A minister of the Sri Lankan government has publicly claimed responsibility for the assassination of slain newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and for the serious injuries caused to another well known journalist, Poddala Jayantha. Yet no action has been taken against him.
Labor Minister Mervin Silva publically stated the following at a meeting in Hunupitiya, Kelaniya on July 9: “Lasantha from the Leader paper went overboard. I took care of him. Poddala agitated and his leg was broken. Now a fellow in my electorate is trying to stand against me. I now tell him in his own hometown, I will give him only seven more days. If he does not resign as chairman of the Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha, don’t blame me later on. You’ll don’t find fault with me. If this fellow goes against what I say, I will send him to the place where I sent Lasantha.”
The assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge and the serious assault on Poddala Jayantha generated global publicity. These two cases are among the most high-profile crimes reported recently. The police authorities questioned by the media and international organizations claimed that they have been unable to trace the perpetrators.
The widely held suspicion is that the government itself was behind these crimes, and now a minister has come forward to claim that he had a hand in them. The natural reaction in a country where the rule of law is respected would have been for the police to immediately question the minister and for the government to call for an explanation and to disassociate itself from the minister. However, no action of any sort has followed the statement.
In another incident, the Ministry of Defense website named five lawyers as “traitors” for appearing in a case against Secretary of Defense Gotabhaya Rajapakse. All are well-known lawyers who have appeared for numerous clients and provided their professional services within the best traditions of the legal profession.
This accusation was condemned by the Sri Lankan Bar Association. The International Bar Association Human Rights Institute also expressed alarm about this online posting, which is an attack on the legal profession itself.
Both the Sri Lankan Bar Association and the IBAHRI condemned a similar publication a few months ago where lawyers appearing for persons who were charged as suspected terrorists under anti-terrorism laws were named as terrorists themselves. Despite the protests, the publication was not withdrawn and no action was taken against those responsible.
As lawyers are officers of the court, any obstruction preventing them from carrying out their professional work would constitute contempt of court. Besides which, freedom to practice one’s profession independently is guaranteed under the country’s Constitution and the violation of this would amount to the breach of fundamental rights. Under the Constitution the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has the power to adjudicate on any complaint of a breach of fundamental rights.
In yet another incident, the Paris-based Reporters without Borders condemned the blocking of a website which published a news item on the president’s eldest son. “No one should be immune from press criticism, including members of the president’s family,” the group said. The website published a report stating that it had been banned after carrying this item. Media watchdogs have characterized the ban as a further addition to the ongoing attacks against the media.
Meanwhile the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Violations of Human Rights published an incomplete report exonerating the military with regard to the killing of 17 employees of the French charity, Action Contre la Faim, in 2006. This incomplete report was the result of a completely flawed investigation which the International Group of Eminent Persons had earlier condemned as lacking impartiality.
It is well known that due to the fear of reprisals many persons refused to come before the commission. A proposal to provide witness protection was brought before the Parliament, due to international pressure, but was thereafter swept under the carpet.
All these incidents demonstrate that the commission has a license to commit blatant crimes under the guise of national security. The system is completely blind to complaints relating to such actions. The four incidents mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg.
Throughout the country people are unwilling to complain about crimes committed by the police or other government agencies due to an embedded perception that justice will not be done in such cases.
An ingrained feeling of the absence of justice in a country will be exploited by those who wish to abuse power, and this is likely to become worse as time goes by. Once this situation spreads it is worse than an epidemic. When lawlessness reaches epidemic proportions there is nothing within society to generate resistance. Against such a background much worse catastrophes can happen.
Nineteenth century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, having noted the lowest depths his country had reached in his lifetime, predicted that terrible events beyond imagination might occur in the future. Later observers interpreted his remarks as a prediction of the period under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. The lawlessness currently allowed within Sri Lanka by the government carries the possibility of such tragic developments in the future.
By Basil Fernando
Column: Burning Points
Published: July 16, 2009
(Basil Fernando is director of the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong. He is a Sri Lankan lawyer who has also been a senior U.N. human rights officer in Cambodia. He has published several books and written extensively on human rights issues in Asia. His blog can be read at http://srilanka-lawlessness.com.)