Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As leading lights of the United National Party (UNP) hastily scrambled to disassociate themselves from the petition challenging the legality of the dual citizenship certificate issued to Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) presidential hopeful Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, summarily rejected by the Court of Appeal this Friday, a curious contradiction arose from the Rajapaksa ranks.
Suddenly, SLPP front-liners as well as its rudely cacophonous foot soldiers began expounding on the independence of the judiciary, literally sweating from their pores with relief as it were.
This posed a direct contrast to previous crude assaults on the judicial institution, most visibly late last year when the Supreme Court ruled the attempted coup installing former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as unconstitutional.
Then, these very same hypocrites offensively lambasted the judiciary, going so far as to cast aspersions on the religious beliefs of judges.
Double standards taken to a fine art
Thus the SLPP needs to explain if, on its thinking, independent institutions are reckoned to the independent only when decisions go the Rajapaksa-way? This is unbroken continuity with Rajapaksa tradition in the past decade, as seen most extraordinarily when a sitting Chief Justice was once thrown out of office because she did not rule as the Rajapaksas wished. Essentially this is what makes the hair on the back of the necks of law-abiding citizens stand up when faced with the unnerving prospect of a Rajapaksa-return. Double standards are taken to the extent of a political fine art, articulated with consummate ease from political platforms.
Thus too, the former President’s thundering injunction this week that Sri Lanka should hold a parliamentary probe into allegations made by two Solicitors General that court cases against Gotabaya Rajapaksa were ‘politically motivated.’ These are carefully choreographed public shows, each event succeeding the other with deliberate intent.
They are as absent of genuine concern for the democratic process as much as the sanctimonious expounding by a former Professor of Law and a former Chief Justice attached to the SLPP camp on the importance of the Rule of Law while disregarding the fact that they themselves played a hideously huge part in casting that ideal to the gutter.
The former President’s remarks related firstly to Dilrukshi Dias Wickremesinghe’s strategically leaked phone conversation with Avant Garde Chairman Nishshanka Senadhipathi. The now interdicted Solicitor General, (the second highest senior state law officer in the land) had expressed her regret over the case lodged by her as Director General of the Bribery and Corruption Commission (CIABOC)in respect of the Avant Garde floating armoury scandal.
She sourced the reason for the case to be lodged as the country’s ‘kalakanni’ (cursed) political culture. Her distasteful remark during this conversation that ‘she can break or make the law’ made sensational headlines in Sri Lanka’s media.
To-and-fro- of competing propaganda
Secondly, Rajapaksa’s reference was to a recent interview given by Wickremesinghe’s predecessor, Suhada Gamlath. He had claimed that political pressure was brought upon him by two ‘yahapalanaya’ Ministers to file indictments against the former Defence Secretary in that same case but, unlike Wickremesinghe, he had not succumbed to the pressure. Consequently, he had lost his promotion to the post of Attorney General. The fact that Gamlath was photographed sitting in the audience of pro-SLPP types at a propaganda rally of the Rajapaksa candidate, while holding the position of Chair of Sri Lanka’s largely dormant Victim and Witness Protection Authority was widely carried in the state media as a discrediting exercise thereafter.
This to-and-fro of competing propaganda in the Presidential stakes is boring, predictable and far from interesting. Frankly it only elicits a snigger or two regarding the misplaced enthusiasm of ‘yahapalanaya-ists’ who lauded Dilrukshi Wickremesinghe as the unfairly targeted scapegoat of President Maithripala Sirisena when he pitched into her for launching prosecutions from the CIABOC at the instigation of United National Party (UNP) front-liners in late 2016.
Her resignation took place thereafter, with her return to the Department of the Attorney General. In hindsight, it now appears and must be acknowledged as such, that there was more than a germ of truth in the biting denunciation by the President at the time. Ironically, many CIABOC prosecutions against key corruptors of the previous regime have been tossed out of court due to faulty indictments and other technical issues.
At the time that this dispute occurred, the media was inundated with advise to the President to let independent Commissions function as they should. To my recollection, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) hailed Wickremesinghe as the next best thing to Sri Lanka’s prosecutorial Joan of Arc. That has now proved to be far from the case. Wickremesinghe’s conversation is telling both for the extreme familiarity in which she engages with a suspect in an ongoing criminal matter of the highest sensitivity which is contrary to all norms of prosecutorial neutrality and for the contempt if not sheer arrogance with which she says that she can ‘break and the law and make the law.’
Perhaps these distasteful imbroglios may teach discretion to enthusiastic flag bearers of good governance not to embark on crusades supporting flawed public servants or to indeed rush to court on matters that ought to be strategised far more carefully.
‘Kalakanni public servants’?
Let it be clearly said that Sri Lanka’s crisis of governance is due not only to a ‘kalakanni’ political culture but to the politicisation of every aspect of our societal lives, from public servants and judicial officers ‘playing politics’ to ‘civil society’ which has cast aside all pretensions to impartiality.
As the poor languish for jail for years for commonplace crimes, the Attorney General’s lack of due diligence in supervising the prosecutorial process results in innocents being dragged to jail. Meanwhile, the rich and the powerful get off without penalties. Similarly, independent commissions are essentially as independent as the people who handle them. And much of these convulsions have been brought about by ‘yahapalanaya’ mishandling of crucially important legal processes, as colluded in by civil society leaders who became giddy with excitement in being thrust ‘into high places.’
But that said, the political pressure applied on the Department of the Attorney General during the Rajapaksa decade exceeded any similar coercion at any point, before or after. Indeed, if a Rajapaksa directive was disobeyed by the Attorney General, the responsible state officer may be sure of having to meet a fate a hundred times worse than getting passed over for a promotion.
This was why, during that decade, no directive issued by the President or his brother was disobeyed. In fact, the Attorneys General of those times fell over themselves to obey the Rajapaksa diktat.
Electrifying election campaigns
As Sri Lanka heads towards a suspenseful Presidential election in a little more than a month, scandals unrelentingly occupy the public space. Very little sense can be heard over the clash of political ambitions and crude propaganda. The focus on the Rule of Law is virtually non-existent.
Reimagined or reinvented as it may be under Sajith Premadasa, the UNP must account for the curate’s egg ‘yahapalanaya’ record in this regard.
The younger Premadasa needs to apply his not inconsiderable talents to taking the bull by the horns and tackling Sri Lanka’s crisis of faith in ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) as strongly as he addresses the ‘poverty gap.’
The ‘anti-incumbency’ factor which is perhaps the strongest obstacle in his way, must be addressed. He must also meet probing questions with vigor rather than limit himself to anodyne pronouncements that, under ‘his Presidency, the law will be allowed to operate without fear or favour.’ These tired clichés have been heard many times before.
That singleminded focus is essential and crucially important at this stage.