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Sunday, June 23, 2024

CHOGM & Khuram Shaik case: It’s Sri Lanka’s justice system, not just one case

 The predictability of it all would be laughable if it was not so deplorable. In a perfect world, the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) would never have been held in Sri Lanka which, under this Presidency, symbolizes a complete negation of all the values that the Commonwealth stood for.

A useless extravaganza
Yet, as trade-offs continue between Sri Lanka’s spin masters and foreign leaders whom the government dearly wishes to entice into attending this extravaganza, we can only stand back and chuckle.

The pressure exerted by the Indian government on the Rajapaksa Presidency into holding the Northern Provincial Council election was at least an exercise well worth the effort given the energy that this has injected into the political process.

But other exercises are far more contemptible, for example the shameful consensus that is now being forged between Australia’s new government and this administration in stopping, by foul means or fair, refugees heading to Australia’s shores in exchange for that country’ support and presence at Sri Lanka’s CHOGM summit.

These cynical trade-offs do not stop there. The filing of direct indictment by the Attorney General this week against the Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha chairman and his cronies, (all essential allies of the Rajapaksa’s Southern strongholds or strangleholds as the case may be), in regard to the murder of a British tourist and the brutal rape of his Russian girlfriend has not come about as a magnificent act of benevolence. Instead, it is directly linked to the British government’s intense interest in the case during the run-up to CHOGM. Discerning the link does not need wisdom of a particularly acute kind. 

Exceptional cases do not make the norm
True enough, indictment has been filed and we are told that a special prosecutor will be appointed for this case. But whether it is the Khurram Sheikh killing or indeed the 2006 murders of the students in Trincomalee or the killings of the seventeen aid workers in Mutur that same year, the question is not exceptional pressure which propels minimal action being taken in one case or the other. 

Rather, the central issue is Sri Lanka’s justice system and the general breakdown of the Rule of Law which makes the holding of the CHOGM here close to an obscene exercise. For each exceptional case that is pushed by foreign governments, there are hundreds more instances where victims or their family members languish without relief. And on each instance that the Attorney General refuses to prosecute or the Supreme Court refuses to hear despite clear evidence of violations, we are pushed closer to a despotic state regardless of international summits and useless perorations on the value of democracy. These are however not preoccupations that appear to interest the Commonwealth.

So the privileging of justice in Sri Lanka depends on whether a foreign government takes an interest in a particular case or not. And while Canada’s Prime Minister must be applauded for his steadfast refusal to attend the CHOGM, perhaps we must be glad that no Canadian tourist has been murdered in Sri Lanka or that the country has not been afflicted by boat people who, as we are told repeatedly by the Australian government, insist on landing on their shores in gargantuan numbers though skeptics scoff at these exaggerations. 

Witness protection or witness elimination?
Last week’s reporting in this newspaper of an Assistance and Protection of Victims of Crimes Bill due to be presented in Parliament soon is yet another pre-CHOGM tradeoff. We have not been apprised of its substantive contents. At the outset, it remains a question as to why the Division for the protection of witnesses is located (separately, we are told but there can be no effective separation) within the Department of the Police? In an umpteen number of cases recorded beyond any manner of a doubt, it is the police who is shown to threaten victims and witnesses. Therefore, placing the very Division responsible to protect these special categories of persons within the overall structure of the police raises severe doubts as to the credibility of this mechanism. This was a flaw attaching to the initial draft of the Victims and Witnesses Protection law proposed in 2008 which is apparently still there. 

Neither is there any reassurance that other flaws in the initial draft have not persisted. For example, clause 7(5) of the earlier version prohibited any receiver or gatherer of information during an investigation to provide, publish or disseminate inter alia, such information regarding the identity of the relevant victim of crime or a possible witness or informant.

As any competent investigator or criminal lawyer would agree, this is pivotal to a good witness protection programme. However, the initial draft restricted its application only if the life of a victim, witness or informant was placed in danger. This is an unnecessary restriction on the prohibition which should be couched in absolute terms. What about release of information that results in harm qualitatively different to that of placing a life in danger? Would one action be sanctioned but the other exempt from the reach of the prohibition?

The farce continues to our detriment
If this government is serious about its pronounced aim to protect victims and witnesses, it needs to re-establish an independent National Police Commission similar to that which prevailed under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The ineffectual body that masquerades under that name presently should be done away with. Secondly it needs to delink the Department of the Police from political control and show prosecutorial and political will to punish offenders in all cases not just in one or two pushed by foreign governments. In the alternative, the farce can only continue
– Courtesy The Sunday Times


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