The former Defence Secretary and the former president’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is touted for giving leadership to defeat the Tamil Tigers.
After the then government jailed and stripped military honours of former army chief Sarath Fonseka, Gotabaya and his elder sibling, ex-president Mahinda claimed for the exclusive rights of the military victory. Gotabaya, indeed, played a major role in the military success; more than anything, he, somehow, managed to formulate a unified military strategy involving three forces; no mean feat when his commanders of the army and navy did not see eye to eye.
He also defended senior military officials who were unduly victimised, thereby serving as a bulwark against personalised witch-hunts that occurred time and again in the military establishment. That helped the security forces retain experienced senior officers, some of whom later served as division commanders during the final phase of the war.
That, however, is only one side of the story. Prageeth Ekneligoda and those young men who were last seen in underground prison cells in the Trincomalee Navy camp would have told the other side of the story, if they had a chance to live.
Gotabaya’s tenure as the Secretary of Defence was marred by grotesque human rights abuses; abductions and enforced disappearances became a state policy; newspapers and television stations were attacked; political dissidents and ordinary Tamils were killed and abducted; parents of missing youth were terrorised.
Gotabaya brushed aside allegations about those incidents with contempt as if they were a figment of imagination. The Defence Ministry labelled lawyers who made representations on human rights as ‘traitors’. Military intelligence units were deployed to threaten and abduct critics. Any discussion on military abuses and excesses was considered a taboo and noncompliance was dealt with ‘white-vanning’.
No military is foolproof from abuses, especially when it is forced to fight a maximalist terrorist group. And Sri Lanka is not an exception. However, when aberrations happen, civilised nations investigate and hold those responsible for their infractions accountable. However, rather than facing those hard facts of gross abuses, Gotabaya chose to suppress discussions on those matters with the use of overt and covert threats, and brute force.
Those who were ‘lucky’ to be alive, such as journalist Tissanayagam got a show trial. Many others, mainly Tamils simply disappeared.
Even torture victims who filled Fundamental Rights applications disappeared. Tamil businessman, Ramasamy Prabakaran, known as Majestic Prabha, who was arrested, tortured and later released by the Terrorist Investigation Division was abducted again, two days before his FR petition was due to be taken for hearing. He was never seen again.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the chief architect of the culture of impunity that defined this country for the last ten years. First, he gave a carte blanche to the military. However, he cared less that once arbitrary violence is instituted as a state policy, it takes a life of its own; at first, abductions were a policy purportedly to disrupt LTTE cells and sleepers.
Then, it became a lucrative business model for nefarious officers, who made their ill-gotten fortune by ransom taking and extortion.
Perhaps, Mr Rajapaksa did not take stocks of the repercussions of his policy. However, disturbing details of the past abuses and cover-ups are now coming to light after the change of the regime in January.
In the first place, abductions and assassinations of dissidents is not a policy of a civilized state. However, since the acolytes of the former regime tend to argue those were a necessary evil in the fight against terrorism, can someone tell me which ones of the following would have served national security: Disappearance of Ekneligoda, Lalith Kumar and Kugan Muruganandan, the latter duo were pasting posters of the breakaway group of the JVP in Jaffna when they disappeared; killings of Sampath Lakmal and Lasantha Wickremethunga; attacks on Uthayan, former Sunday Leader, and Sirasa, the massacre of Aid workers in Muttur and students in Trincomalee; regular abduction of Tamils for ransom; massacre in Welikada prison; killings in Rathupaswala, etc.
Those incidents are manifestations of the arbitrariness of the national security state that Gotabaya built. Official and unofficial security organs of that State were a law unto themselves. We do not know yet about the full scale of the horror and cover up in the past.
However, following are some of the recent breakthroughs in the on- going CID investigations.
The disappearance of Ekneligoda: CID arrested two former Tiger cadres, Nagulan and Satya Master over the abduction of Prageeth Ekneligoda. The two men have reportedly admitted abducting Ekneligoda on January 24, 2010 and handing him over to a military camp in Girithale, North Western Province. The CID is expected to grill two senior military officers who were attached to the camp.
Abduction and illegal detention of young men in the Trinco Navy Camp in order to obtain ransom: the CID has made submissions to the Court over the abduction and detention of youth in the Trinco Navy Camp by a group led by the personal security officer of former navy chief, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. CID implicated that the former Navy Chief himself was aware of those abductions that took place in 2008.
Alleged homicide of Wasim Thajudeen: CID says that the death of former Rugby captain Wasim Thajudeen was not an accident, but a homicide. It has now been established that the Ruggerite had been abducted by a Landover Jeep registered under the Sri Lanka Red Cross, which was released for the use of a NGO run by a VVIP family.
The initial report of the Judicial Medical Officer had noted that the victim had been hit with a pole on the head, neck pierced with a sharp object and leg muscles cut with a broken glass. Those findings were somehow disregarded by the law enforcing agencies in 2012. The body of Thajudeen is expected to be exhumed on Monday (10) under a court order for further examination.
There is one poignant question that need answers. Since it is down rightly naïve to believe that the investigative skills of the CID increased by leaps and bounds overnight, it is obvious that someone who wielded enormous power had stood on the way of those investigations in the past.
The question is: Who is he?
Omnipotent Gotabaya Rajapaksa ran the show in the Defence establishment; he called the shots and decided our life and death. He should know the answer. If he wanted to genuinely investigate any of those crimes, he could well have done so. But, he did not.
Of course, the previous regime suffered from a marked deficit of political will to find the truth and hold those responsible for rights abuses blamed on the military.
Investigations held under the Rajapaksas were a farce. They were generally announced on the eve of UN Human Rights Council sessions and were meant to dupe the international community.
However, it is not just the absence of political will. Investigations were deliberately curtailed whenever they became inconvenient to the authorities.
They were also called off when some ambitious officers ventured into areas considered inconvenient to the former regime. For instance, the investigation into the disappearance of Ekneligoda was called off, earlier on a political directive after the CID traced the last caller to the disappeared journalist’s phone.
In another, CID investigations into the Navy abduction ring headed by Lt Commander Sampath Munasinha was disrupted by the transfer of the investigating officer Sub Inspector Nishantha Silva on several previous occasions. Also, over the past seven years, Court hearings were held in closed doors, thereby barring media. The main suspect Sampath was also enlarged on bail.
Independent institutions that were meant to protect fundamental rights of the people also became victims of Rajapaksa’s absolutism. It is only now that the National Human Rights Commission has found courage to implicate the military in the killing of three civilians in Rathupaswala in August 2013. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, instead of taking disciplinary measures, appointed the military officer who oversaw the carnage to a diplomatic posting.
There are other reasons that explain the scant regard for the due process of law: there are allegations of complicity. Prison officials who have now come forward to give evidence about the Welikada prison riot say that prisoners who were massacred there were singled out and taken from their cells, based on “Gota’s list”.
The new government appointed a Commission to investigate the prison massacre; the report of the Commission was submitted to the President and the Prime Minister. However, the government, which has published some of the recommendations, has not released to the public the full report and its findings.
An on-going police investigation has been cited as an excuse.
However, if Sri Lanka is to arrest the culture of impunity that reigns in the country, the government should commit itself to a full disclosure of rights abuses in the past. And it has to hold the killers and their political and bureaucratic bosses accountable.
Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa surely has a lot to explain.