By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“How could we have seen what was coming, until it had arrived in our midst, clanking and smoking?” John Banville (Shroud)
Last week the law of the jungle reached the portals of judiciary.
According to media reports, Rishard Badurdeen, Minister of Traditional Industries and Small Enterprises, tried to intimidate the Mannar Magistrate into reversing a judicial murder. According to the Judicial Service Association of Sri Lanka, “the Minister has threatened to instigate violence against the courts if the order is not revoked. When the magistrate did not follow the order to revoke his decision a mob has attacked the court complex as the Minister has warned the day before”
The Minister did more. He “phoned the magistrate after the attack and told him that the court complex sustained the vandalism since the magistrate did not change his ruling. The Minister has also met the Secretary of the Judicial Services Commission in a futile attempt to transfer the magistrate from Mannar….”
Minister Badurdeen’s act is an outrage and must be condemned as such. But it is also part of the new Sri Lankan normal. In today’s Sri Lanka the law of the rulers has precedence over the rule of the law. And Minister Badurdeen, as a member of the ruling caste, is merely exercising his Rajapaksa-given rights when he took on the courts.
Minister Badurdeen must be forgiven for thinking that as a minister he does not owe the judiciary any particular respect. Minister Badurdeen cannot be blamed for thinking that as a minister he can organise a mob attack on anyone with impunity, other than those above him in the political pecking order.
Because Minister Badurdeen is following in the well-marked footsteps of his colleagues; especially those of Minister Mervyn Silva who is a law unto himself and parliamentarian Duminda Silva, who is likely to get away with murder literally.
Minister Badurdeen knows that there is one unforgivable sin in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. And that is opposing the Ruling Sibling. So long as a man does not commit that cardinal sin, he can get away with any number of lesser crimes and misdeeds, from corruption to murder.
No wonder Minister Badurdeen thought he could threaten a magistrate, orchestrate a mob attack on a court with impunity, since ‘Thou shall honour the judiciary’ or ‘Thou shall obey the law’ is not part of the ‘Rajapaksa Ten Commandments’.
And he may. Once the dust settles, and it’s back to business as usual.
The President has ordered the IGP to carry out an inquiry into the Mannar incident. The victimised judge has already ledged a complaint but clearly this was not enough to move the uniformed guardians of the law into doing their duty. The fact that the President had to order the police to carry out an inquiry and the police waited till the President ordered them to carry out an inquiry demonstrate the degree to which the rule of law is servile to the law of the rulers.
The fact that the president has ordered an inquiry may not amount to anything very much. The President did so when the then Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva, who is a path-breaker in matters criminal, tied a public official to a tree, in public, as hundreds of spectators, including uniformed policemen, watched and the media recorded the event. The President also took away the deputy-ministership of Mr. Silva. The SLFP appointed a committee of inquiry of its own, a committee studded with lawyers. It looked as if the law of the jungle will not be able to prevail.
Unfortunately, it was all eyewash, a ruse to calm the seriously ruffled waters. Samurdi officials, vital cogs in the regime’s electoral machine, were protesting at the criminal injustice done to one of their own, and they had to be pacified. So an elaborate charade was enacted, with convincing thoroughness. After the issue became the day-before-yesterday’s news, the police probe was abandoned as fruitless, the SLFP committee exonerated Mervyn Silva and he was reinstated with a promotion, as a Minister.
To cap it all, the victimised Samurdi official was compelled to declare publicly that the politician was blameless because he tied himself to the tree.
There should have been howls of protest then, including from lawyers and judges, whose business it is to ensure that justice is done; but there was nothing.
So Mr. Silva was not charged in a court of law; and instead of being punished, in the end he is rewarded.
Why shouldn’t Minister Badurdeen expect a same fate, even if the police probe takes off, and even if his ministership is taken away, for a while?
In the light of those insalubrious past experiences, why shouldn’t we regard any response by the government as nothing more than a charade aimed at quietening the protesting lawyers and pacifying the incensed judges?
The fate of the inquiry into the Kollonnawa quadruple killing is the best possible proof that justice in Sri Lanka is done or not done depending on politics. For almost seven months, the CID, with the full complicity of the AG’s Department (which was taken over by the President a couple of years ago), has ignored a judicial order to arrest or question parliamentarian Silva, making a mockery of the entire justice system.
Minister Badurdeen has every right to think that he too will be treated with the same leniency and consideration, so long as he does not do a Sarath Fonseka. All he has to do to evade punishment is to become an even more obedient acolyte of the Rajapaksas.
Because, under Rajapaksa rule, it is not just the president who is above the law; his family and even his favourite courtiers are too.
The Judicial Services Association of Sri Lanka has described the mob attack on the Mannar courts as “an organized act challenging the independence of the Judiciary” and “a direct interference with the judiciary attempting to bear undue influence on the court and in contempt of court”
True. But this deed did not fall from the sky, unexpected and unheralded. It is but a new shoot in the tree of injustice which, seeded by abuse of power and fertilised by indifference, has been growing with remarkable rapidity in the past several years.
The Mannar attack was no isolated incident. Had the judges and the lawyers protested when the rights of lesser people were violated, they could have prevented the law of the jungle from reaching their very doorstep.
There were serious allegations made about the manner in which the eldest presidential offspring, Namal Rajapaksa, sat for his final law exam. The authorities of the Law College failed to explain why the presidential offspring was allowed to sit for his exam away from the rest of the candidates in a separate room in air-conditioned comfort. No inquiry was made and nothing happened, and now the young Rajapaksa is a lawyer like his presidential father. A doubt was created about the justice and fairness of the process which turned a man into a lawyer.
But the lawyers and the judges did nothing
Post-war, 300,000 civilian Tamils were incarcerated in open prison camps masquerading as welfare villages. A total lack of freedom was the defining characteristic of these camps. Their inmates could not leave them; nor could outsiders go in, without official permission.
The men, women and children in these camps were not de jure prisoners because they had not been found guilty of or even charged with any crime. They were de facto prisoners, whose sole ‘crime’ was living in ‘enemy territory’. The EU, in a confidential report on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, called the camps, quite rightly, a ‘novel form of unacknowledged detention’. Indeed, it was an exercise in ethnically based collective punishment, illegal as hell, a violation of every single law of the land, including the Emergency and the PTA.
But the lawyers and judges did nothing
The habit of suspects being killed trying to escape from police custody is so well established it does not make news any longer. Those sordid episodes violate the very basis of our justice system – that every man has the right to a fair trial and that no man is considered guilty until he is found guilty by a court of law.
But the lawyers and the judges did nothing
There is serious concern about the blatancy with which the authorities violate the basic rights of those considered politically undesirable or socio-economically powerless. Extra-judicial punishments are almost an accepted method of dealing with ‘troublemakers’. Two recent cases are of interest here. Ganesan Nimalaruban, a Tiger suspect involved in the Vavuniya prison riot, died while in police custody. “The authorities deny mistreating him, saying he died of a heart attack….. But rights campaigners and Tamil MPs say the prison authorities and police worked with other inmates to exact a terrible revenge, attacking them with stones and weapons, physically throwing them or breaking their legs. Nimalaruban’s parents said his body was covered in blood…. At least one other prisoner is reported to be in a coma and in hospital” (BBC – 9.7.2012).
The authorities obtained a court order that Mr. Nimalaruban should be cremated near Colombo even though his parents want to bury him at home in Vavuniya.
In the South things are not much better for the poor and the powerless. According to the June 26th statement of the Asian Human Rights Commission, “on 20 May 2012, M.D. Kalum Priyanath, a disabled labourer….was arrested by the police and taken to Welikanda Police Station. According to police officers, Mr. Priyanath was in possession of marijuana, and was found dead in his jail cell at 1pm as the result of a head injury caused by a fall. Mr. Priyanath’s relatives believe that Mr. Priyanath was severely tortured and killed by the police.
Indeed, the report of a Judicial Medical Officer state that Mr. Priyanath’s body sustained bruises, swelling and severe bleeding to the back of his head”.
So one law for the North, one for the South; one law for the poor, one for the rich; one law for the powerless, one for the powerful.
When justice was being denied and the law of the jungle being applied to lesser mortals, lawyers and judges (with a few exceptions) did nothing.
Now it is their turn.
It is heartening to see the lawyers and judges protesting, even at this late stage. But unless they understand that the Mannar outrage was no isolated incident, and that it is but the latest step in a nationwide process aimed at undermining the rule of law and replacing it with the law of the rulers, their protest will amount to nothing.
And the law of jungle will continue on its triumphant march.