SRI LANKA: Conscientious individual portrayed as traitor 

(This statement first appeared as an article in the Sri Lanka Guardian on July 4th 2009 – Editor)

“The case of Shantha Fernando like several others is demonstrating sinister developments where guilt and innocence may have nothing to do with the punishments that may be meted out to an individual.”

(July 05, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the present-day context, the re-imaging of a person from a conscientious citizen to a traitor can be rapid. The transformation is not in real terms as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The change is simply in the portrayal of the person by the intelligence agencies, with the backing of a section of media. The case of Shantha Fernando is an example of how easily this can happen.

Shantha Fernando was produced before a magistrate’s court in Colombo on the 1st of July and, according to a report appearing in the media, he is accused of trying to bring disrepute to the President and the armed forces of Sri Lanka, and of having assisted terrorists. He was remanded for a further period of 15 days at Welicoda Remand Prison.

He was arrested on the 27th of March 2009 at the airport when he was proceeding to a meeting organized by the World Council of Churches on militarization in Asia. Many persons active in the social movements within the churches were among the participants, who’re from different countries on Asia. All the deliberations were in the open and a full report of this meeting has been published and distributed through the internet.

It was no different to hundreds of other meetings held throughout Asia over a long period of time by the World Council of Churches and the Christian Council of Asia, with the participation of persons from many other religions, to encourage concern for social problems that are afflicting the ordinary folk in the region. Literarily, hundreds of books have been published of these conferences and symposiums and these are available for anyone who wishes to look for them.

As a participant in this meeting, Shantha Fernando was taking published documents relating to the situation of refugees at the time. The concern for refugees has been part of the global humanitarian movement, particularly since the adoption of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951, and the churches in particular throughout the world have played some role in promoting the interest of the refugees and displaced persons as a matter of importance in their humanitarian work.

Shantha Fernando has been a long-term active person in the YMCA movement. He has worked in this movement for many years. He was also a staff member of Asia Alliance for YMCAs for about six years, and he was based in Hong Kong. During this time he took an enormous interest in the population of domestic workers from Sri Lanka, who are mostly Sinhalese and who are often faced with many problems working as migrant workers. He spent his free time on Saturdays and Sundays to help the formation of a domestic workers’ association for the welfare of these workers. Many functions were organized to bring domestic workers together on their holidays. The work he did in this regard still continues through these associations.

To be a concerned person about the problems of anyone is part of the training and the makeup of an individual like Shantha Fernando. Persons like Bishop Lakshman Wickramasinghe of the Anglican Church and Bishop Leo Nanayakara of the Catholic Church were role models in this regard. Taking pride in assisting people in difficult circumstances is taken seriously by such persons, who willingly sacrifice part of their time for such work. For them, being human involves being concerned for other humans, particularly those facing more difficult circumstances.

By their very orientation they are opposed to every form of violence and to seek peaceful solutions to all problems is an essential element of their intellectual and spiritual makeup. To speak out against injustice is a method they rely on in order to find peaceful solution to problems, and thereby to prevent the need for use of violence.

Thus, the participation in this meeting was one more of similar kind of activity, done out of concern for others. Demonstrating the problems of refugees in order to gain greater support for relief on their behalf is normal, decent human conduct that one would expect from anyone, and in particularly from those who, for a long time, have taken an active interest in being a conscientious person under difficult circumstances.

However, such actions are interpreted as being treachery and in violation of anti-terrorism laws. Since his arrest, his friends in the church circles have cooperated fully with the investigators with the belief that demonstrating his innocence would lead to his being released. They actively discouraged any form of campaigning and even legal actions on his behalf, thinking that once all the facts are put before the investigators in the spirit of full cooperation they would understand that he was not involved in anything illegal and that thereby he would be released.

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize winning Jewish writer, who wrote the famous novel Night about the ordeal of Nazi concentration camps, noted that Jews were destroyed not because of the power of Nazis but because of their own illusions. Despite overwhelming evidence that something terrible was happening to them, they sought to interpret events in which a more favorable outcome could be expected for them, ignoring the warning signs. As a result, they got closer and closer to the concentration camps and around four and a half million to six million ended up in smoke spread to the air through the chimneys.

The case of Shantha Fernando like several others is demonstrating sinister developments where guilt and innocence may have nothing to do with the punishments that may be meted out to an individual. Fate has made these individuals symbols of a transformation that is taking place within the country, in which justice, fair play and truth may have no relevance at all. The rest of the citizens who feel to read between the lines regarding such events may pay heavy prices for their own illusions.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-152-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,