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The role of the Defence Secretary in paralyzing the criminal investigation system

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission
Yesterday (19th June 2012) Sri Lanka’s United National Party (UNP) published a statement demanding the resignation of the Secretary of Defence. The UNP claimed that the resignation was warranted in light of the recent deaths of two people at the JVP meeting at Katuwana, Hambantota.

However, a larger issue that should be considered in this case is the paralysis of Sri Lanka’s criminal investigation system due to the control exercised by the Secretary of Defence over this system. In light of this control, the UNP, Sri Lanka’s leading opposition party, should have demanded this resignation many years ago. Even at this late stage, however, it is a welcome action. We hope that Sri Lanka’s paralyzed criminal justice system will be revived, at least in part, by this action.

The notion that the Secretary of Defence, and the larger Ministry of Defence have been an obstruction to the criminal justice system is not an exaggeration. In fact, this assertion is an understatement of the actual situation

To illustrate this issue, below is a list of crimes that have not been credibly investigated by state officials. All of these crimes are well-known to the local population.

– The murder of Lasantha Wickaramatunga, which took place in broad daylight, sent reverberations throughout the nation and around the world. Despite the pressure placed on state officials by local citizens and international agencies, a credible investigation has yet to be instigated. Mr. Wickaramatunga was a public rival of the Secretary of Defence, and this is clearly one reason why his rights enshrined in the Sri Lankan Constitution have not been respected. The blatant attempt to silence any enquiries into this murder speaks to the degree to which the Sri Lankan criminal investigation system works at the behest of local politicians.

– The disappearance of Stephen Sunthararaj is another well-known case. Mr. Sunthararaj was well-known for his work with the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) in documenting cases of child abuse in Jaffna. Mr. Sunthararaj was arrested in 2009 and detained without charge. Two months later, on the order of the Supreme Court, he was released on the grounds that there was no evidence to form his conviction. Later that day, as he was traveling with his wife, his vehicle was stopped on a crowded street by two motorcyclists and a white van. Five men emerged from the van and kidnapped Mr. Sunthararaj. Numerous local and international organizations have campaigned for state officials to initiate a credible investigation into this forced disappearance. However, no investigation has been instigated. In December 2009, the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Palitha Kohana, stated in conversation with US Embassy and European Union officials, that Mr. Sunthararaj was not forcibly disappeared, but had been arrested by intelligence services. Despite repeated petitions made by his wife as well as by local and international organizations, no information on Mr. Sunthararaj’s whereabouts been released.

– The disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda is another well-known crime. UN agencies have repeatedly questioned the Sri Lankan government regarding this disappearance. In response, the former Attorney General who represented the Sri Lankan delegation at the 47th session of the UN CAT Committee in November 2011, told committee members that he had credible information that Mr. Eknaligoda had become a refugee in another country. Later, at a Magistrate Court’s inquiry, the Attorney General denied having any information on the whereabouts of Mr. Eknaligoda. For two years, numerous mistruths have been published in the local media regarding this case, and a credible investigation has yet to be initiated.

– There have been a number of high-profile abductions which have not been appropriately investigated. In the case of Pramakumar Gunaratnam and Dimuthu Artigala, the quick intervention of the Australian government led to their release. This occurred in spite of the Defence Secretary‘s claim that no such person had been taken into custody. Despite this embarrassing public scandal, no action was taken against any public officers, nor was a credible investigation initiated into the case. There have been numerous abductions, some which led to the deaths or permanent disappearances of the abducted, which remain uninvestigated.

– The case of the murder of Baratha Lakshman Premachandra was one of the most shocking examples in which the criminal justice system was clearly manipulated for political reasons. Duminda De Silva, a known drug dealer who had been involved in numerous financial scandals, received state protection after the murder, whereas the members of Mr. Premachandra’s family were publicly harassed.

This list is not exhaustive. Indeed, the attacks on journalists, press establishments, workers, trade unionists and civil society activists which have not been investigated are numerous. The fact that Sri Lanka’s criminal investigation units operate under political control is a publicly known fact, and has been criticized by numerous local organizations and international agencies. It is naive to blame the police for the failures of the criminal justice system. The police are in the grip of a political machine that does not give them the freedom required to fulfill their professional duties.

A nation cannot operate effectively if its criminal investigation system is hampered by political agendas. When a criminal investigation system is paralyzed in this manner, every citizen of the nation is in danger. Moreover, local businesses are also at risk. As such, there is a high level of insecurity in homes, businesses and establishments across the nation. When people are aware that they do not have the protection of the rights which have been enshrined in Sri Lanka’s Constitution, they live in fear that they will become the next victim of an arbitrary political agenda.

Given the circumstances, the UNP’s call for the resignation of the Defence Secretary is certainly justified. Ironically, however, the resignation of a high-ranking government official is a fundamental requirement for national security. When the rule of law is under threat, there is no greater threat to national security than the paralysis of the criminal investigation system.


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