An Embassy official trying to protect the identity of Ms. Francis as she leaves Colombo JMO’s office
The saga of Garnier Banister Francis, the Swiss embassy employee who was allegedly abducted by unidentified men in Colombo and ‘forced to disclose embassy-related information’ under duress, could be likened to a soap opera but for its disturbing implications for all of us who like to live in a free state without fear of the ‘Big Brother’, a compliant, sycophant media, and other Orwellian nightmares.
In any democratic state with an independent law-and-order machinery, the police would be tasked to protect the abductee, and to find, arrest and charge the abductors. Precisely the opposite has happened. She seems to be undergoing a harrasment which has become a second, prolonged ordeal. So far, she has had to make statements at the CID headquarters four times and restrained by the law from leaving the country. The victim has become the hunted.
Readers would have breathlessly followed this drama since it hit the headlines on November 25. There is no need here to go repeat the claims and counter-claims. But these salient facts are worth considering.
The mainstream press in both English and Sinhala has almost unanimously concluded that Banister Francis’ story is at fault, or defective, or could even be an outright fabrication.
By the same token, it seems happy to accept the government’s statements and claims, all of which refute the alleged abductee’s claim that she was abducted.
Some writers have gone so far as to suggest that the whole episode was no more than disgruntled political opponents trying to discredit the new government by conjuring up old memories of Mahinda Rajapakse’s tenure in power from 2005-15, when several high profile abductions and murders of people ranging from journalists to businessmen, athletes and young Tamil students took place.
None of these cases has been solved. CID inspector Nishantha Silva was in charge of several of these cases.
What is the connection between Nishantha Silva and Francis Garnier?
These are the known facts – Nishantha Silva is a CID operative with a remarkable track record. He’s the one who cracked the notorious ‘Swiss Kumar’ in the rape-murder of student Vithya from Jaffna, and was investigating into several murders which occurred during the Mahinda Rajapakse government. Several members of the armed forces were named as suspects and charged accordingly.
But these cases – including the murders of journalists Lasantha Wicrematunge and Pradeep Eknaligoda, abduction of 11 youths by military personnel and the alleged murder of rugby player Wasim Thajudeen, were dragging on at a snail’s pace (one reason being the former president’s refusal to order the army, navy and other security forces to cooperate in the investigation and hand over relevant documents to the CID) when the socio-political climate changed dramatically after the November 15 Presidential election.
Nishantha Silva and his family began receiving death threats. He was asked by his superiors to lodge a complaint to the police. His official bodyguards were withdrawn thereafter. On November 24 he left with his family to Switzerland via Singapore.
"the way the ambassador and diplomatic staff have stood behind her, one can conclude to the contrary"
All we know is that the country lost one of its best detectives. But the Swiss embassy drama reveals there is more to it than that.
What exactly is Francis Garnier accused of? If the government states that her abduction claim is doubtful, then she can be accused and charged with making a false complaint.
But she has not been charged with anything so far.
If she is accused (officially or otherwise) of helping Nishantha Silva to obtain a Swiss visa (no reports of that yet), it remains to be seen if she has done anything illegal thereby. But that is for the Swiss embassy to resolve, as it is her employer.
But the way the ambassador and diplomatic staff have stood behind her, one can conclude to the contrary.
Nishantha Silva, who left with authorized leave from the CID, has been forgotten in the uproar. Instead, a hitherto obscure woman is being projected as the focus of a massive witch hunt.
What is harder to understand is why the media (especially the national press) is almost unanimously ganging up against her.
One writer has gone so far as to suggest that her claim of being assaulted too, may be false. He says the category of injuries known as SIBP (self infliction by proxy) is a common practice among asylum seekers in the West.
In human rights, like in insurance or inheritance cases or marriage, there are false claims and genuine cases. The false do not negate the validity of the genuine. Garnier Francis is not an asylum seeker, in any case (though she could well become one after this sordid episode). To imply that what would have been a terrifying ordeal at the hands of several ruthless men did not actually take place is callous, to say the least.
We are a nation suffering from compassion fatigue due to thirty years of war and relentless exploitation at the hands of self-serving politicians. The new government has promised to turn a new page. But this is the worst start one could think of, and to imply that her story is fabricated to discredit the new President and government is incomprehensibly naïve, or self-serving, or both.
There are other disturbing stories. One is that beggars are being allegedly rounded up in parts of Colombo. Another says that stray dogs are starting to disappear. All this sounds familiar from the not-so-distant past. To mention beggars and stray dogs is not irrelevant in this connection. In the relentless drive for neo-liberal development, they are undesirables and expendable. The same could be said, in the long run, for those who are deemed as opposed to the government’s overall conception of what a good, productive citizen in a fast-developing country should be.
There should be an accountability. Citizens have the right to know where these people and animals have been taken, and whether their existence is guaranteed or not.
In the final analysis, these are the questions that need answers.
Did Francis Garnier help Nishantha Silva to leave for Switzerland with his family?
If she did so, has she broken any of the country’s laws?
Instead of being accused of that, why is her claim of being kidnapped and molested being refuted, and why is she being subject to a witch hunt?
Why did Nishantha Silva break up a brilliant career and leave abruptly? Did he fear for his life? If so, why were his bodyguards withdrawn?
Are we living in a free state where we can express opinions contrary to the official version without fear of harassment, intimidation, without fear of getting kidnapped ourselves and without being able to get legal recourse subsequently?
It is all too easy to go with the official version. One can sleep soundly at night – if one has a conscience, that is.
The doom of democracy is not just oppressive governments. It is also a press without a conscience.