Just a day after the grand tamasha that took place at the luxurious Shangri-La Hotel, to launch the ‘National Action Plan for combating bribery and corruption’, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), promptly went before the Colombo Magistrate, and, based on technical grounds, withdrew cases filed against MP Johnston Fernando. The cases pertained to his failure to disclose his assets and liabilities for four years, commencing 2011.
The main banquet hall at Shangri-La, was jam-packed with over a thousand invitee guests- ranging from the first citizen of the country himself, the Speaker, Opposition leader, politicians, clergy, representatives of the legal sector, law enforcement authorities, representatives of diplomatic missions, school children and various others. CIABOC, prior to the occasion, told media that they expect a crowd of ‘about 1,200’, however, the turnout seemed to exceed that modest number. The organizers had prepared a separate area for the VIPs to have lunch as it was impractical for the main ballroom to handle such a vast gathering.
The photo booth certainly seemed to be a crowd pleaser, if the long queue in front of it was anything to go by.
The press kit contained booklets explaining the five-year National Action Plan and a badge that the participants wore after taking the pledge, which proclaims that they will ‘continue to work with integrity’. A song, specially composed for the occasion, was played.
Speaking to the Sunday Observer a senior attorney at law stated that in principle having a big launch for something like the official launch of a National Plan, is not a bad thing because for a launch with seriousness and purpose, visibility is important.
“For example why do we spend millions every year to celebrate Independence day? Everybody knows that you can maybe, (for instance) do a program on media in a simple way, instead. This is done because it is a process of affirmation,” he said.
Saman Rathnapriya president of the Government Nursing officers Association speaking to the Sunday observer stated that the time could have been used more effectively and that the function was “not exactly what they had expected it to be”.
NAP- National Action Plan- the elixir
Speaking at the event Director General of CIABOC, Sarath Jayamanna introduced the main aspects of the National Action Plan for Combating Bribery and Corruption. He said that amongst other issues, lack of an action plan was a major hindrance to the eradication of bribery and corruption in the country.
“Many other countries in South East Asia that earlier were colonies, have suffered this menace but managed to overcome it as they had a plan. The fact that Srilanka did not have a plan gravely hindered the curbing of bribery and corruption,” he said.
The National Action Plan which received Cabinet approval consists of 4 pillars/principles.
The first of the core principles are ‘values’. Then come , ‘remedial measures’, which will concentrate on methods that can be adopted to stop bribery and corruption in Government Bodies.
Thirdly ‘penalizing and streamlining the mechanism for penalizing’, and finally, ‘to update the existing age old , (archaic) laws and policies of the country’. “The above four aspects need to be continuously monitored through an apex Body. Irrespective of governments that will come in the future we can proceed, with support, to wipe out corruption through this action plan,” he said.
It is necessary to inculcate an attitude change in the younger generation so that they will not want to even attempt taking a bribe and that’s something the action plan strives to achieve.
“I must admit that most government servants are honest and possess integrity but at the same time when an ordinary person uses the Public Service, they are misled and waste time because they are not aware of necessary information (such as how long a particular service will take, what is the procedure etc). When this happens (some) people take advantage of the system,” he said.
He further explained several other measures that have been taken in order to strengthen the CIABOC stating that approval has been given to increase the cadre to include experts such as forensic auditors and others. “This is on the work force side, secondly laws and policies pertaining to the subject matter have not been updated for the last 25 years.
The law literature in this country is paltry. Neither at the University stage nor at the Law college, are students taught about bribery and corruption.
Therefore laws in this area should have versatile applicability in the system” Jayamanna emphasised.
The difficulty that CIABOC claims they are faced with, is one of resourcing and staffing. While the commissioners and the DG are of good quality it takes the work of a State institution to be able to carry its mandate through.
In that context the ability of CIABOC to deliver in accordance with its mandate is dependent on sourcing and staffing, and is somewhat hampered by inadequate State support in terms of the ability to attract and retain suitable expertise such as prosecutors of ability as well as persons with necessary investigative and forensic capabilities- because this is a specialised skill.
These complaints are the same that were made in July 2018, during the ‘Global Expert Group Meeting on the Jakarta Principles’, held in Colombo and hosted by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC). However no tangible results came about. As highlighted in the Sunday Observer last week, according to a Right to Information ( RTI) application made by good governance activist Chandra Jayarathne, within the last ten years, CIABOC has instituted only 1 case where the “alleged bribe was in excess of 10 million rupees while not a single case on alleged bribes over 25 million rupees, has been filed ”.
The total number of cases, either above 10 or 25 million rupees, which had been concluded by December 2018, and resulted in convictions, was zero. This, when compared to the incremental yearly cost of maintaining the CIABOC operation, naturally raise the question of whether CIABOC utilises its resources appropriately.
The Director General attempting to address this allegation during the function, said that catching the sprats is as important as catching the sharks.
“We are questioned frequently as to why we have not taken steps against certain high profile cases or people. If we had the ability to do so I would have done it without any hesitation. We must be equipped with necessary evidence before going to court. We are always asked the question as to why we only get hold of the sprats but not the sharks. When someone takes a bribe of a small scale the probability is that he is taking it from a person who cannot afford such a payment.
The affect of it is way larger than on those of who get caught bribing on a large scale. As a country it is irrelevant whether it is the sharks or the sprats (who get apprehended), because the affect is more or less the same,” Jayamanna said, in an attempt to justify their actions.
CIABOC upkeep keeps growing, taxpayer foots the bill
The number of prosecutions has shown a dramatic increase, as indicated on the CIABOC website, but the question is not whether they have been doing work, but whether they have been able to catch enough high profile people.
“It must be duly noted that CIABOC took on the uphill task of prosecuting ex Chief Justice Mohan Peiris and the Court of Appeal Justice, A.H.M.D. Nawaz.
The Commissioner and the Director General had wanted to take them on. But as he said in his speech, you need evidence in order to establish a crime.
This is the case in criminal law, under which bribery and corruption falls.It requires ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ and essentially that is not easy to establish.
The issue with white collar crime is that the biggest fish are the hardest to net. So the resourcing constrains, training and other investments would pose a challenge in their ability to be more successful in netting in basically bigger fish” legal experts opined. President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the gathering acknowledged that not a single high profile individual has been put behind bars following bribery allegations.
“I do agree with the statement of the Director General that there should not be a difference in the cases as between large and small scale, however I must state that we have so far not been able to put anyone who’s been involved in a large scale wrongdoing, behind bars. If you look at India, at least 4 to 5 politicians will go to prison on bribery and corruption charges, he said”
Both the President and the Speaker highlighted that the National Action Plan is another step taken towards achieving the sustainable development goals before 2030.
Sri Lanka has already made a pledge (in line with the 2030 sustainable development goals) to eradicate bribery and corruption, therefore this timely effort is welcome, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said, assuring that the support of Parliament will be given in every possible way including implementing the laws.
“Section 16.5 of the Sustainable Development Plan sets an achievement (target) to reach in curbing bribery and corruption. This is another attempt toward this undertaking being practically manifested,” the President said.
Conflict of interests ?
Many questioned the attendance of several personalities, prominent in the front seats, who were allegedly themselves embroiled in corruption.
It was questionable how the opposition leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, (who had just a few days earlier attributed the country’s political instability to independent commissions), could be so prominent.
Many saw the irony in his attendance, he being the former leader of the government that was known as the most corrupt in our history. Currently, family members of the Opposition Leader (including his wife, the former First Lady), his sons, relatives- such as Jaliya Wickremasuriya and Nishantha Wickremasignhe, have cases pending against them based on corruption allegations.
The fact that the event took place at Shangri – La hotel (which faces the iconic Galleface green, is itself ironic, simply because the very deal pertaining to the sale of the land on which this hotel is built, was investigated at the inception of this government.
The hotel administration held a separate function for the former President, soon after this hotel was declared open by the President last year. In December last year the President issued a circular which ordered State institutions to hold State ceremonies and meetings only in government auditoriums, in order to curtail extravagance. The CIABOC seems to have somehow overlooked the circular.
Accordingly all “ceremonies, meetings, and other functions by all State institutions including Ministries, Departments, State corporations and statutory Boards, at private hotels, especially at luxury hotels, is prohibited” it said.
Several ministers who are being investigated by the CIABOC were also prominent at the event, leaving some to wonder how this cannot be termed a conflict of interests.
In an embarassing turn of events for the CIABOC, the morning after the extravagant dinner, their representatives had to appear before a Magistrate to withdraw the four corruption cases they had filed against MP Johnston Fernando.