Sri Lanka: On Prosecuting the highest military officer

The aftermath of Arrest And Remanding of Chief Of Defence Staff Admiral Ravindra Wijegunarathne Wv, Rwp & Bar, Rsp, Vsv, Usp, Ndc, Psn

by Piyamal Abeyasekera

“Law is the Law. All are equal before the Law”
Former President of USA Barack Obama

“Prime Minister Theresa May has told senior commanders that every effort must be made to stop British soldiers from falling victim to “abuse of the legal system” by lawyers representing Iraqis who allege they were victims of war crimes during the occupation of their country.  In a 90-minute meeting with senior commanders, the prime minister said she was determined to protect the armed forces against any “vexatious complaints” relating to the eight-year occupation, during which tens of thousands of British soldiers were deployed to the Arab republic” – Guardian UK

(December 1, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Two statements quoted above which are aptly relevant to Armed Forces of Sri Lanka today. It’s a serious dilemma and should be addressed post haste!

It was November 1993 and the Army Camp in Poonaryn (sometimes referred to as Poonakeri) was under heavy attack by the LTTE and troops in the camp were fighting a survival battle pleading for reinforcements. LTTE had code named this attack Operation Frog. Geography of Poonaryn is such that there had been only two possible ways of sending reinforcements to besieged troops; either air drop or cross the Sangupiddi bridge from the south of Poonaryn. Both options were near impossible due to the ferocity of the LTTE terrorist attack which was gaining momentum by the passing minute. After strenuous night of discussions amongst the then top brass of the defence forces, a decision was taken to send reinforcements by sea; again a near suicidal mission. Troops were to land on the western shores of the Poonaryn. Naval Troops (It is believed that it was Naval troops from Navy’s prized unit Special Boat Squadron – SBS who participated in this operation) and elite Army Commandos were to land in the early hours before the crack of dawn. Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera (who was elected a Member of Parliament after his retirement) was in command of the Naval Forces in the North and gathering his officers he asked whether there would be any volunteers to spearhead the landing. Those who had been present at that discussion even today vividly remember a young strapping Lieutenant Commander promptly raising his arm and standing up and saying “Sir I will lead the landing”. It was Ravindra Wijegunaratne, then a Lieutenant Commander who volunteered to lead the landing to save the besieged troops in Poonaryn (which they did to the much release of the entire nation) who later rose to the rank of Vice Admiral to Command the Navy and afterwards rose to the rank of Admiral and was appointed the Chief of Defence Staff. Admiral Wijegunarathne is also amongst a handful of armed forces personnel who had received gallantry medal Weerodhara Vibooshanaya (WV) for exceptional bravery in the face of the enemy. He is undoubtedly one of the most respected and decorated Naval Officers of the Sri Lanka Navy...

But the Law is the Law and everyone is equal before the law.

Admiral Wijegunarathne has been remanded for aiding and abetting a suspect involved in the disappearance of 11 students sometime in 2009/2010. The suspect, again a junior Navy Officer too is in custody. According to media reports the investigators had repeatedly summoned Admiral Wijegunarathne to record a statement regarding this incident and the Admiral had not complied. Finally, the Admiral appeared in courts and was remanded based on the submissions of the investigators.

Commissioned Officers are the most important component in an Armed Force. When the senior most serving officer of Armed Forces of a nation is hand cuffed and dragged to prison in the glare of television cameras, it does not augur well for the country as well as the Armed Forces of that country.

One is puzzled as to why Admiral Wijegunarathne was not advised to appear before the investigators when summoned. The Ministry of Defence Legal section (if there is one!!!!) should have advised the Admiral, that when summoned by the Police it is the duty of every citizen to comply with such summons. Such advice could have been conveyed in writing if there was a requirement. Since Chief of Defence Staff is only subordinate to Ministry of Defence it should have been done by the Ministry. Therein lies a total failure of the legal section of the Ministry of defence. Such sections presumably staffed by qualified lawyers are maintained (at the expense of the public exchequer) to advice on matters of this nature. It will be interesting to see whether Secretary to the Ministry of defence would inquire into this gross dereliction of duties which has created a huge embarrassment to Armed Forces personnel of our country.

At the same time, it is also pertinent to note that of the numerous investigations that are being carried out on similar incidents (such as murders of late Lasanthe Wickremathunga, Wasim Thajudin, disappearance of Ekneliyagoda and assault on Keith Noyar) are virtually incomplete for the last 4 years; authorities are yet to indict culprits in a court of law. Though quite a lot of fancy theatrical publicity has been given to highlight the bravery of investigators, hardly any substantial action has been taken to punish the culprits through the judiciary. Consequently, those who had nothing to do with these barbaric acts are paying a high prize.

It is important to remember that our Armed Forces are generally well disciplined and professional. The junior Navy Officer who is a prime suspect in the disappearance of 11 students probably is one of the bad eggs in the basket. He should be dealt with severely and justice should be done to those grieving parents. However, the more such cases are dragged on more complicated it will become to mete out justice. At the same time numerous others who may have had no clue about these barbaric acts of a few would unnecessarily get dragged into these cases.

Even in other cases where frauds are being investigated the same songs are being played; arrest remand and release on bail. Probably it is only in Sri Lanka that cases get dragged on like this. These delays should be avoided at all costs; At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst. Aristotle

Commissioned Officers are the most important component in an Armed Force. When the senior most serving officer of Armed Forces of a nation is hand cuffed and dragged to prison in the glare of television cameras, it does not augur well for the country as well as the Armed Forces of that country. It is more so when there had been numerous possibilities of avoiding such a scenario. Consequences would be grave and the world’s history is replete with such examples.

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