“There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.”
As a columnist some of the news that hits you on a daily basis is good raw material to work upon. Specially for a column not exclusively dealing with the political, a news item which might not capture headlines could still ignite the spark to write. The harrowing tale of Hithumathe Jeewithe is one such story.
Batugahage Don Sumathipala alias Ranjith or Hithumathe Jeewithe, as he is popularly known, based on the tattoo across his chest, is not the ordinary criminal you come across these days. At the age of 17, he was made a criminal by the urge to avenge the gang rape and brutal murder of his school-going sister by the HQI of Kalutara Police, the Principal, a politician and a few others. He has been in prison for over 40 years, escaping seven times, sentenced to death a few times, receiving Presidential Pardon twice. Rarely would you come across a person who had borne the brunt of hard life to that extent, not due to his own fault in the first place.
I do not wish to justify the killing of five persons whatever the motives that were behind it. Yet the story of Sumathipala is unique in the sense that it poses so many questions regarding different aspects of life in Sri Lanka. Some years ago Sumathipala was interviewed by a private television station and the ‘confession’ received the attention of the public, providing a lot of points to ponder about as various as an aspect starting from the Criminal Justice System, the leaders we have, Presidential Pardon, the life in prison , the gulf between law and justice, the good and bad sides of officialdom etc.
A justice system that pounces to punish men like Sumathipala while failing to reach those who commit gruesome crimes such as the one committed against his sister in 1972; an official hierarchy that abuses the power of office and uniform bestowed on them to serve the public such as the Senior Police Officer who actually took part in the gang rape and brutal murder of the innocent damsel; the Politician whose ego was pricked when Sumathipala’s sister, being crowned Avurudu Kumari refused to allow him to hug her which consequently led him to order such heinous revenge on her, the corrupt officialdom exemplified by the so called Principal who betrayed the girl in to the hands of those vicious wolves in the first place; a self complacent justice system that ignores roots of delinquency but penalizes the symptoms- all are but a screenshot of a society accursed.
- Many do not brand him as a criminal but a hero
- It was certain elements of this society that made him a criminal
Sumathipala was left with no alternative but to avenge by claiming the lives of each and every monster who was responsible for his sister’s fateful tragedy; according to him, the trial for the first murder he committed took less than one year, at a time when murder trials took years or even decades, the justice system resolved to punish a ‘lawless murderer’ who beheaded a ‘law enforcing officer’ and presented the SP with the severed head. Although decades have passed by, the logic remains the same; swift and resolute application of law to ordinary men like‘hithumathe jeewithe’ while being timorous, hesitant and deferential when confronted by those used to the silver spoon.
Sumathipala’s testimony as recorded by media reveals so many disturbing facets of life inside prisons; corrupted officials, favourable treatment of those who are affluent, politically powerful and backed by black money, a culture that makes those who are incarcerated for minor offences in to hardened criminals, inhuman and debasing treatment of prisoners in violation of normative principles of conduct and fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.
The names of those who shared cells with Sumathipala during prison time spanning four decades includes Rohana Wijeweera, Vijeya Kumaranatunge, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena and Sarath Fonseka; I am sure there are many more who shared prison bunk beds with him for political ‘crimes’. Those names suggest that despite being a representative democracy , we still have a system akin to that described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago, criminalizing political dissent in failing to make a distinction between those and ordinary crime. In a sense being incarcerated is better than disappearing in the first place, you
Then we have the maru siras, podi wijes, cheenas and the like. They too, are an indictment against a social system that has failed; driving innocent young men to the fringes of decent and civilized society by condoning exploitation, harassment and victimization by the ‘haves’. Almost all such individuals share one common denominator; all of them were POOR!! So, the criminal justice system rolls on extra turbos!
One law for the Poor
A societal system that makes ‘have nots’ criminals, murderers and prostitutes to be exploited by the ‘haves’ for their enjoyment. A criminal justice system that sees it only fit to punish them severely without being aware of the possibility, nay , the imperative that they be restored and re introduced to civilization; turning a blind eye to the transgressions of the powerful and the mighty repeatedly.
Despite all these negatives, Sumathipala talks about some exemplary characters within a system that vilified him; the SP of Kalutara at that time, who told this young man when he went with the severed head of the HQI in the morning, to calm down, turn himself in and offered a cup of tea, being fully aware of the circumstances that turned a wide-eyed youngster to a possible serial killer. Then the Prison doctor, who, after Hithumathe slashed himself with the broken dinner plate served in prison, did the surgery and refused to release him to be hanged insisting that he was a patient needing medical assistance before he could become a condemned death row inmate and after failing to retain custody of the patient, telephoned the then President William Gopallawa obtaining Presidential Pardon in the nick of time. Well , the Presidential pardon has served worthy causes as well, for a change, hasn’t it?
Convict or Victim?
We have a legal framework to ensure rights of accused and convicted individuals as well as victims and witnesses. One wonders why a person who suffered due to the utter failure of a criminal justice system by being forced to take the law unto his own hands should be viewed as a criminal and not a victim. The conduct of the Piliyandala Police in rounding up this human being who has borne the brunt of all social evils on himself like the crucified Jesus, is despicable and possibly done on the urge of a sinister move of an invisible hand that wants Hithumathe silenced!
Thousands of comments on social media do not call Hithumathe a Criminal; in fact many hail him as a brother who did justice on behalf of a wronged sister. There is a film to be released celebrating this remarkable human being.
All that seems to suggest that Hithumathe Jeewithe is a Hero; I do not beg to differ, either!
It is the Criminal Justice System that should brand itself with a tattoo saying ‘Hithumathe Jeewithe’on its hind side, not Sumathipala!