“Wherever law ends, tyranny begins”. John Locke (Two Treatises of Government)
People’s security (is) no longer a problem”, pronounced Defence Secretary and Presidential-Sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on the campaign trail (www.defence.lk – 4.10.2011).
Perhaps he should tell that to the family of Gayan Saranga, the latest victim of extra-judicial killing or; to Dr, Nonis, the Register of the Sri Lanka Medical Council (and a leading opponent of the Malabe private medical college) who was assaulted near his residence in Moratuwa or; to the beggar, clubbed to death in the holy city of Kelaniya, the 8th mendicant to be gruesomely murdered in three months.
Extra-judicial punishments have been a Northern-norm for many years. This condition of lawlessness, nurtured by the Lankan state and the LTTE, continues, post-war. For instance on August 20, eleven civilians were arrested by the Vavuniya police; they were “severely beaten before the arrest and at least two persons were tortured inside the Vavuniya Police Station” (Groundviews – 2.10.2011).
The case of 28 year old Gayan Saranga, allegedly murdered while in the custody of the Dompe police, indicates that custodial killings are no longer an exception, even in the South. This deadly transformation of extra-judicial punishments from an exception to a norm began around 2006-2007, in the context of the Rajapaksa administration’s much acclaimed war against the ‘underworld’. Arrested suspects began to die, always while ‘trying to escape’.
The ‘reasons’ given by the police for these custodial deaths were hardly plausible; but, then, they did not have to be. The authorities knew that they had the backing of most of the society on this issue. Concerned about rising crime rates and irked by judicial delays, we, the absolute majority of law-abiding people, desired to be free of crime, at any price.
Thus the normalisation of extra-judicial killings happened with the silent consent of most of us (the pronoun is deliberately used, as I too was amongst that erroneous-many). Most of us appeased our uneasy-consciences by clinging to the belief that the victims of these extra-judicial killings were criminals, some even notorious gangsters.
We turned a collective blind-eye, as uniformed guardians-of-law broke the law with impunity, to punish law-breakers. We believed that the fastest and surest path to a lawful state was through a wasteland of illegality.
Killing is habit-forming, Agatha Christie’s famous sleuthing-duo, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, never ceased reminding their audiences. Those who kill for a good reason will eventually kill for a bad reason or sans reason.
That is why vigilante justice, however beguiling it may be, or necessary it may seem, cannot have a place in a democracy and is antithetical to the Rule of Law. When vigilante justice is practiced by the uniformed guardians-of-law, that path cannot but end in a state of total lawlessness, in which all, but a handful of power-wielders, are insecure.
Just over a month ago four police officers were sentenced to death for the killing of two suspects in Angulana. Logically, that exemplary sentence should have acted as a deterrent, at least in the South, at least for a while. The fact that it did not, and a starkly similar incident happened in another police station just a few weeks later, indicates the potency of the problem. This is not about a few bad-eggs acting illegally and inhumanely. This is about a mindset of lawlessness and a culture of impunity, which affects authorities at every level, from top to bottom.
The infamously famous Stanford prison experiment demonstrated how normal people (with no previous record of criminality or violence) can become dehumanised when circumstances are ‘conducive’. Conducted in 1971 by a group of psychologists led by Stanford professor Phillip Zimbardo, its 24 participants, all ‘normal, average and healthy’ students, were randomly assigned roles as either prisoners or guards.
On the second day, “the prisoners staged a revolt. Once the guards had crushed the rebellion, ‘they steadily increased their coercive aggression tactics, humiliation and dehumanisation of prisoners’, Zimbardo recalls. ‘The staff had to frequently remind the guards to refrain from such tactics’ he said….the worst instances of abuse occurred in the middle of the night when the guards thought the staff was not watching” (Stanford News Service – 1.8.97). Imagine a real-life situation characterised by total imbalance of power (police officers and suspects in a police station) and one in which the higher authorities, instead of restraining excess, tolerate or even encourage it. The current Lankan condition seems analogous to this; and unless the regime acts urgently to end this culture of impunity, the practice of extra-judicial punishments will grow, until the South becomes a replica of the North in injustice and lawlessness.
Presumption of innocence and proportionate punishment are two pillar of our law. The current Lankan trend of extra-judicial punishments (in the name of fighting the ‘underworld’ and terrorism) is the antithesis of both presumption of innocence and proportionate punishment (Gayan Saranga was suspected of helping to steal a water-pump!). It thus represents a ‘complete reversal of legality’ and a nod to a less-civilised past. If this practice is not stopped forthwith, the legal system will become a dangerous farce, the police the biggest law-breakers, and society a jungle.
The Ruling Siblings want power, for themselves and their descendents. This requires violating existing laws. For instance, according to a WikiLeaks cable, during the 2010 presidential election, “the President’s campaign has ordered eight GAs including those in Ampara, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa to send election results directly to the President’s house for his review before sending them to the Elections Commissioner” (Colombo Telegraph – 3.10.2011).
Clearly the Rajapaksas consider themselves above the law. Thus Gotabhaya Rajapaksa campaigned for the UPFA openly during the recent CMC election, thereby breaking a fundamental rule and a venerable tradition in Lankan public service.
Journalist Lasantha Ruhunuge has lodged a complaint with the Elections Commissioner claiming “that Defence Secretary’s involvement in the municipal election campaign is a grave violation of the Establishments Code and a misuse of government assets” (BBC – 5.10.2011). Hopefully the lethargic and fractious opposition will back him up, instead of allowing this courageous journalist to become an extra-judicial victim of a power-wielder’s murderous-rage.
When the Ruling Siblings make new laws, their primary aim is the promotion and protection of Rajapaksa-power. The 18th Amendment is an ideal case-in-point. In response to complaints about the blatant abuse of state-property during the recent polls, the Deputy Elections Commissioner said, “with the passage of the 18th Amendment, the Commissioner no longer had constitutional powers to appoint a competent authority to ensure balanced media coverage” (Daily Mirror – 5.10.2011). The 18th Amendment has thus consciously rendered electoral malpractices partially legal.
Under Rajapaksa Rule, Sri Lanka is a state-in-transition. Creating a new legality by breaking existing laws and making new ones, is an essential and fundamental component of this transformation of a flawed democracy into a One Family-State. The Dompe-killing and the attack on Dr. Nonis are disturbing glimpses of this emerging state in which the Rule of Law is replaced by the laws of the Ruling-Rajapaksas, and extra-judicial punishment can become the fate of any citizen, including the most law-abiding, for some reason or none. In the Rajapaksa-security state, insecurity will be the common condition of the rest of us.