After President Maithripala Sirisena and the National Government assumed office last year with the pledge to bring to justice those responsible for political killings or abductions, fraud or corruption -- Colombo’s High Court yesterday gave the first major verdict in one such case. By a 2 to 1 majority verdict, a three-judge bench of the Colombo High Court after a trial-atbar sentenced to death the former controversial parliamentarian Duminda Silva and four others for the murder of former presidential advisor Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra during the Local Government Elections on October 8, 2011. After more than five years of apparently politically- influenced delays and other mysterious happenings at the investigation and prosecution levels, this headline hitting case was finally taken up on October 12 last year by a bench comprising Shiran Gunaratne (President), Pathmini N. Ranawaka and M.C.B.S. Morais. Two judges found the five suspects guilty and sentenced them to death while the Bench’s President acquitted them.
In another important court case yesterday, the Mt. Lavinia Magistrate’s Court granted approval to exhume the body of well-known editor and investigative journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge who had been shot dead within a high security zone at Attidiya on January 8. The exhumation was requested by the Criminal Investigation Department and will take place on September 27 in the presence of the Magistrate.The order follows the arrest of a military intelligence sergeant in July this year and claims that the postmortem examination conducted in January 2009 was suspicious.
These two cases and the steady progress in the case involving the killing of national rugby star Wasim Thajudeen are clear indications that judicial independence has to a large degree being restored after the enactment of the 19th Amendment, the setting up of the Constitutional Council, the independent Judicial Services Commission and the independent Police Commission.
If further evidence was needed, it came last month when the Supreme Court ruled that the manner in which the government increased VAT rates on wholesale and retail items was illegal. The national government responded gracefully and said it would introduce a new bill sometime this month to right the wrong.
During the past few decades and especially after the 18th Amendment was enforced in 2010, the judiciary to a large extent was undermined and heavily politicised with VIP politicians knowing to have boasted they could influence a judgment with a telephone call. This led to a crisis where most people, who had already lost faith in the police which was seen as a branch of the ruling party, were also loosing faith in the judicial process. Fortunately the people’s silent revolution of January 8, 2015 led to a gradual transformation and today we see judicial independence restored as a vital pillar of democracy. Yet there are prolonged delays in the investigation and prosecution processes. Legal analysts say there are valid reasons in some instances where it is difficult to obtain documentary evidence acceptable in a court of law. Yet there are other cases where some political influence is apparently used to delay or defer investigations or the filing of charges.
President Sirisena, in the widely spotlighted Matara speech last month to mark the first anniversary of the national government, pledged that if there was evidence of corruption, fraud or other crimes by members of the present government tough action would be taken against them also, even tougher than the action against alleged VIP plunderers of the former regime. We hope the President and the government act on this promise till we reach the hallowed principle where we could proudly proclaim that everyone is equal before the law.