a ‘litmus test’ of rulers’ governing principles

The arrest and interdiction of Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Western Province (North), Vaas Gunewardena came as a surprise to many. The offences he has been charged with are even more shocking and lead to an erosion in the confidence and integrity of the police force.

DIG Gunewardena has been arrested for allegedly masterminding the abduction of a businessman, Mohamed Shiyam, and subsequently murdering him. It is alleged that he was also engaged in an extortion racket, demanding money from vulnerable businessmen. Mr. Gunewardena was interdicted on Tuesday.

As the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) took over the investigations, Gunewardena’s story was given banner headlines in the newspapers. That was when the CID informed court that he threatened CID officers saying “I am a murderer, wait till I come out (of custody)”.

Critics of the Police have said that they are not surprised at the offences allegedly committed by Gunewardena and a few subordinate officers. They are, however, surprised because he has suddenly been arrested and the rule of law appears to be taking its course without any interference!

In fact, there was some intervention by President Mahinda Rajapaksa which ensured that the investigation into Shiyam’s murder was given priority. That was after Shiyam’s family members appealed to him, in a bid to expedite the investigation.

Prior to this incident, Vaas Gunewardena had earned a reputation as a tough and ruthless but nevertheless a competent Police officer. There had been many a time when his name was involved in controversial incidents, but his efficiency as a police officer was never in doubt.

He had also served as head of the Colombo Crime Division (CCD), the capital’s hot seat for criminal investigations. While his modus operandi might not have been gentle, he produced results and earned a name for himself as a tough cop.     

"Vaas Gunewardena’s latest altercations with the law are crucial for a variety of reasons and that is why his detention and interdiction will be seen as critical events and not the mere solving of a mysterious murder of a businessman "

That was why in November 2012, Gunewardena was transferred to Kahawatte in the Ratnapura district, which had been rocked by a spate of murders of females. Fifteen women had been killed in twelve incidents in the area over the last four years and Gunewardena was assigned to deal with it.

Previously, Vass Gunewardena earned notoriety when his wife Shyamalee Gunewardena and son Ravindu Gunewardena were alleged to have abducted and assaulted a student of a higher education institution in Malabe, Nipuna Ramanayake in August 2009.

That incident too made national headlines. Shyamalee Gunewardena and Ravindu Gunewardena were produced in court, but the inquiry into the alleged incident fizzled out. Ironically, a fundamental rights case filed by Ramanayake regarding his abduction and torture was also due to be heard last week but was postponed.

Vaas Gunewardena’s latest altercations with the law are crucial for a variety of reasons and that is why his detention and interdiction will be seen as critical events and not the mere solving of a mysterious murder of a businessman. It has been alleged that Gunewardena masterminded an extortion racket that involved several subordinate police officers. This raises the issue of whether his was the only such alleged ‘operation’ in the police force and whether other officers were indulging in similar activities as well.

At that time, the government took a lot of flak for allegedly covering up Gunewardena’s misdeeds as he was perceived as a police officer who was loyal to the authorities. Opposition parties were quick to lay the blame for the incident at the government’s doorstep.

That incident also added credence to claims by interested parties that Sri Lanka was a country where lawlessness prevailed and abductions and torture were common occurrences and alleged perpetrators got away scot-free if they were loyal to the authorities.

The latest revelations regarding Vaas Gunewardena, his detention and his subsequent interdiction would allow the government to now say that it has acted without fear or favour in acting against those who have breached the law, regardless of the position of authority they held.

This has, of course, led to much speculation and has been a hot topic of discussion in social media and the internet. Elaborate conspiracy theories have been proposed for the reasons as to why Vaas Gunewardena suddenly fell from grace.

The response of the authorities to this is that previously, despite all the adverse publicity against members of his family, there was no evidence to implicate Vaas Gunewardena in the offences in which he was allegedly involved. Hence, he was allowed to function as a high ranking police officer.

However, with the unearthing of definite evidence against Gunewardena in a murder inquiry, swift action has been taken to detain Gunewardena and interdict him so that he will not be able to interfere with investigations, the authorities will argue.

Such a simplistic explanation is unlikely to satisfy those vocal critics of the government who claim that a culture of impunity reigns in the country and that individuals like Vaas Gunewardena have helped to propagate and maintain such an environment.

The government can still dispel these concerns but to do so, it will have to ensure that Gunewardena will face the criminal justice system for his alleged offences without any delay or deference and make him face the consequences for his alleged actions.

Therefore, the impending trial of Vass Gunewardena for the alleged abduction and murder of Mohamed Shiyam will be watched with great interest both nationally and internationally. It is not the proudest moment in the history of the Police Department, but it will definitely be a defining hour.

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