For the first time after his outburst on the functions of the Independent Commissions President Maithripala Sirisena has personally explained his stand to the media. Earlier it was Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne and newspaper reports that quoted ministerial sources that defended the President, but in an interview with the Sunday Lankadeepa the President had defended his controversial speech made on October 12 at the Sri Lanka Foundation (SLF).
Confirming the said ministerial sources and the Cabinet Spokesman, President Sirisena had told during this interview that he was concerned about hauling the former Navy commanders to the courts and detaining the Army intelligence officers suspected in the abduction and disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda for more than 16 months without any progress in the case.
However, he denied that he criticised the authorities for taking former Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa to court.
He had also accused the authorities concerned for ignoring corruption cases involving a huge amount of money and bringing forth cases involving relatively small amounts such as distribution of T-shirts by ministers during elections, and relief material during a flood. The President said if State Minister A.H.M.Fowzie has to be sued for using a vehicle belonging to his former ministry, all present and former ministers would have to be haulled to the courts as this is the normal practice followed by any minister when their portfolios are changed.
He confirmed minister Senaratne’s claim that he was concerned about not informing him of matters pertaining to the cases involving security forces commanders and personnel by the investigating institutions. The President justified this point contending that mishandling of these cases might create unrest among members of the security forces.
However, the President’s explanation while justifying some of his stands raises more questions about some other matters he touched. For instance, he blasted the officials concerned for sitting on the files of large-scale corruption. He said that the officials, while just making accusation against alleged perpetrators of large-scale corruption, were hauling former Navy Commanders to court.
Though the progress of many high profile cases is negligible as the President says, the Avant Garde case in which the former Navy commanders have been accused was in fact a case involving billions of rupees. On the other hand, nobody who listened to the President’s controversial speech got the impression that he was concerned about the delay in high profile cases.
The United National Party (UNP) and the members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), who supported President Sirisena at the last Presidential Election claimed during the last major elections that huge amounts of money had been plundered by the Rajapaksa family and leaders of the previous regime.
However, the large majority of complaints against the leaders of the Rajapaksa government were lodged with the Bribery Commission by the members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). In spite of the President wanting rapid progress in high profile cases the UNP and the SLFP group that supported the President were very lethargic in gathering evidence and
The investigating institutions do not initiate any case. It is the people, who lodge complaints of irregularities, who initiate these cases.
Once a complaint is received by the CID or the Bribery Commission against State Minister Fowzie, the investigating authorities cannot drop that case just because all other ministers had committed the same offence.
However, since there is a valid point in President’s concern about State Minister Fowzie’s matter, government could have engaged the complainant for a remedy.
One has to agree with the President that many allegations made by the leaders of this government about corruption involving billions of rupees have been forgotten or investigations into them are dragging on.
However, whenever journalists questioned the delay in investigations of these allegations ministers including Rajitha Senaratne had justified them claiming that people cannot be haulled to the Police stations under the good governance as done during the previous regime.
The crux of President’s speech seems to be the possible unrest among the armed forces due to the investigations against the members of those forces.
In the Sunday Lankadeepa interview the President refers to this in several places.
“If the commanders –even the retired ones- are to be arrested I must be informed. That is what I mean by institutional balance. Do those, who act in this manner, take the responsibility in cases of unrest among the security forces? I have to defend and protect the security forces. I have to safeguard the dignity of the war heroes. There is no problem in investigating crimes. But there is a way to do it,” he says at one point.
“One of my major responsibilities is to manage the affairs of the security forces. We have a very capable security force. One should not take these things as simple matters and underestimate them. People respect them. If legal action has to be taken against one of them, we must enlighten the people so that they would not accuse us.”
These remarks indicate a more difficult situation that the President and the government are to face when it comes to the investigations into the alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, under the resolution adopted in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last year with the government’s
The response by the armed forces in respect of the accountability issue could be inferred through the case with regard to the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. The Magistrate hearing the case had to warn the Army commander that he would order the arrest of the latter unless cooperation was forthcoming in arresting the suspects of the case, who happened to be Army personnel.
At the same time, the pressure emanating from the international players seems to be mounting. This was clearly indicated by the difference in the stands taken by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on the accountability issue, in February and June this year.
Despite the government agreeing to institute a “hybrid” court to investigate into the allegations of human rights, the President had told the BBC’s Sandeshaya programme in January
“I will never agree to international involvement in this matter.”
Surprisingly, Al Hussein also during his visit to Sri Lanka in February was seen amenable to this stance and said “though the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) makes a recommendation on the judicial process into alleged war crimes or on the involvement of foreign judges, it was the sovereign right of Sri Lanka to decide.”
However, in his report on Sri Lanka presented to the UNHRC in June he had this to say.
“The High Commissioner remains convinced that international participation in the accountability mechanisms would be a necessary guarantee for the independence and impartiality of the process in the eyes of victims, as Sri Lanka’s judicial institutions currently lack the credibility needed to gain their trust.”
The report also had a slight departure in its tone as well compared to the last year’s report.
It was full of praise, last year, on the government’s actions towards reconciliation and accountability, whereas in the latest report Al-Hussein, in a very mild diplomatic language, casts doubts on certain actions by the government and finds fault with the insufficient progress in certain areas, while showering praises for many actions government had taken.
When the President’s explanation to his controversial speech is taken up together with this backdrop one can infer that the government is going to have tough times in the years to come.