Former Colombo Deputy Mayor and Founder Leader of the National Unity Front Azath Salley is currently held at the Police CID Fourth floor headquarters in Fort on a detention order for 90 days issued under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
When Azath Salley was arrested on Thursday May 2nd the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) Director General Lakshman Hulugalle was reported by the State controlled “Daily News” newspaper as saying that he was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department following several complaints received by the CID regarding conduct which could damage ethnic harmony, and harm national unity
Hulugalle reportedly said that Salley was taken into custody under Section 120 of the Penal Code and provisions under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Hulugalle reportedly stated that Salley had violated clause 21 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and section 120 of the Penal Code. He (Salley) had incited people with the aim of causing damage to ethnic and religious harmony, in the guise of agitating against the government.
The MCNS Director General further said that no ethnic or religious unrest has been reported under the leadership of the present President. He further said it is the prime duty of the government to safeguard ethnic and religious harmony and no one will be allowed to cause friction between different religious groups and ethnicities.
When Tamil National Alliance MP and Lawyer MA Sumanthiran visited him at ward 55 of the Colombo National hospital , Salley told Sumanthiran that the Police so far had questioned him only about an interview he had given to the Tamil Nadu bi-weekly “Junior Vikatan”.Salley whose health is deteriorating due to his protest fast was hospitalised for a day but is now back in custody at the 4th floor.
Although the State has detained Salley under the PTA for the alleged offence of inciting communal hatred there are very few who believe that explanation. The widespread condemnation of Azath’s arrest by several persons and institutions demonstrate that public opinion does not buy the claim that Salley was arrested for inciting hatred.
It is common knowledge that Azath Salley has been in recent times a vehement critic of the Govt, Sinhala Buddhist extremists and of unofficial patronage extended by the Govt to these extremists. In fact Salley’s arrest itself has exposed the blatant double standards of the Rajapaksa regime. While many Sinhala Buddhist hardliners like Ven Galagoda athhe Gnanasara Thero are able to incite virulent hatred against Muslims on public platforms, a Muslim politician like Azath Salley is being arrested for an interview given to a magazine.
This action by the Govt makes obvious that in Sri Lanka sauce for the Gander is not sauce for the goose.What is sauce for the Sinhala Buddhist Gnanasara Thero is not sauce for the Tamil speaking Muslim Azath Salley.
Azath Salley was not a top level Muslim politician until a few months ago. What made his stock rise among Muslims in particular and democracy conscious persons in general was Azath Salley’s courage in giving voice to what is right against majoritarian might. At a time when the Muslim Ministers and MP’s of the Rajapaksa Government were conspicuously silent about the anti-Muslim hate campaign being unleashed by Ethno Religious fascists , Azath Salley won the admiration and appreciation of many by speaking out against it in a frank and forthright manner.
BODHU BALA SENA
He even went to the extent of initiating moves to haul the leaders of the Bodhu Bala Sena befoe courts for slandering and defaming the Muslim community. This he did knowing fully well that the Country’s second most powerful man was fully supportive of the Bodhu Bala Sena. Defence and Urban Development secretary and Presidential Sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has been openly associated with the Bodhu Bala Sena.In spite of this Azath Salley did not hesitate in taking on the Bodhu Bala Sena.
Being a prickly thorn in the Govt flesh there was a strong possibility that Azath Salley would be soon targeted by a regime that has very little tolerance for dissent or political defiance. It seemed definite that some action was going to be taken against Azath Salley.
There were however nagging doubts as to whether the regime would indeed target a critic like Salley for two reasons. One was the international climate. Would the Rajapaksa regime beleaguered as it is on many international fronts act against Azath and incur further condemnation?
The other doubt was due to the relationship that had prevailed between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Azath Salley. Though not always on the same political wavelength they had been on friendly terms for many years. It has been a trait of Mahinda Rajapaksa to maintain personal relations with many politicians on the opposing side. In Salley’s case he played a prominent part in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-eelection campaign of 2010.
Salley had however split with the UPFA just as he had done so with the UNP earlier and joined the Muslim Congress.Later he left the SLMC too.It has however been often said of Mahinda Rajapaksa that he never forgot those who helped him. So it was felt that notwithstanding Azath’s political dissidence Mahinda Rajapaksa would not let any harm befall Salley because of the close relationship in the past.Salley being able to continue with his flagrant defiance of the powers that be seemed to indicate that the benevolent gaze of Sri Lanka’s most powerful person was still upon Azath.
These doubts were proved wrong when the state apparatus was unleashed on Azath Salley last Thursday. It appears that a vindictive regime is determined to penalise Azath Salley despite the national and international opprobrium.
While the recent track record of Azath Salley clearly provides the background to the arrest what is puzzling to many is the reason for action being taken at this juncture? What exactly triggered it off? Where did he cross the line?
It appears that what caused Azath Salley’s fall from grace was his outspokenness.The very same attribute that has earned him tremendous political popularity in recent times has also been the reason for his arrest.
According to informed sources Azath Salley had been featured on the TNL (Telshan Networks Ltd) Tamil show “Ezhuchchi” on April 23rd. This discussion conducted in Tamil is interpreted in Sinhala also with a view to keep Sinhala viewers informed of issues concerning Tamils and Muslims.
When Salley was interviewed on TNL the outspoken Muslim political leader had apparently made some critical remarks about the first lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa. One such remark was referring to her as “Azhaghu Rani” (Beauty Queen).
According to informed sources President Rajapaksa was told of the comments made to TNL by Azath Salley. Sri Lankan society has many tale carriers and there are some Muslim politicians who are notorious for “sneaking” to the President about other Muslim politicians. A failing of President Rajapaksa is being susceptible to glib tale carriers, acting rashly and then regretting it.
President Rajapaksa was infuriated when he was told of Azath Salley’s comments. The tale carriers may very well have exaggerated or distorted what was actually stated. It is however well known that President Rajapaksa regards his immediate family as being “out of bounds” for adverse political criticism.
It may be recalled that many years ago the slain editor of “The Sunday Leader” Lasantha Wickrematunga wrote in his newspaper that Mahinda Rajapaksa had telephoned him and berated him for dragging in his(Presidents) family. There too the President had been misinformed that “The Sunday Leader”was going to carry a disparaging article about the first lady.According to Lasantha , during the heated argument Mahinda had emphasised that his family should be left alone.
Viewed against this backdrop the reason for speedy action against Azath Salley seems crystal clear!Once Azath Salley incurred the wrath of President Rajapaksa punitive action against him seemed inevitable.
Opposition politicians and Human Rights activists protesting the unjust arrest of Azath Salley have described it as political victimisation and suppression of dissent. Their descriptions are indeed correct! There has been simmering anger at the political activities of Azath Salley within Govt ranks but the flashpoint of tension that triggered off action against him at this juncture was the TV interview.
It is totally unacceptable for any person to be penalised for such flimsy reasons but unbelievable as it may seem that is what seems to be happening in the emerging wonder of Asia. Whatever the real reason for the arrest it is highly unlikely that the actual fact would be revealed during Salley’s interrogation or possible indictment.The overt focus would be on the Interview to “Junior Vikatan” and not on the TNL “Ezhuchchi” show!
What is necessary now is to devise ways and means to save Salley’s life in the first instance and then ensre his release from Police custody. Abhorrent as it may seem the only way out at present is only through appealing to President Rajapaksa himself. Sri Lanka is a country where the minister of Justice laments about erosion of rule of law and where the de jure chief justice is impeached through a kangaroo court masquerading as a Parliamentary select committee. In such a situation there is no choice other than to approach the President despite prevailing circumstances. He who inflicted the malady can and must provide the remedy.
Efforts are currently on to soothe President Rajapaksa’s ruffled feelings and secure justice for Azath Salley. It is learnt reliably that a senior Muslim cabinet minister and a Muslim local authority head have directly appealed to the President. Rajapaksa had not made any comment except to say “Pauw” (Sin)when told of Salley’s deteriorating health.
It is in this context that the letter written to President Rajapaksa by Azath’s daughter Ameena assumes huge significance. According to a report in “Newsfirst”, She has in that letter made a special request to the President.
She states in the letter that her father has been unjustly arrested and has commenced a hunger strike from the time of his arrest.As he has refused food and water, his health is deteriorating,Ameena says in the letter that although she and her mother had visited him and asked him to take food and water, he had refused.
She further says in her letter to the president –
“Since I was a small child, it has been a well known fact to me, that you are a close friend of our family and I am sure that if you were, to offer a glass of water to him by your hand, he would return to normal”.
“You and the people of the country are aware of how dedicated my father was towards your becoming the President”.
“Thereby, I strongly believe, that a glass of water offered by your hand, would safeguard the life of a person who is dedicated to peace in this country, and who is also your friend.”
“Therefore, I kindly request that you turn your sympathy and attention towards my father and fulfill the above request.”
The anguish and agony of a daughter is patently visible in the request made by Ameena to President Rajapaksa regarding her father. The humanitarian nature of the request affords President Rajapaksa an opportunity to do the right thing.
It was only on May day that the Machiavelli of Medamulana confounded his political opponents by reversing part of the newly imposed electricity tariffs.In a deft political move the President detached himself from the decision made by the government of which he is head and made a concession to the people. If there is any kudos to be earned by this action all that would accrue to the President and not his Government.
Likewise the appeal made by Azath’s daughter provides Mahinda a chance to both make amends and engage in political damage control. The action taken against Azath Salley has deep and far reaching implications. The consequences would be terrible for the President and the Government in the long run. With Salley’s health deteriorating the worst may happen. If it does the excreta will collide with the oscillator in political terms both nationally and internationally.
It is time therefore for President Rajapaksa to act now and act fast. He should avail himself of the opportunity provided and oblige the pathetic request made by Azath Salley’s daughter. This would help to restore Salley’s health and salvage the situation.
Thereafter Azath Salley should be released unconditionally!
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org