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Rizana Nafik, Shirani Bandaranayake and the Lankan Reality

by
Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Why couldn’t you at least get my child’s body down?”
Rizana’s mother queries the government (BBC – 11.1.2013)

Rizana Nafik was beheaded at 11.40 am on 9th January 2013. Two hours later, at 1.40 pm, Minister Dilan Perera informed the Lankan parliament that “the government has done everything to save Rizana and she will be released soon” (Gossip Lanka).

That bizarre development was not an anomaly; it was an expression of the way the Rizana Nafik case was handled by the Rajapaksa administration. Just five days before Ms. Nafik’s judicial murder, the Ministry of Justice issued a statement announcing that Ms. Nafik might be pardoned: “The Saudi Arabian Ambassador said Rizana may be granted a pardon in response to a request made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz….. The Saudi Ambassador said President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Sri Lanka Government had made a great effort to get Rizana freed and the information he had received was that she may receive a pardon soon” (Daily News – 5.10.2013).

The regime’s sanguinity was rather curious because Ms. Nafik’s impending execution was no secret. Several international human rights organisations, including the Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), warned about it publicly. Had Ministers Rauf Hakeem, Dilan Perera or their innumerable officials bothered to check the newspapers or the internet, they could have found out about Ms. Nafik’s impending execution and thus refrained from sprouting such asininely insensitive lies.

That indifference is the crux of the matter: the Rajapaksa administration was not really bothered about Ms. Nafik’s fate. While politicians and officials used her plight to flay around, the government refused to pay the lawyers who lodged the appeal against her death sentence, as the AHRC revealed. The regime’s priority was not to make a real effort on behalf of Ms. Nafik but to put up a show.

The barbaric murder of Rizana Nafik exposes the sordid reality of the Rajapaksa development miracle just as the trajectory of the impeachment motion unveils the iniquitous actuality of Rajapaksa justice.

The Rajapaksas, like all megalomaniacs, think big and abhor dissent. Their idea of development is a series of showpieces, from expressways to satellites. It matters a little that this magnificence is a façade for an economy which is debt-ridden and directionless. The boast of creating a knowledge-based economy is empty rhetoric; apart from the megalomaniac projects of the Rajapaksas, the only growth sector is tourism of a certain variety which aims at turning Sri Lanka into a haven of rest and recreation for the rich and the infamous. This brand of tourism, instead of creating employment opportunities, destroys the livelihoods – and habitats – of entire communities.

The men and women, who labour under extremely difficult, often dangerous, conditions in foreign lands, form one of the mainstays of our economy; their foreign remittances keep Sri Lanka afloat. As a collective, they are indispensable to the very survival of Sri Lanka. As individuals, they are of little account to a nation which prefers to ignore the moral-ethical debt owed to them. (In this sense the situation of Lankan ‘House Maids’ is somewhat analogous to that of tea-pluckers of Indian origin – another group of workers celebrated in the abstract and ignored and despised in the concrete).

Had Ms. Nafik been a Sinhalese – especially a Sinhala Buddhist – the majoritarian fanatics would have used her plight to fuel their anti-Muslim campaign. By now they would have been on the streets howling against every single Muslim man, woman and child in Sri Lanka. Had Ms. Nafik been executed in a non-Muslim country, Muslim fundamentalists would have mounted their own campaign, decrying this judicial murder as an anti-Islamic conspiracy. Since Ms. Nafik was a Muslim judicially murdered in a Muslim country, her life and her death are of no use to fanatics of all religious persuasions. Even the mainstream Muslims seem extremely circumspect in expressing their outrage because many of them benefit from the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia’s Wahabi rulers.

Ms. Nafik’s judicial murder is a timely warning to those who want to reactivate death sentence in Sri Lanka. In justifying archaic and brutal forms of punishments, there is a certain commonality between the Saudi Wahabis and those Sinhala supremacists who lament the absence of ‘Raja kale danduwam’ (ancient forms of punishments). The horrors of Wahabist Saudi Arabia constitute a warning of what the JHU and Bodu Bala Sena types will do in the name of Buddhism if ever they become dominant in Sri Lanka. Fanatics begin by attacking the ‘other’ and end by consuming their own. And Wahabism is as unrepresentative of Islam as the JHU or the Bodu Bala Sena is of Buddhism.

According to the New Yorker, the Saudi King too had refused clemency to Ms. Nafik. Had Ms. Nafik been judicially murdered in the West or India, the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka would be screaming from rooftops, with full Rajapaksa backing. But Colombo is unlikely to do anything to anger Riyadh because the Rajapaksas need Saudi support in international forums. Riyadh has consistently supported Colombo on human rights issues; Saudis voted against 2012 UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka.

In the first half of 2012, 136,245 Lankans left their motherland, the miracle of Asia, in search of employment, according to the Central Bank. So long as living costs increase and jobs remain scarce, women and men will have no choice but to risk their lives in someone else’s country to keep their families alive. Until this reality is faced and remedial measures are taken, there will be other Rizanas. Eventually one of them will be a Sinhala Buddhist and the Sinhala fanatics, who are drunk with triumphalism after ‘defeating Tamils’ and are longing to put the Muslims (and the Christians) ‘in their place’, will have the excuse they need to unleash the mayhem of their dreams.

Life in Post-impeachment Sri Lanka

Had the Rajapaksa regime been really interested in saving Rizana Nafik, it could have paid the lawyers who were fighting her conviction. Had the Rajapaksa regime been really interested in seeking justice, it could have conducted the impeachment trial in a manifestly free and fair manner.

But that is not the Rajapaksa way. The Siblings are not interested in doing the right thing; they just want to deceive the public into thinking that they are doing the right thing.

That is why there is no point in appealing to Speaker Rajapaksa or writing to President Rajapaksa. The impeachment is their war; they used their parliamentary-serfs unleash the impeachment, in order to bring the judiciary to heel. The Rajapaksas believe that this country belongs to them by the right of conquest, that they own Sri Lanka because they defeated the LTTE. Even a marginally independent judiciary has no place in this Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. That is why they brought impeached CJ Bandaranayake and did so with such venomous vigour.

The Rajapaksas are not the whole of the problem; but they constitute a large part of it. Removing them will not resolve the Lankan crises. But the Lankan crises cannot be resolved so long as they remain in power.