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Focus

   
 

The tale of two detentions


Barack Obama and Mahinda Rajapakse

Over the last weeks there were discussions around ‘detention’ taking place in two different parts of the world. One was concerned with 240 men and the other with 280,000 – men, women and children. In the United States of America, the Obama administration was following through on its election promise and was closing down its infamous prison in Guantanamo Bay. But transferring the 240 detainees, some of whom had sworn allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, to incarceration facilities within the US posed political, legal and moral challenges.

At the same time, across the world in Sri Lanka, the Rajapakse administration was following through its decimation of the LTTE by detaining over 280,000 people, safe to say over 90% civilians, inside barbed wire camps.

It was interesting to see how these ‘detention’ issues played out in the two countries. It gives some insights into the type of leadership and society that has emerged out of these two countries engaged in a war against terrorism.

Engaging speech

Faced with a challenging issue, Obama delivers an engaging policy speech that clarifies the legal, political and moral issues surrounding it. He makes a vigorous defense of his decision, responding to all the arguments against his plans. In the two big speeches  President Rajapakse has made since the internment of the 280,000 civilians, he didn’t even acknowledge the fact that they are being detained behind barbed wire fences by his army.  

Dick Cheney, a Republican and former vice president, puts up a spirited defense of his position on the one hand while the civil liberties groups take Obama to task on his justification of ‘prolonged detention.’ Soon the technical terms are defined for the public and they are able to engage and take sides. The question of dealing with the detention of 240 enemy combatants makes it to the front page of almost all key newspapers and TV channels filling people with all different shades of the argument.

Censored out

In Sri Lanka, only the immediate humanitarian needs of the displaced civilians make it to the headlines in the domestic media.  The fact that they are being detained in internment camps and the legality of the detention is (mostly self) censored out of the news and as such there is hardly any discussion in the public sphere about the basis on which a couple of hundred thousand civilians are detained. No outrage about the fact that over 40,000 of them have been in such detention for over four months now, after proving their innocence multiple times through different screening processes.

In the US, Obama is trying to accord the same standard of justice to 240 enemy combatants similar to those enjoyed by an American citizen. Even for the hard core suspects who have sworn to inflict harm to America and its people, he is striving to ensure judicial procedures that are ‘consistent with their values and constitution.’ In Sri Lanka President Rajapakse is denying the constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of movement to over 200,000 thousand of his own citizens.

If we suppose that there are few thousand LTTE cadres and their associates in the camps, there is no reason to keep under illegal detention the balance 270,000 plus civilians who are innocent.  Even for the few thousand suspected to have had some LTTE connections the right thing for the administration to do is to bring the police in and either invoke provisions in the Prevention of Terrorism Act or the Emergency Regulations to detain them. Both of which give sweeping detention powers to the government and they can legally detain these suspects for long periods without even bringing any charges against them.

Illegal

Instead, what the government is doing now is illegal. It is able to do it because of the impunity it enjoys. What is being done in Sri Lanka is inconsistent with the constitution and is in line with the regime’s guiding philosophy that terror can only be fought with terror.   

In the US, the Congress denied President Obama $80 million dollars because his plans were not clear enough. They wanted more details on how he was going to resolve the moral and legal dilemma around ‘prolonged detention’ while also keeping the country safe. Obama has vowed to come up with a plan. In Sri Lanka, the Government gets funds from different donors through the UN and the INGOs to run these internment camps. If they raise questions President Rajapakse will threaten to go to China or Libya. 

In the US it is reported that ‘any new plan for the imprisonment of terrorism suspects without trial would seem inevitably bound for the Supreme Court.’ In Sri Lanka despite the prolonged detention of what are mostly innocent civilians, some as long as for 14 months, there is no one going to the courts.

Violation of constitution

In fact the Chief Justice himself visited the camps where citizens are detained in violation of the constitution and still they continue to be detained. It seems that contrary to ‘one country, one constitution,’ there are people in Sri Lanka, Tamils, to whom a different set of rules and laws are applied.

The President claimed in parliament that there are no minorities, only Sri Lankans, but that there are those who love their country and a small “minority” who don’t. So, to which group, do these IDPs belong in the President’s classification to deserve such treatment? Or has he already decided?

The difference is clear – the United States of America has a principled President and a working democracy. In Sri Lanka we have a King and a patriotic cabal!


 

 
 

 

    

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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