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Overzealous investigations into military affairs counter productive to transitional justice

18 September 2018 12:10 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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At the Cabinet meeting, the President raised concerns about the prolonged detention without trial of military officers. He was equally livid that he as the Commander-In-Chief of the tri-forces was not informed of the impending arrest of the Chief of Defence Staff

 

 

Last Thursday, barely 48 hours after the regular Cabinet meeting, President Maithripala Sirisena convened an emergency Cabinet meeting. The reason for this hush-hush meeting (The President repeatedly urged his ministers not to divulge the substance to the media) was the impending arrest of the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne by the CID. Admiral Wijegunaratne was accused of aiding a former officer of the naval intelligence wing, now a key suspect in the disappearance of 11 civilians, to evade the arrest. The officer in question is Hettiaratchchi Mudiyanselage Chandana Prasad Hettiaratchchi, better known as navy Sampath, a former Lieutenant Commander of the Navy and the personal security officer of the former navy commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. Earlier, Mr. Hettiarachchi was arrested at Lotus road. It was alleged that he had been working at a plantation in Dompe, using a forged National Identity Card. However, talk in the military circles was that he had been assisted by the naval top brass to flee the country. 

 

Nor does it reassure the majority in the South, when the same government is failing to forge ahead with an equal amount of assertiveness in matters of economic development


Now, the CID alleged that he had been transported out of Sri Lankan waters in a naval vessel and moved to another ship which took him to Thailand. Later he had returned to Sri Lanka under an assumed name. There were allegations about the connivance of the naval top brass, including Admiral Wijegunaratne, a former navy commander. Colombo Chief Magistrate had issued an order for the arrest of Admiral Wijegunaratne if the CID found incriminating evidence against him. However, on the day he was summoned to the CID (September 11), Admiral Wijegunaratne took a flight to Mexico, ostensibly to represent Sri Lanka at Mexico’s Independence Day celebrations. He is expected to give a statement to the CID on September 19 upon his return. 

 
At the Cabinet meeting, the President raised concerns about the prolonged detention without trial of military officers. He was equally livid that he as the Commander-In-Chief of the tri-forces was not informed of the impending arrest of the Chief of Defence Staff, the senior-most serving officer of the unified command of the armed forces. The current government is in itself caught up in a catch-22 situation because of the extreme vested interests and raw emotions attached to the trials of military officials.   


 The President himself promised in his election manifesto to investigate the incidents of human rights violations allegedly committed during the previous regime. His government subsequently co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution in which the government reaffirmed its commitment to transitional justice and to bring a closure to the thousands of victims of the 30-year war. Since then, a few selected cases have been vigorously pursued by the CID. One was the disappearance of 11 youth, though the initial complaint on the matter was lodged by the then navy commander Admiral Karannagoda in 2009 after his then personal security officer Lt. Commander Sampath fell out with him.

There are various analogies about the immediate cause for the estrangement; the incident, nonetheless, led to the unearthing of an abduction racket run by the Special Intelligence Unit of the Navy, ostensibly with the knowledge of at least some of the senior officers. Fearing for his life, Mr. Sampath later sought sanctuary under the then Army commander General Sarath Fonseka. A mutual animosity between the then Army chief and his navy counterpart was also public knowledge. Sampath also confided that the senior officers were privy to the abduction racket, and divulged an alleged plan to kill several journalists loyal to General Fonseka. This saw them being accorded security by the army commandos. Then defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, though some of his associates claim was keen to investigate the allegations of abductions, in fact sat on them. Investigations were resumed only after the election of the current government in 2015. During a five-year-long hiatus, much could have happened to the evidence.   


Thus this whole affair is a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface. It also bears the signature of the recent troubled past. That was also a time when an entire country was reeling from suicide bombers; security vulnerability of the state effectively triggered a kind of behaviour that may not be condoned in hindsight, though abductions of the innocent young men for ransom, as the case under investigation has revealed to be, is unjustified under any circumstance.   


None of the above should deprive the victims and loved ones the justice they are clamouring for. However, the path to justice is trickier than it would normally be. Justice will be best served to the victims if the CID and the other agencies focused on the case itself (i.e. who is responsible for the tragic plight of 11 young men) and not its subsequent swings. Sidetracking the investigation could well open a can of worms and getting rid of the infestation would not be easy. It is better to avoid that predicament.   

 

However, talk in the military circles was that he had been assisted by the naval top brass to flee the country. The CID alleged that he had been transported out of Sri Lankan waters in a naval vessel 


It is fashionable in this country to be sanctimonious after the end of a brutal conflict. However, war is a bloody business where one may be forced to cross the lines of what is not permissible in normal times. Counter insurgency is dirtier. Digging deeper into the affairs of the past would not be in anyone’s interest.   


Also, the overzealous actions of the CID in certain cases are not matched by the other agencies that investigate separate cases. While military officers are held in prolonged detention without trial, and then released, those who are accused of high profile cases of corruption during the previous regime are roaming free. The government has failed to convict a single fat cat politician whom it accused of being corrupt even when evidence of certain incidents of corruption are publicly available. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former defence secretary has avoided arrest by obtaining repeated restraining orders. Investigations into certain other incidents, such as the killing of Welikada prison inmates, ostensibly picked and chosen according to a ‘Gota list’ have been stalled.   


This government’s inertia does not add up with overly eager investigations into certain other matters. Nor does it reassure the majority in the South, when the same government is failing to forge ahead with an equal amount of assertiveness in matters of economic development.   


Sri Lanka’s quest for transitional justice cannot be pursued in isolation of other national priorities. It should be one among a set of multiple pressing imperatives that should be achieved in coordination. Any mutually exclusive approach to appease the European Union and UN Human Rights Council is bound to fail at home.   
In its search for transitional justice, the government should also be able to a draw a line between what is possible and what is not and focused its time and energy on things which are possible to achieve without creating a major consternation in the country. Rather than empowering peace and giving a closure to the victims, mixing up of priorities would only embolden the ultra-nationalists in the South.


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