According to the quarantine law, anyone flouting regulations can be arrested without a warrant
Since October 2020 over 17,000 people have been arrested on charges of violating quarantine regulations
Questions have been raised whether the Police and health authorities have been vigilant and administered the law equally across the country
Instanced of state agents violating laws raise numerous concerns. Authorities must be aware that wrong behaviour undermines their own credibility
Fingers have been pointed at politicians who have publicly and privately flouted both official restrictions & health guidelines
Curfews, lockdowns, or travel restrictions are generally understood as government regulations requiring people to remain indoors during specified hours. They are some of the methods adopted to restrict the fundamental freedom of free movement, because of the more important need of ensuring public health, national security and for other essential purposes. In Sri Lanka, the Executive President has exercised his power to impose a curfew with the Police being directed to uphold the law.
In a bid to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic which invaded Sri Lanka in March last year; lockdowns and curfews were imposed on several occasions. Currently, travel restrictions are in force till June 14. However, many argue that the law is applied unequally and the violation of quarantine regulations by privileged individuals being allegedly overlooked. There is an ongoing public outcry on social media regarding how several ‘powerful’ individuals including politicians had blatantly violated travel restrictions.
Fingers have been pointed at several politicians who have publicly and privately flouted both official restrictions and health guidelines now in force in the fight to eradicate the deadly virus. The recent incident was that of the Kurunegala Mayor’s birthday bash held in Kurunegala Police premises. Some of the participants had been unmasked while the Mayor was seen cutting the birthday cake and the pieces later shared with the invitees.
This event was a clear violation of Sri Lanka’s ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed in the midst of an unmitigated health crisis. Subsequent to a load of criticism, the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) was transferred for allowing the celebration at a time such as this. However, there has been no action taken against Kurunegala Mayor Thushara Sanjeewa Vitharana.
The violations of the curfew law, travel restrictions and quarantine regulations are not new. When the country was under a lockdown with the holding of any functions or gatherings been completely banned; private television channels brought participants from other provinces to the Western Province for functions by-passing all obstacles. A private TV station is known to have expelled journalists who had exposed the event organised by the institution violating curfew laws and for requesting protective equipment.
Nevertheless, the government continues to say the police are on full alert not only when travel restrictions are in operation but also when the unofficial curfew is lifted. DIG Ajith Rohana said the police would be on alert to identify those flouting these regulations and health guidelines. He warned the public even in areas where the curfew has been lifted to avoid moving around unnecessarily.
Since October last year, more than 17,000 people have been arrested on charges of violating Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 related travel restrictions and quarantine regulations. Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror spoke to Attorney-at-Law Jagath Liyanarachchi regarding this matter and discussed with him why and how people are flouting these guidelines and regulations imposed by the government.
“The Quarantine Ordinance has authorised the Minister of Health to issue orders and guidelines concerning the pandemic. According to the quarantine law, anyone who violates the law or obstructs officials from performing their duties can be arrested without a warrant. Under the law those arrested in such instances would not be granted police bail. Incidentally, it is the Magistrate’s prerogative to issue either an order to remand a suspect or grant bail,” he said.
When it comes to those subjected to quarantine after being found violating health guidelines or travel restrictions; the decision is not taken by the police or the magistrate but by health officials. But, the question is whether this is a practice carried out everywhere in a similar manner.
The lockdown rules in this country went through several changes. There was a time when the public were asked to venture outside based on the last number in their NICs being odd or even. Then, there were other occasions when the public were allowed to go to buy essentials, but only on foot. At the moment, only essential services those seeking to consult a doctor or buy medicines are allowed on the roads.
Meanwhile, Mr. Liyanarachchi, commenting on the recent incident involving the Kurunegala Mayor, said more than a violation of the prevailing laws, it has been a case of reckless behaviour or irresponsibility by those expected to set an example to the people.
“This is a crucial time for Sri Lanka. How the authorities behave sets an example to the people. Sadly though, according to what we see in the media, the law is not applied equally to all. This is a matter to be investigated. The unequal application of the law is quite evident when one observes how people are being checked, how arrests are being carried out and how prosecutions are being conducted. The police must not mislead the Court just for the purpose of obtaining an arrest warrant or some other court order. The concerned authorities should be aware that their wrong behavior undermines their credibility and only helps spread the virus they say they want to fight,” he said.
“It is needless to say that if people are staying home and not socialising with people outside their household, they drastically reduce their chances of catching or spreading disease. When people tend to participate in non-essential gatherings, that often result in less compliance with social distancing guidance and mask mandates. We are in an extraordinary situation, and all measures taken to reduce this pandemic are made to protect their health and the health of others,” he added.
The government continues to say the police are on full alert not only when travel restrictions are in operation but also when the unofficial curfew is lifted. DIG Ajith Rohana said the police would be on alert to identify those flouting these regulations and health guidelines
According to police, huge traffic congestion occurred towards Colombo on Galle, High Level, Kandy, and Negombo roads during the last few days despite the travel restrictions in force. Officers manning roadblocks at entry points of the Colombo City have observed that letters have been issued by certain workplaces requesting employees to report to work which is not considered essential services.
Following this finding, the Police said it will carry out a special investigation on the authenticity of the letters issued by workplaces requesting employees to report to work during the travel restrictions. As explained by DIG Ajith Rohana stern action will be taken against any employer or employee who has forged documents and/or issued request letters without a valid reason.
DIG Ajith Rohana stressed, “a special team is deployed to physically check and find out whether the employees are actually working. We will also find out if the employer or the supervisors have issued such letters without a valid reason. If so, the employer will be deemed to have committed an offence under the Penal Code and under the Quarantine Regulations. Stern action will be taken against the people who have violated the regulations,” DIG Ajith Rohana further said
With the large number of vehicles seen on the streets, the Police also launched a special operation to paste stickers on vehicles approved to enter Colombo during the travel ban. The sticker system has been introduced to monitor vehicles traveling under the essential services permit and to prevent officers from inspecting the same vehicle multiple times within Colombo. But if there is a special requirement, then the vehicles will be inspected repeatedly, DIG Ajith Rohana said.
The crucial factors in minimising the infection rate are numerous. These factors may include precautions taken, public commitment, firmness in implementing measures, public awareness of the disease, national vaccinations’ programmes, and many other factors. However, in the case of COVID-19, implementing curfews or travel restrictions is immensely crucial. Every citizen of the country regardless of their class or profession has to follow the guidelines because no one is safe unless everyone is safe.