Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
It is an exceedingly disconsolate reflection that key Cabinet Ministers of the unity alliance, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Justice for instance, appear to have a magic cloak around them, affording impunity for acts which should have, to put it bluntly, led to resignations by now.
A favorite chorus that members of this Government love to chant is that there is freedom to criticize now, unlike in dark and dangerous ‘Rajapaksa’ times. However, to what extent is freedom of speech of any value when despite its vigorous exercise and notwithstanding act upon ugly act of undermining the Rule of Law by Cabinet Ministers, no consequences seem to ensue?
Is crudity the measuring rod between then and now?
In contrast, what we had with the Rajapaksas was outright buffoonery and robbery of public funds of a particularly crude kind. But is crudity the measuring rod that we must employ in judging if this Government is better or worse than its predecessor in its ransacking of the public coffers?
Let us be quite clear. The destruction that was wreaked by the Rajapaksas was incalculable. It has been repeatedly said in these column spaces that the Rajapaksa ‘standard’ cannot be used in comparison as that belonged in a category of its own. Hopefully this country will never experience such extraordinary impunity ever again. It is also undisputed that where the judiciary is concerned, that level of interference is no longer the case. Judges are not now being besieged by phone calls by the then President downwards to lowly provincial councilors to rule in a particular manner. That must be conceded.
That said however, the performance of the Unity alliance is abysmal in other respects. And we return to the antics of its Ministers. It seems that the predominant thinking is that if all else fails, temporary trickery will suffice until the storm blows over and the attention of the fickle public is turned elsewhere. So even when there is some small reaction, this seems to be a cynical gameplay.
Scandal upon scandal follows
For instance, Law and Order Minister Tilak Marapana resigned in 2015 over an unseemly controversy regarding statements that he made in Parliament which amounted to a defence of Avant Garde, the controversial maritime security firm investigated for corruption. He had represented the firm before being appointed as Minister. At the time, Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapaksa had to also defend himself against similar allegations which he denied.
Though tempers died down to some extent after the resignation of the then Law and Order Minister, lo and behold, the recent Cabinet reshuffle sees him back again in a ministerial position, though somewhat lowly this time, namely the subject of Development Assignments, which had many scratching their heads wondering ‘what development?’ and ‘what assignments?’
And scandal upon scandal succeeds each other. This week, the Minister of Foreign Affairs did himself no favours by insisting that he ‘knew nothing’ of the payment of a colossal sum of money by a company owned by his family members to purchase a luxury apartment. The money had no source of origin nor was it accounted for. Moreover, the lease of that apartment had earlier been paid by Arjun Aloysius, son-in-law of the former Governor of the Central Bank Arjuna Mahendran.
A most ‘non-judicious’ Minister
On his own part, the Minister of Justice has been disgracefully cited on television talk shows by his own colleagues as a core reason as to why criminal trials and investigations into high level corruption are being dragged on. As details come to light of the number of pending cases against Rajapaksa politicians, quite apart from the files still languishing at the Department of the Attorney General, the failure of due process is staggering.
Meanwhile his role in trying to push through a highly controversial counter-terror law and amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code that safeguards the rights of police officers to engage in the unfettered interrogation of suspects is on record. He makes no bones of his contempt for ensuring the protection of ordinary civil liberties.
So while the law splutters and chokes and the Minister in charge of the portfolio of Justice appears to be behaving in a most ‘non-judicious’ way, we have a Presidential Commission of Inquiry before us, playing out an absorbing drama of what seems to be the biggest financial fraud in recent years and that too, involving the once premier and august institution, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Could there be a sadder reflection on the towering hopes and lofty expectations with which the people elected a new President and a new Government in 2015?
Will the law break down here again?
It is a further interesting reflection that after all the interminable (and useless) Commissions of Inquiry (COIs)that have been afflicted on the Sri Lankan people during the past so many decades, this seems to be one Commission which may actually expose the grotesque and great extent of high-level corruption in the country. In that regard, it is entertaining to see the contortions of the legal representatives of those under inquiry resorting to various legal strategies to block details of these acts coming to light.
Regardless, it is also relevant to note that a 2008 amendment to the COI Act (1948) conferred new powers upon the Attorney General to “institute criminal proceedings in a court of law in respect of any offence based on material collected in the course of an investigation or inquiry, as the case may be, by a Commission of Inquiry” appointed under the Act.
This is, of course, where the drama of a Commission of Inquiry always breaks down. When the time comes for the law to be activated against those named in Commission reports, nothing happens. In a study of eleven such Commissions of Inquiry since the 1870’s engaged in by this columnist, the gap between the findings of such inquiries and actual penal punishments was documented as startlingly wide. This is the case whether a Commission of Inquiry investigates gross murders and extra judicial executions or high-level corruption.
It remains to be seen if this disconcerting pattern will persist. Whatever it may be, a temporary ‘resignation’ of a Minister of two (even if that takes place) will not be enough to stem the tide of public anger that is rising. Much sterner action is warranted. Let that be a stern warning to this Government.