A motion to dismiss court cases of government leaders and cronies
The UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in her report to the UN Human Rights Council referred to the interference by the presidential commission in ‘emblematic’ cases of grave rights violations in the past
It was initially feared that the Government was plotting to revoke the civic rights of the opposition politicians who were party to ACC
The judicial process into cases of human rights abuses, corruption and nepotism are being closely watched not just by the despondent local activists, but also by the international community (Pic AFP)
It was a grim beginning for the new year. Amidst the festive fever of the Sinhala-Tamil Avrudu and the lull in the official business, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tabled a motion in Parliament to give effect to the recommendations of a controversial presidential commission on political victimization. In more layman’s terms he was seeking to dismiss judicial proceedings into a series of high profile cases of human rights violations, corruption and nepotism involving the government leaders and their close circles.
The motion that was tabled on April 9 was listed for debate on April 21 (yesterday). It was expected to clear legal hurdles from a beleaguered judiciary to have constitutional validity. However, if it comes to vote by any luck, thanks to the oversized government majority in Parliament, the rest is a fait accompli.
The motion is titled “Implementation of Decisions and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into and obtain information in relation to alleged political victimizations of Public Officers, Employees of Public Corporations, and Members of Armed Forces and Police Service, who were holding posts during the period commencing January 8, 2015 and ending on November 16, 2019”.
It refers to the recommendations of a controversial presidential commission appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and was criticised locally and internationally for interfering with the legal process into high profile cases of human rights violations. The UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in her report to the UN Human Rights Council referred to the interference by the presidential commission in ‘emblematic’ cases of grave rights violations in the past, and intimidation and victimization of law enforcement of officials who have been probing those instances of gross rights abuses.
The prime minister’s motion seeks approval of Parliament to implement the decisions and recommendations made by the said Presidential Commission of Inquiry “mentioned in the Item No. 09 and 10, omitting Item No. 08, in the said Final Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (Containing the First, Second and Third Volume and the Addendum correcting the typographical and printing errors) which obtained information on the political victimizations mentioned in those Cabinet Decisions”.
While the technical jargons and limited details would equivocate on the real objectives of the motion, the cat is out of the bag of its own volition.
Item No 8
Item No.08 refers to the observations by the presidential commission that by setting up the Anti-Corruption Committee (ACC) and anti-corruption committee secretariat (ACCS) by the Yahapalanaya Government and attending their meetings and conducting investigations as per its mandate, 22 persons including former Premier Wickremesinghe, MPs and Ministers from the then government and opposition, as well as senior Police officers and government officials, have violated the Constitution and misused public property.
Later President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a three-member Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry to recommend actions against the alleged offence that are referred to in item 8. Hence, item 8 is omitted from the prime minister’s motion.
It was initially feared that the Government was plotting to revoke the civic rights of the opposition politicians who were party to ACC. Now such fears are subdued, though not totally ruled out. For a commonsensical observer, though, it would appear that any such decision would be a fast track to the international pariah status of a government that is already under international scrutiny.
Item No 9 : Pardon the criminals
However, item 9 and 10 are equally egregious and consist of cases of emblematic human rights abuses and gross abuse of public property, corruption and nepotism. The judicial process into these cases ( at least some of the most gruesome ones), and in most accounts, the sheer lack of progress, are closely watched not just by the despondent local activists, but also the international community.
Cases that come under item 9 include (according to a list compiled by the Centre for Policy Alternatives):
1.Complaints against criminal investigations into high profile human rights abuses, such as the case of alleged abduction of Tamil youth involving former Navy chief Wasantha Karannagoda and others, the assassination of MP Nadaraja Raviraj, the death of Wasim Thajudeen, the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the assassination of former MP Joseph Pararajasingam, the Welikada prison massacre, the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and the abduction of Keith Noayhr.
2.Complaints against the investigations of alleged financial irregularities and misappropriation of public funds in the Divi Neguma Department, the Tourism Development Authority, Co-operative Establishment (Sathosa), the Sri Lankan Embassy in the United States etc.The latter involves Jaliya Wickremesuriya, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. The US authorities have now charged Mr Wickremesuriya with two counts of wire fraud, two counts of money laundering and one count of immigration fraud and dismissed the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s claims for diplomatic immunity for the former envoy.
3.Complaint against the investigation of allegations of cheating and misappropriation against MP Udaya Gammanpila.
4.Complaint against the investigation into alleged misappropriation of public funds by former Minister Rohitha Bogollagama.
5.Complaint against the investigation into misappropriation of public property in launching the Carlton Sports Network (CSN).
6.Complaint against the investigation into the alleged misappropriation of funds allocated for the Tharunyata Hetak Organisation.
7.Complaint against the imprisonment of Duminda Silva.
8.Complaint against the suspension of DIG of the Northern Province for the charge of aiding the escape the prime suspect in the Vidya murder case.
9.Complaint against the investigation into the Avant Garde controversy.
10.Complaint against the investigation into the Rakna Araksha Lanka company.
11.Complaint against the investigation into smuggled gold released to the Navy.
12. Complaint against allegations of misappropriation of public funds in the Litro Gas case.
13.Complaint against the investigation regarding the MiG aircraft deal with Ukraine, of which main suspect Udayanga Weeratunga , another Rajapaksa cousin now the unofficial godfather of covid tourism.
14.Complaints against disciplinary action and inquiries against several public officers including chairman of the National Lottery Board, employees of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC)/ Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC), Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, former School Principal Upali Gunasekara.
15. Complaint against the accusation of fraudulent transfer of funds related to the Hyatt Regency case.
The cases that are included in item 10 of the prime minister’s motion are:
1.Complaint against the investigation into the purchase of a plot of land by the D.A. Rajapaksa Foundation.
2.Complaint against the investigation into the 16 acre land in Malwana alleged to have been bought by the former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa using public funds.
3. Complaint against allegations of misuse of public funds against Commissioner of the Colombo Municipal Council.
4.Complaints against removals of several public officers due to various allegations.
The objective of the prime minister’s motion is to dismiss judicial proceedings against the regime leaders of the present and past, their relatives and cronies. Interestingly Attorney General Dappula De Livera previously rejected orders by the presidential commission to suspend judicial proceedings into several cases that were heard by the commission. The prime minister’s motion circumvents the Attorney general and gets the government parliamentarians to decide on the cases that are already in courts.
If politicians who are at the beck and call of a power- centralizing president can make decisions on judicial proceedings, a country does not need courts. The judiciary is being reduced to an inconsequential accessory that exists at the mercy of a familial regime, a perilous descend that began with the 20th amendment, and incrementally worsening.
The prime minister’s motion would be the last nail in the coffin. It would have grave implications for the independence of the judiciary, separation of power, rule of law and general civility of the Sri Lankan state.
However, the current regime leaders have displayed a singular contempt for basic principles of constitutionalism and separation of power. This time though they might be overstepping their boundaries in a way that would have consequences to their own kind, the type of folks they want to absolve from the domestic judicial process. When the local institutions are tamed, undermined and co-opted, the countries of the free world would pick up the tab.
The motion inadvertently gives credence, rightly so to international calls for universal jurisdiction on emblematic cases of rights abuses. Alleged perpetrators, though pardoned by an extra-judicial process, would risk the charges brought in foreign courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The resort to universal jurisdiction would also be the rightful last resort as the government of Sri Lanka deliberately foster a culture of impunity for the survival of its leaders and cronies and undermines domestic judicial mechanisms.
While Sri Lanka is likely to confront a spree of cases of universal jurisdiction and targeted sanctions as the West would follow up on the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution, this motion would only hasten up things and provoke the powerful Western states and America to expand the remit of their response.
The leaders of the current regime have skeletons in their closets. A rational strategy for them would have been not to muddy the water deliberately for it would be they who get drown, though most third world despots had shown a penchant to carry the country with them to the bottom.
This columnist warned about the repercussions of that egoistic folly of pulling out of the co-sponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council by the current regime. A year since then, Sri Lanka is bracing for the fall out of that decision, which has opened the prospect of universal jurisdiction and targeted sanctions. This motion would be going a step further into oblivion. This would set into motion Sri Lanka’s race to the bottom, like no other decision of this government has done. Brace for the impact!
Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter