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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The stench of impunity in Sri Lanka

At the core of Sri Lanka’s rot, lies a culture of impunity, which public officials, elected and appointed politicians alike have long practised. The recent remanding of the former Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who during a parliamentary debate made light of the plight of Sri Lankans who were struggling to find medicines and adequate treatment in public hospitals, and his change in accommodation, to the prison’s hospital, is viewed by many to be part of the culture of impunity.

Ever too often, it seems that politicians, senior public servants, and those suspected to hold leadership positions in organised crime, seek to be interned at the prison hospital as soon as they are incarcerated, be it on remand holding or locked up as convicts.

Today, public opinion is that many who are introduced into the Judicial system, use the hospital as a ‘marshmallow’ version of prison custody. Many argue that it is part of the culture of impunity which makes up the way politics is done in Sri Lanka. While Rambukwella may well have sound cause to seek entry into the prison hospital, the optics of it does little to help reinforce compliance with law and order. Rambukwella is not the first Member of Parliament to seek refuge in the prison’s hospital, and is unlikely to be the last. While the former Minister of Health has not been convicted of any crime thus far, and even as a convict, is within his rights to seek medical treatment, the fact that, he like other politicians before him, sought to be interned in the prison hospital upon being remanded, is viewed with cynicism by a majority of the public. The criticism about how the prisons/correctional system in Sri Lanka functions, or not, has been around for decades, with many analysts and observers pointing out many flaws in the system, and ways the system is abused. However, prison reform, while always on an election agenda, is seldom given the priority or resources it needs to improve.

Sri Lanka is in a transitional period, and to rebuild faith in the state apparatus, judiciary and especially law enforcement, signs of favouritism and special treatment should be done away with. Earlier, the appointment of death–row convict Premalal Jayasekara – from the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), to a ministerial portfolio, was also seen as an emblematic moment of where the culture of impunity in Sri Lankan politics, over-ruled the rule of law.  The Sri Lankan politician who was in 2020 sentenced to death for a murder committed in 2015 was escorted out of prison and became the first convict to be sworn in as a Member of Parliament, while jeering opposition MPs watched on. Such blatant challenges to the Judiciary of Sri Lanka by the Executive and the Legislature, does little to build faith locally, nor boost confidence in the international arena. As Sri Lanka moves ahead to face two elections, the Presidential and a General Election by the end of the year, the eyes of the world will return to focus on our progress with reforms. Sri Lanka’s economic crisis stems from a crisis in governance. And along with economic reforms, governance reforms are also needed. A future Sri Lankan Government cannot afford to behave like the ones before. As such a collective discourse to change the culture of impunity is urgently needed, not only amongst the public, but also among the political parties. It is the culture of impunity, lack of transparency and accountability, which has aided formulation of policies that does not put national interest first, and gives way for corruption and malpractice to grow in Sri Lanka.

Last week, speaking during an event in Panadura, broadcast reports indicated that the Public Security Minister Tiran Alles stated that a person who had allegedly slandered politicians on social media platforms with the support of a particular politician had been arrested by the CID under the much criticised Online Safety Act.  “The CID arrested a person. He had around Rs. 400,000 with him at the time of his arrest. He is someone who slanders us using social media platforms. He made a statement that a politician paid him that money. They use social media platforms to defame us, the Government, the Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP) and everyone else. That is why we introduced this OSA. It is social media platforms that they use even to topple Governments. I emphasise that OSA will be an issue only to those who misuse social media platforms” the Minister had said, giving credit to the many local and international critics who opposed the legislation alleging that the law was aimed at suppressing dissent and to oppress political rivals. The Police however stated that the said suspect was not arrested under the OSA but previous legislation. Irrespective of which law the suspect was arrested, the Minister’s statement is a clear indication that the culture of impunity is very much alive today. How long Sri Lanka continues to stomach such undemocratic and unethical behaviour will likely be indicative of its overall desire to learn from past mistakes and change for the better.

Editorial, The Morning / 11 Feb 24.

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