Forced Cremations and a Future Commission probe? By M. A. KALEEL

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Next to the last stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War, forced cremation of corpses of Covid victims in Sri Lanka has received much publicity, internationally. With the request of our government to the Maldives to accept the bodies of Muslims who succumbed to Covid-19 for burial there, the issue received much worldwide publicity. It has now reached as far as UNHRC, and now it is part of the core issue of the UNHRC resolution to be tabled against Sri Lanka.

Forced cremation of bodies of Muslim Covid victims has hurt the religious sentiments of the Muslims living here, and all over the world. Many human rights organisations, such as the Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and UN bodies, like the WHO and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, have appealed to the Sri Lankan government to allow burial. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the second most influential body next to UN General Assembly, also pleaded with the Sri Lankan government to allow the burial of bodies of Muslim Covid victims, as there was no scientific evidence to support burial-transmitted Covid-19; but the Sri Lankan government, to date, has not given two hoots about it.

The Sri Lankan government has taken this strong stance against burial-based on the recommendation of the Health Experts Committee (HEC) that burial transmits Covid-19. The President, the Prime Minister, Ministers have washed their hands of this matter saying it is purely an expert committee decision – in other words a scientific decision taken by an experts committee and they do not want to politicise it for the benefit of a particular community.

The fact that Covid-19 does not transmit through burial is a well established scientific truth. There are so many empirical research studies to prove it. I do not know what scientific evidence the HEC has to prove it to the contrary. Meanwhile, a second committee of members, with more expertise, appointed by the Health Ministry, has strongly recommended that Covid-19 does not transmit through burial, and burial can be allowed. State Minister of Health Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopullai, who is also a medical specialist, admitted in Parliament recently that Covid-19 does not transmit through water.

A few days after her statement, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa made a statement in Parliament that burial of Covid victims could be allowed. The US and the UK ambassadors praised the Prime Minister’s stance, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, too, praised it. Some politicians later said the Prime Minister, in his statement, had referred only to burial of normal deaths not Covid deaths, and the government’s position on forced cremation remained the same. Some others pooh-poohed the Prime Minister’s statement saying that it was his personal opinion, and that the HEC decision could not be changed.

The stance taken by the government not to bury the corpses of Covid victims is wholly based on the HEC recommendation. This decision has hurt the religious sentiments of the Muslim community here, and Muslims in other parts of the world. It has also affected the friendly relationship with Muslim countries. Many human rights organisations, and some western countries, have expressed their displeasure and asked the government to respect human rights, and the burial issue is also to be taken up in the coming UNHRC session. All in all, the burial issue has seriously damaged the image of Sri Lanka, internationally.

In my view, the accountability for not allowing burial of Covid victims squarely lies on the Health Experts Committee. As our country is popular for commissions with a change of regime, there is a strong possibility for many future commissions to come up. As the decision of forced cremation of Muslim Covid victims has seriously damaged the human rights record of this country, and it has also affected the religious sentiments of Muslims, here and abroad, a commission may be appointed in future to inquire into the conduct of the HEC. The members of the HEC may be called in to explain why they recommended only cremation of Covid victims, while well-established scientific research studies said burial did not transmit coronavirus. Most members of the committee have a basic medical degree and they know very well a scientific finding can only be disproved by another more reliable scientific finding. If an experts committee appointed conclude that dengue spreads through house flies not mosquitoes, then they have to scientifically prove it.

Therefore, in the best interest of this nation, I earnestly request state officials and members of committees and commissions to conduct themselves professionally, and maintain the professional ethics and standards while doing their duties.

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Disclaimer: Forced Cremations and a Future Commission probe? By M. A. KALEEL - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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