his tail. He was appointed as the Army Commander not because of his talent, but because of other people’s mistakes,” he said.


It was obvious that he was irked by Sri Lanka Army’s statement on Sunday in which it was stressed that no one could review the Army’s strength after having gone on retirement years ago.


In the statement which would have been issued with the knowledge of the Army Commander it was emphasized that some retired military officers who have identified themselves as ‘War-Analysts’ had defined the Army’s right-sizing programme as  closure of camps.


The statement is as follows: “It is 9 years since the Sri Lanka (SL) Army emerged victorious in a war that lasted nearly 30 years. During the period of 9 years four commanders with experience have commanded the Army. 

All of them had contributed to enhance the Army’s readiness for war by starting training programmes and exercises, which are being carried on maintaining lofty standards. 

 Besides, utilizing their experience at war and the technological methods they have provided uninterrupted training and exercises to the officers and others so that they can face a war. 

With the assistance of the Government they arranged foreign training as well for a large number of personnel. They have therefore, gained sufficient knowledge in international war strategies.


There is nothing wrong in changing the camps which existed when the war was ending and after its conclusion, from time to time to suit the security needs   in accordance with security analyses and after considering the recommendations made   based on them by the commanders of the divisions. 

Hence the past commanders had necessity to take steps to change some camps. In the future too based on the security situation reports, if the occasion demands further changes may become necessary.


Recently some retired Army officers had declared the readiness for war of the Army is not satisfactory.


Officers who retired many years ago cannot make an evaluation of the Army’s strength and warring ability. Neither have they the ethical right. 

Moreover, when necessary, the former Army commanders have always exchanged views with the retired commanders possessed of experience. 

The army is always looking for ways to augment the strength of the army and expand it, and has never hesitated to act in that direction.


The whole Army roundly denounces the criticisms directed against national security by the Government, Defence Ministry and Army leaderships based on their own personal and political grounds. The intelligentsia of the country should not pay heed to these opportunists.

 We therefore, request the masses to continue to repose faith in the Army which is functioning as part of the forces that secured the country and not permitting the country to be plunged into another war”.

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