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Dispelling Gathering Storm Clouds Over Sri Lanka – Kishali Pinto Jayawaradena,

(Gotabhaya at FICD)

As former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa emerged smiling into television cameras this week following summons issued by Sri Lanka’s Presidential Commission on Serious Fraud et al (PRECIFAC), his jibes were clear. ‘So there were rogues in our time’ he said, ‘…there were rogues in the past as well and rogues also, in the present.’

Sinha Le meeting at Kandy  held on 23 January 2016
Sinha Le meeting at Kandy held on 23 January 2016

Disinclination to change the impunity culture

The storm clouds that are gathering amidst rumors of a new Rajapaksa political grouping may not be directly over us as yet. Yet their appearance on the horizon is quite discernible as ultra-nationalism raises its monstrous head again as typified by slogans of ‘Sinha-le’ (blood of the lion) defacing vehicles and walls of houses in Colombo.

In the North, nationalist sentiment is also on the rise as buttressed by the castigation of the Government in appearing to renege on its promises to secure justice for war time abuses. Central to nationwide dissatisfaction is the retreat from the high moral ground on which the Sirisena Presidency had defeated the Rajapaksa juggernaut.

This retreat was entirely predictable as seasoned observers were quick to note early on. The catapulting of compromised flag bearers of the old regime into the fledging interim administration early last year created considerable disquiet. These were good warning signals.

Blurring of lines between the old and the new

One year into the Presidency and a General Election later, the disquiet has worsened. The lines between the old and the new have become even more blurred, along with a still unresolved Central Bank financial scandal. Flamboyant assurances of Western financiers (some with less than comforting reputations) sit uneasily with the woes of ordinary Sri Lankans as the price of the humble packet of rice increases along with the cost of daily essentials.

But this does not seem to worry President Maithripala Sirisena overmuch even as he expounds on delirious female fans throwing underwear at music concerts and expansively promises a wholesale ban on cattle slaughter. Meanwhile the legal process in regard to corruption is obfuscated and obstructed at every turn while the country is treated to unpleasant media spectacles. Is this due to sheer ineptness or is there a more sinister agenda at play?

Indeed, there is growing public disbelief regarding the very veracity of allegations against gross corruptors of the previous regime. This in turn has led to widespread cynicism despite nonsensical publicity stunts indulged in by the Bribery and Corruption Commission. This Government has to bear the responsibility for the change in the public mood.

Police brutality repeating familiar patterns

The other fault lines are no less worrying. Witness testimony this week implicated a senior police officer as pushing a homeowner in Embilipitiya to death even as he shouted at the police not to behave like animals. His widow reported that her husband had been kicked in the head even after he had fallen to the ground. Protesting area residents who had refused to accede to demands by police officers to give free liquor in the middle of a house party were reportedly mercilessly beaten, (see EconomyNext, January 20th 2016).

These are familiar patterns of police brutality that have not ceased under this Government, including the assault on accountancy students in Colombo. Internal police inquiries into these incidents yield little. Rather, there must be an independent investigation conducted under the auspices of the National Police Commission (NPC). Stern action must be taken thereafter against erring police officers.

Instead, we see farcical responses. This includes a particularly ridiculous claim made by an enthusiastic Deputy Minister, himself a lawyer, who called for a special body to monitor the police in apparent blissful ignorance of the constitutional mandate of the NPC. On its own part, the NPC cannot act like a postbox, merely passing complaints of abuse to the Department of the Police. Much more is expected of that constitutional commission. Its performance has, somewhat unfortunately, been lackadaisical so far.

Positive changes to the law

These are realities that contradict positive legal changes which remain confined to theory. On Saturday, it was reported that Sri Lanka’s Cabinet of Ministers had approved amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure Act (CCP Act) bringing in the right of legal counsel for suspects. The proposed amendment reportedly provides for the right of every suspect to consult an attorney at law following the recording of the first statement by the police. It secures, if needed, the right to legal aid.

This had been a long standing demand by rights activists given that the worst torture is customarily perpetrated during the initial detention in police custody as studies have shown. This change to the criminal procedure law becomes even more important given that Article 13(3) of the Constitution affirms that “any person charged with an offence shall be entitled to be heard, in person or by an attorney-at-law, at a fair trial by a competent court.” This secures the right to legal assistance for an accused but does not extend it to a suspect in police custody.

Further amendments must be brought to the CCP Act to ensure the suspect’s right to inform family members regarding the arrest, specify the interrogation conditions and allow the suspect to ask for medical assistance by a doctor of his or her choice.

Significant course correction needed

But even so, theoretical legal change cannot suffice to distinguish this regime from the old without concrete political will to actually implement that change. It is also no answer to say that we no longer have to cope with a Medamulana monarchical mindset in treating this country as if it was its personal fiefdom. Or maintain that the judiciary and the media are freed from the overbearing shackles imposed on them by politicians gone mad. It was not for the elimination of these outrageously particular Rajapaksa-excesses that the people voted for change. Neither are we reassured by the assumption of official roles by President’s Sirisena’s son and daughter in state and military functions during recent months.

In the final analysis, international plaudits, however effusive, will not suffice by themselves to avert threatening storm clouds over Sri Lanka. Lessons learnt during 2002-2003 must surely teach us this at least. There must be significant domestic course correction on the part of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition. We have yet to see this manifested.

(Courtesy  The Sunday Times)


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