When he tried to hand the books into the TID for his brother to read, they accepted all of them but did not allow one. This was ‘Guru Geethaya’, a Sinhala-language translation of Chingiz Aitmatov’s
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first action in office was to crack down on the powerful people’s struggle that has been taking place non-violently across the country since March this year. Three cases stand out among the many being arrested or called into the CID/TID for questioning almost weekly. Using the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) Wickremesinghe’s government has placed three student leaders at the forefront of the people’s protests under Detention Orders (DO) for 90 days.
Over the last month, the families of the three Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) leaders have experienced grief and surveillance as they wait to know the conditions and whereabouts of their loved ones.
Hashan Jeewantha Gunathileke is a student in the Department of Economics at the University of Kelaniya, where he was active in student organizing. His family is from Chilaw, and his father said he went through much hardship to be able to put him through his education. “He was a straight A student all his life, and studied well on campus”, his father says “he would do anything for a friend, and never had any trouble with the law. He only went to picket about the problems in the country.”
Galwewa Siridhamma Himi is the Convenor of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), an arm of the IUSF that comprises student monks. He is from Hambantota and is a Buddhist philosophy student at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura. “I am facing a lot of difficulties, and sadness, seeing my young son like this”, his mother says.
Wasantha Mudalige is the Convenor of the IUSF. His family is from Mahiyanganaya and he is a student of Archaeology in the Department of Humanities at Rajarata University. His brother says, that because he too has been through the local university system, he knows the way in which university students initiate and lead struggles that are about more than just themselves. “People were dying in queues and hunger – my brother and the student movement, came out to speak on behalf of all our lives – for people across the country,” he says.
On his visits to his brother – which have been challenging in themselves – he recalls being told that after the protest, Wasantha’s arresters had stalled at several places to make phone calls. “Sir, where do we take him?”, Wasantha had heard them say, making it clear that orders for his arrest were coming from above.
He recalls a time last year when Wasantha was arrested. During that instance, he related to him a conversation he’d had with Deshabandu Tennakoon, who had threatened Wasantha saying “the IUSF is finished, you all will find it very difficult to continue from now on”. Tennakoon is the Senior Police DIG in charge of the Western Province. His inactions – and in some cases, actions – allowed the attack on Galle Face protestors by pro-Rajapaksa mobs on May 9th.
Initially, all three were being held at the Tangalle Detention Center. However, they are regularly transported between the TID office in Narahenpita and the Detention Centre in Tangalle. Siridhamma himi has spent the most time at Tangalle, and so his family has raised concerns about his safety at that particular location. The centre is located within the ‘old prison’, a dilapidated building that they feel is unsafe for habitation. The Centre is also administered by the Navy – with officers in uniform and civilian clothing roam the premises. Wasantha’s brother feels that whoever the Commander in Chief may be, the Navy is in control of Rajapaksa’s power. The family was sheltered at the Trincomalee Navy base when Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced out of this post in May this year, and his son too is an officer within the ranks. “This is an allegiance that has been built over the years,” he says.
The families recall the visits made to the Tangalle Centre shortly after the three were initially detained there. All those who wanted to enter were body searched. The food they had painstakingly made at home – favourite dishes that they knew the boys would enjoy – could not be handed over to the students. They could purchase food from ‘outside’ and give it to the officers. Wasantha’s brother asks how the officers distinguished that a sealed jar of chillie paste purchased from a nearby supermarket was ‘safer’ than the meat curry they’d prepared at home.
When asked about the conditions of the detainees, most families say they couldn’t have that conversation during their visit. TID officers were constantly standing around and listening in. Hashan’s parents say they spoke to their son with four CID officers – some in civilian clothing – listening in the room. When his mother and father asked him how he was, he was only able to smile and say he was okay. “The CID has also since visited our village,” Hashan’s father says. They hadn’t actually come to their house but went to houses in the surrounding area to ask questions about the family and Hashan.
“We can’t actually have a conversation with him”, Siridhamma home’s family echoes these experiences. Before they enter the room in which they are to meet him, the officers ask them questions; “are you going to ask him what we asked him?” and they too listen in on the entire meeting. In addition, his brother, who is also a monk in the IUBF, was called in for questioning to the TID office in Colombo for over five hours, where they mostly asked him about the whereabouts of Siridhamma’s home phone.
On one Saturday, Wasantha’s brother traveled to Tangalle with food cooked at home. He arrived at the prison only to be told that Wasantha had been taken to Colombo. When he asked the officers how this was possible – as he had been issued an appointment to meet his brother in Tangalle – they gave him a phone number to call. After several calls to the number, he was finally informed that he needed to come to Colombo before 4 pm that day, in order to see Wasantha. He rushed at 11.00 am on what is a 3.5 hour journey, in order to be there in time.
“Wasantha asked me to bring some books for him”, his brother says, “he asked for paper, wrote a list of books, and gave it to me.” When he tried to hand the books into the TID for his brother to read, they accepted all of them but did not allow one. This was ‘Guru Geethaya’, a Sinhala-language translation of Chingiz Aitmatov’s ‘The First Teacher, originally written in Kirghiz’. The story takes place in a Kirghiz village and relates the life of a young communist who teaches in the village school, giving a young child a chance for a future through education.
After Wasantha and Hashan were moved to Colombo, their families visited with packages of store-bought food for them – biscuits, juice packs, milk packets, things they knew they liked. For days, those packages were sitting on desks at the TID offices – the officers had not handed it over to the students.
“All these are intentional, and are meant to cause us distress”, the families say. The long-drawn-out process of permission, or trouble handing items to their family members, are intentionally instituted to deter the families from visiting and to isolate the students.
Even visits by lawyers are by appointment, and that too at the discretion of the TID. Based on the visits of a few lawyers, however, we know that the three students are being kept in solitary confinement, in dark cells in their places of detention. Siridhamma himi (when in Tangalle), is allowed a short stint outside each day. He does not get to interact with anyone else. Wasantha and Hashan, even though both held at either Narahenpita or Tangalle, do not get to interact with each other.
One crucial issue with the way visits are allowed for these three, is that families are permitted to visit only with the consent of the detainee. The TID officers apparently ask the detainee if they want a visit or not, and then confirm the appointment. In cases where the visits are refused, can there be any certainty that the detainee did not give consent? If one of them is tortured, the TID could very easily tell their lawyers or family members, that the students did not consent to the visit. The TID would possibly then wait till any injuries or signs of torture heal before they claim the detainee has consented to a visit again.
The PTA, initially enacted as a temporary measure by then-President J.R. Jayawardena, does not offer the accused the presumption of innocence. Labeling someone a ‘terrorist’ by arresting them under this Act is in itself an act of psychological torture and an overall violation of their rights. Since its enaction, the legislation has been used to repress dissenters and arrest innocent people on baseless suspicions – never in our history, has ‘terrorism’ been prevented through this Act.
It has been used mostly against young Tamil men, throughout the war, and even after it ended in 2009. Many of them have spent more than 5 or 10 years in detention under PTA without as much as a charge, let alone a charge and conviction. Currently, nine Tamil prisoners who were detained under the PTA, are now serving between 5 and 30 years, whilst one is serving a 200-year sentence. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, thousands of Muslims were rounded up on PTA charges, and bail for those found to be not guilty was delayed and dragged on for months. The use of the PTA has been highly-racialized, a weapon against minority communities. This does indicate that anyone deemed an ‘enemy of the State’ is never far from its claws.
The long-drawn-out cases and the difficulty for families to simply visit incarcerated loved ones are also tactics that have long been used in the instances of PTA detainees. The profile of the person who falls into what the state defines a ‘terrorist’ is the one thing that changes over the years.
“The PTA needs to be repealed, otherwise this will happen to another family again” Wasantha’s brother knows that year after year, a different group of people is made out to be ‘terrorists’ based on the requirements of the state and government at the time. So long as terror laws such as the PTA remain on the country’s books, they will always be weaponized by the State to protect its own interests and retain power.
Wasantha’s niece said that her uncle spoke out on behalf of young students like her; “he never talked about destroying the country, but rather, about imagining a better future for us all. While the actual criminals are free, he is being demonised and held in detention.”