The message was clear. They would be subject to isolation not because They had been infected with coronavirus or becoming a contact person of anybody so infected, but just for not obeying the police
However much the government leaders justify the arrest and subsequent detention of trade union and Student union activists in a quarantine centre in Mullaitivu after they launched a demonstration at the Parliament junction on July 8, it has left so many unanswered questions.
Their argument has been that the demonstrators including the General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU), Joseph Stalin and politburo member of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) Duminda Nagamuwa should be quarantined as they have violated health guidelines during the demonstrations. Interestingly, police or the health officials are not interested or concerned about the subsequent demonstrations demanding the release of those arrested on July 8.
Police and the Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara argue that the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) had informed them to quarantine the demonstrators. If that was the case, it seems to be ironic, as the same DGHS has imposed new restriction on demonstrations while drastically relaxing restrictions imposed earlier on the public in view of the COVID 19 outbreak, by his new set of health guidelines issued on July 6.
The new guidelines had allowed even spas, weddings and religious activities at temples, kovils, churches and mosques where one cannot expect social distancing to be adhered to. It is no secret that the buses are plying on roads with passengers above their seating capacity. What is important here is that the latest health guidlines were silent about demonstrations. Yet, Minister Weerasekara argues that the DGHS had issued a communication in that effect. Why didn’t the DGHS include it in his latest set of guidelines?
A similar situation arose in May last year when the Tamil leaders in the Northern Province arranged Mullivaikkal commemorations, the commemorations for those who were killed during the last lap of the war between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
When former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran was heading towards Chemmani, where such a commemoration event had been planned on May 18 police intervened and advised him not to do so. When he argued that he was not breaching any health instruction, a policeman told him “obathuma oya wede kaloth api obathumawa dawas 14 kata nirodhayanayata yawanawa” (If you proceed we will put you in quarantine for 14 days). Left with no option the onetime Supreme Court judge obliged.
Yet, the message was clear. He would be subject to isolation not because he had been infected with coronavirus or become a contact person of anybody so infected, but just for not obeying police officers who wanted to prevent him from attending a commemoration event, an event which had nothing to do with COVID 19. Interestingly, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government had not banned these commemorations. Even if they had been banned, police only could have arrested the former Chief Minister and not sent him for quarantine.
This point was clearly articulated by Jaffna Magistrate Peter Paul on the same day, May 18, 2020. On the previous day the Magistrate after considering the submissions of the police had ordered Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and ten others of his party to be quarantined for 14 days in their houses and ordered five MOHs also to submit a report after 14 days, as they had conducted several commemoration events in Jaffna on May 17.
However, on the next day (May 18) the magistrate, considering a revision motion by Ponnambalam’s lawyer discharged them on the grounds that the police had not submitted a report to prove that the suspects had shown symptoms of COVID-19. He had also observed that isolating people without symptoms would affect them psychologically. His stand was that people could be subjected to quarantine only on health grounds which should be substantiated with documents and not on any other grounds.
Since the police have accepted this point, it should be deemed as a precedent and could be applicable to Stalin’s / Nagamuwa’s case. Leave alone the police, even the health officials cannot justify their isolation just for breaching current health instructions such as wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing or crossing the borders of districts or provinces, as the case may be. On the other hand, millions of people saw on their TV screens how the demonstrations were held.
Police Spokesman Senior DIG Ajith Rohana said on July 12 that a total of 49,449 persons were arrested for not wearing face masks and failure to maintain social distance in public since October 20 last year. He also stated that the police have filed charges against at least 41,000 out of those 49,449 persons under the provisions of Quarantine and Prevention or Diseases Ordinance (QPDO) promulgated in 1897 and amended on April 11 this year and the Penal Code. The court could impose six months rigorous imprisonment or Rs. 10,000 fine or both the punishments if anyone found guilty on the charges, according to SDIG Ajith Rohana.
Similarly, up to May last year another around 50,000 persons had been arrested for the same reasons. None of these people were sent to quarantine centres. But quarantine is being used as a tool to suppress dissent in the North as well as South.
Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi had stated that at a time when a pandemic is ravaging countries it is not appropriate to launch demonstrations. According to her, farmers have to wait till the pandemic is fully contained to inform the authorities their plight without fertilizer, teachers and students who view the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University Bill would be detrimental to free education have to suspend their agitations against it until the country becomes free from the pandemic, a situation not within sight. The past governments have used this argument during the separatist war as well. They questioned the morality and appropriateness of demonstrations at a time when the country is at war with separatists. Government seems to be fond of unnecessarily provoking international players including international human rights outfits and backing down later.
Last year it was at odds with the UN, UNHRC and international human rights organisations over the cremation of cadavers of those who died of COVID-19. Ultimately, the authorities submitted in last February when they sensed that a new scathing resolution on Sri Lanka is to be passed at the 46th regular session of the Human Rights Council in the following month. They in January this year withdrew the Counter Terrorism Bill prepared by the previous government complying with the UNHRC resolutions, claiming that it had been prepared on the “influence of foreign forces.” However, subsequent to the June 10 resolution of the European Parliament which criticized the continual usage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979 while warning to withdraw the GSP+ concessions to Sri Lanka, again the government gave into that pressure. The Foreign Ministry on 25 June, informed the EU of action underway to revisit provisions of the PTA, in light of “international best practices.” Now, the UN has expressed concern over the arrest of trade union leaders using health guidelines as well. UN resident coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy on July 11 tweeted “Right of assembly includes the right to hold peaceful demonstrations. It helps exercise other rights; freedom of expression & influence public policies. Vital that restrictions imposed as measures against the pandemic don’t go beyond the legitimate protection of #PublicHealth.” Apparently due to the pressure exerted locally and internationally, the authorities now seem to be ignoring the demonstrations which are being held every day, across the country.