Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
At the height of the impunity that prevailed during the Rajapaksa Presidency, it was questioned in these column spaces as to whether one needed to be a foreigner in order to claim the protection of the law in Sri Lanka?
The ugliness that Sri Lanka descended to
This question was specifically raised at the time in relation to the assault and murder of British aid worker Khurram Shaikh and the rape of his female companion by politically connected thugs at a tourist resort in Tangalle.
That bland reference did little to convey the horrific nature of the attack, with Shaikh being ‘beaten, repeatedly stabbed, slashed across the face and neck and shot in the head with an assault rifle,’ as was recounted during an inquest into the killing. Criminal investigations were repeatedly thwarted due to ties that the resort owner cum local politician had to the Rajapaksas. It was only due to sustained international pressure that the case was concluded in court with the sentencing of the local politician and his thugs two years after the incident.
In the meantime, rapes and murders of Sri Lankans continued with impunity elsewhere, in the war-torn North East and in remote villages in other parts such as Deraniyagala where a local politician had ‘rape centres’ in the village under his domain. To what ugliness did Sri Lanka descend to then? And to what extent did the law fail ordinary Sri Lankans?
Heavy burdens to get rid of
To be clear, that failure of the Rule of Law in general was not due to political thuggery alone but also owing to the culpability of corrupt judicial officers, state prosecutors who acted on political instructions to squirrel indictments out of sight and lawyers of the unofficial Bar who colluded with the political command.
These are heavy burdens for a country to get rid of. Awakening déjà vu tones of the Khurram Shaikh incident, the brutal assault of Dutch tourists in a tourist restaurant in Mirissa early this month was followed a week later by an attack on Israeli tourists in Midigama. In Mirissa, the assault of the males had taken place following the attempted sexual harassment of women in their group by thugs who had been drinking apparently earlier with a ruling party politician.
Unlike earlier, suspects in both incidents have been arrested and the criminal justice process has commenced. The Government has issued instructions to hotels in Mirissa to register with the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) and the unauthorized restaurant in Mirissa at which the Dutch tourists were assaulted has been closed. The Coastal Conservation Department has also stated that all unauthorized constructions along the coastal belt in Mirissa will be removed by end of this month and that this would be thereafter implemented across the Southern coastal belt. Apparently, an assurance had been given that unauthorized constructions elsewhere would also be demolished.
Larger issue linked to the Rule of Law
Yet unanswered questions remain. The sudden scrambling of the Government though the Tourist Ministry to engage in damage control measures proceeds on the basis that such incidents are detrimental to tourism, resulting in the loss of revenue to the state coffers. But the larger question is linked to a general breakdown of law and order which this Government has been spectacularly unsuccessful in tackling since it came into office on a Rule of Law platform in 2015.
How were these illegal constructions permitted to operate in the first instance? Was the Coast Conservation Department, deaf, dumb and blind to these infractions under a new political dispensation which promised the enforcement of the law?
And should not the Excise Department be held accountable for the collusion of their officers in permitting the illegal sale of liquor by these outlets? It is ludicrous that a Minster of this Government is reduced to the state of apologizing to the public for being unable to summon responsible officers of the Excise Department to account for its duties in this regard. And further, to what extent are Sri Lankan women safe when they walk the beaches of the South and elsewhere in this country? To what extent are there unreported rapes and incidents of sexual harassment or just plain harassment which are not treated seriously by law enforcement authorities?
Certainly a sterner hand is warranted in bringing offenders to justice. Unlike in the past, telephone calls do not go out from politicians to judicial officers commanding to rule in a particular way in cases before them but that does not suffice to address the problem. The arrest of thugs who operate under cover of political impunity cannot be sufficient either. As has happened in the past, these characters may be arrested but then let out on bail with the cases falling by the wayside.
A lack of confidence in the system
In fact, as has been documented in many instances, police officers themselves collude with such miscreants with little or no disciplinary action being enforced against them. In that regard, the appeal of the Inspector General of Police for the assaulted tourists to return and testify to the facts in the two instances is ironic. Similar appeals have been issued to victims of assault in other cases, including in several cases where journalists had been assaulted and brutalized during the previous regime. They have been asked to return to Sri Lanka to testify.
But who will want to take that risk given the fundamental lack of confidence in the law enforcement process and the lack of safety for witnesses in the criminal justice system? Let alone foreigners, will Sri Lankans wish to subject themselves to such an ordeal? A major promise of this Government when it came into power was that it would enact and effectively implement a Victim and Witness Protection Act.
Though a law was enacted and a Victim and Witness Protection Authority established, it was weak-kneed in many respects, not the least of which was that the police was given the task of spearheading its protection division. This was likened by many cynics to be akin to giving the fox the duty to guard the hen house, as it were. Since then, the Government has taken no interest in its activation, only parroting the fact of the enactment of this law at periodic sessions of the United Nations in Geneva and elsewhere. It appears that even pretending commitment to the idea of witness and victim protection is not evidenced any longer.
Our ghosts of the past
What happened at Mirissa and Midigama were not isolated incidents but reflections of a daily lived reality in Sri Lanka, not only for tourists but also for citizens, where at any given point, the law can yield to bestiality with catastrophic consequences. That is what war, political savagery and the abandonment of the Rule of Law has brought about for this country.
Exorcising these ghosts of the past will be remarkably arduous, if at all, this is indeed possible.