| by Shanie
“Do we tend to overlook serious defects of character and lack of probity in personal conduct in our estimation of greatness? Do we place little value on moral integrity while apparently admiring the possession of the baubles of power, prestige and authority? If that be so, it would be a sad commentary on our sense of values and sense of judgement.”
( January 07, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The above is from a lecture titled ‘Moral Integrity in Politics’ which the late Deshamanya H L de Silva delivered at Avadi Lanka in May 1999 and included in a collection of essays by him published shortly before his death in 2009. In his introduction to that collection, he bemoaned the fact our political leaders had, over the years, in their quest for power, found it easy to mobilize the mutual rivalries and conflicts of interests among the different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. He argues that raising the moral standards of society is not something to be left to the exclusive concern of religious leaders or philosophers. It was a duty to which all citizens, particularly the professionals, should remain committed.
The need of our country today is the adherence to the Rule of Law. There is so much abuse and misuse of power by those in positions of authority with scant regard for the rights of the people. Recent events have shown that persons with the right political connections are able to get away with corruption, violence and even murder with complete impunity. In his collection of essays, De Silva quotes Jeffrey Jowell: “Twentieth century tyrannies are marked by their failure to observe the Rule of Law. Many of them claimed legitimacy for their oppressive actions from the fact of majority support.” And in the lecture referred to earlier, de Silva himself says: “I do not think any right-minded person would tolerate or condone gross misconduct or grave depravities in behaviour for long, because in in our experience many powerful men in the world holding high office have, often, quite unexpectedly, been brought down from their own pedestals of power and prestige by a fortuitous discovery that they had been guilty of disgraceful conduct which would make them unfit to hold high office.” De Silva was speaking over ten years ago and he was referring incidents in other parts of the world. But our own politicians of today and tomorrow must beware that the same still holds good and a similar fate can await any persons found guilty by the people of conduct unworthy of the office they hold.
For the enforcement of the law to be effective, de Silva argued, there has to be a strong climate of public opinion that demands and compels an active response to crime. At the same time, the government (and all sides of political leadership) must publicly disavow any support from and refrain from any association with those proved to have been connected with crime and violence. It is here that the professionals, in addition to the religious leaders, need to provide a robust leadership to the people. In cases where there are brazen violations of the law against which no action is being taken, de Silva suggests that ‘public-interest groups’ need to agitate for institution of proceedings, ‘if need be to compel action through application for writs of mandamus, and if necessary, through the institution private prosecutions and public interest litigation. Law enforcement suffers when there is public apathy and acquiescence in brazen acts of lawlessness.’
The Killing in Tangalle
The recent murder of a foreign guest at a hotel in Tangalle is the latest in acts of violence where the chief suspect is a prominent member of the ruling coalition. This is not just a case of violence against tourists that will affect the tourism industry. It is an example of the brazen violation of the Rule of Law and the seeming impunity enjoyed by criminal gangs with political patronage. The Police have announced the arrest of some suspects and the leader of the gang, who also holds the office of Chairman of the local Pradeshiya Sabha, reportedly surrendered to the Police a few days ago. Only the Police can explain why they were unable to arrest such a prominent citizen of the locality and had to wait until he surrendered a few days later.
The Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong, has been a dogged defender of human rights, exposing flagrant violations of the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia. They have issued a statement giving details of the incident in Tangalle that led to the death of this tourist and serious injury to another, details that will shock any right-minded person. About the surrender of the local politician, this is what the AHRC has stated: “Due to the publicity this incident has attracted Chairman Vidanapathirana surrendered to the police. On assurance of anonymity, a policeman explained that such surrenders are nothing but a game. All the conditions of how to deal with the situation and the manner in which the surrendering suspects are to be released are all prearranged, he said. The whole process of criminal investigations is so manipulated by the government politicians that in many similar incidents the suspects have escaped any criminal punishment.”
Cases of Abductions and Killings
The Tangalle incident is not an isolated one. There has been a spate of abductions and killings over the past weeks, in a continuing saga of abductions from all parts of the country. The disappearance of two young political activists Lalith Kumar and Kugan Murugan in Jaffna has been widely reported. It is understood that they were warned earlier not to engage in political activism and protests over forced disappearances and illegal detentions. It is also reported that they were once taken into military custody and released. It is now several weeks since their disappearance and there has been no news from the Police if investigations have been made and, if so, what the present position is regarding those investigations.
In October, a Mohamed Saleh Mohamed Niyas was, according to a complaint lodged by his wife, abducted by several armed men who had arrived in a white van. His wife lodged a complaint with the Police at Mahabage. No progress in investigations was made and several weeks later his wife had to travel to Akkaraipattu in the East to identify his body which had been washed ashore. The post-mortem had apparently revealed that Niyas had been tortured before being killed and the body dumped in the sea. We have no details nor the reasons for this abduction and killing. This may not have any political overtones but it is not without significance that Akkaraipattu in the Ampara District where the body of Niyas was found is the home area of the para-military warlord about whom the LLRC were constrained to report.
This week, there have been two cases of abductions and killings. In Puttalam, Muhammad Nistar was abducted and his dead body found with bullet wounds to the head. Then on the following day, twenty-five-year-old Dinesh Buddhika is abducted in Colombo and his dead body found dumped in Grandpass with injuries to his head. Not all these abductions and killings may be politically motivated but it is symptomatic of a serious breakdown in law and order and a failure of law-enforcement.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture met in November. The Sri Lankan delegation to these Sessions was led by Mohan Peiris, former Attorney General and now an Advisor to the Cabinet of Ministers. In his submissions, he had assured the Committee that the Sri Lankan authorities maintained a policy of “zero tolerance” of torture. ‘Absolute right not to be tortured is enshrined in the respective constitutional guarantee.’ Peiris argued that Sri Lanka’s progress in the fight against torture had in many areas been exemplary. Was Peiris unaware of the several cases of disappearance, abductions and killings that are being reported regularly? Is he unaware of several reported cases of torture of ‘suspects’ in police custody; indeed of several cases of death of suspects while in police custody? As a former Attorney General, surely he does not think this is a record that can be termed exemplary. Now, at the request of the wife of Prageeth Eknaligoda who disappeared two years ago, Peiris has been called to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka presumably to provide more information on Peiris’ statement to the UN-CAT that Eknaligoda was living in a foreign country. It is a pity that Peiris did not share this information when the habeas corpus application in respect of Eknaligoda was taken up and to which he as Attorney General was a respondent. It is however possible that Peiris’ information about Eknaligoda was received by him only on the eve of the UN-CAT Sessions.
The Committee Against Torture has made several recommendations to Sri Lanka. Among them are that Sri Lanka should take all necessary measures to ensure that enforced disappearance are established as an offence in its domestic law; and to ensure that the cases of enforced disappearances are thoroughly and effectively investigated, that suspects are prosecuted and those found guilty punished with sanctions proportionate to the gravity of their crimes. The Committee has also called upon Sri Lanka to consider ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. As in the case of the LLRC recommendations, it will be in the interests of the government and the country to heed these recommendations and to implement them.