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Sri Lanka: Under Rajapaksas' Watch, Rule of Law Suffers the Onslaught of Politics
Sri Lanka: Under Rajapaksas' Watch, Rule of Law Suffers the Onslaught of Politics
Op-Ed / Asia

Sri Lanka: Under Rajapaksas' Watch, Rule of Law Suffers the Onslaught of Politics

Originally published in The Wire

The politically-motivated Presidential Commission of Enquiry has been distorting politically-connected criminal suspects into victims, and investigators and legal reformers into criminals.

Sri Lanka, long-plagued by political violence and near-complete impunity for crimes by the state and pro-state forces, now faces a new assault on justice and the rule of law. There is a systematic attempt to rewrite the history to make politically-connected criminal suspects into victims, and investigators and legal reformers into criminals.

The unprecedented efforts of the government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa – most strikingly through his presidential commission of enquiry into so-called “political victimisation” – threatens to do more than just eliminate the possibility of justice in the specific cases it is considering. These specific cases relate to that of political allies of the state, and in instances where Rajapaksa family members are being rescued from prosecution. In doing so, it risks distorting judicial and police procedures, by which the very existence of a meaningful justice system is cast into doubt.

International human rights watchdogs have understandably expressed concerns about the return of the Rajapaksa family to power, given the grave crimes committed during the years of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency from 2005–15. A year into the presidency of his brother, Gotabaya, however, the signs suggest that the threat to dissenting voices and political opponents will, at least at first, be through more subtle means than the murders, assaults and enforced disappearances used to silence critics during their first regime. Legal attacks and legalised lies – not bodies in the street – seem likely to be the preferred means of destroying their opponents. The world needs to be alert to this and to find ways to respond.

International human rights watchdogs have understandably expressed concerns about the return of the Rajapaksa family to power.

Entrenched Impunity

From the first of its multiple post-independence insurrections in 1971 through to the end of its horrific 26-year war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka suffered the gravest of crimes and political violence by state and non-state forces alike. Scores of political leaders were assassinated, hundreds of suicide bombings and massacres, tens of thousands of enforced disappearances and tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final few months of fighting the Tamil Tigers.

While some LTTE members were prosecuted for terrorist attacks over the years of their failed separatist struggle, just a handful of cases involving police and military and pro-government paramilitary forces have ever been successfully prosecuted.

There were promises – and some limited hopes – that this would change when a new government came to power in January 2015, following the surprise defeat of president Mahinda Rajapaksa by his former ally Maithripala Sirisena.  The government Sirisena formed with the backing of his prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – the leader of Sirisena’s long-time opponents, the United National Party (UNP) – pledged to its own citizens and to the United Nations that it would rebuild the independence of the police and judiciary and end institutionalised impunity.

While no progress was made on the most controversial proposal – a criminal tribunal with international assistance to prosecute crimes committed in the final years of the civil war – a whole host of investigations into other high-profile political crimes, long-stalled in courts or buried in police files, began to move.

Released from its former political restrictions, the Criminal Investigation Department, along with other specialised units of the police, vigorously pursued scores of high-profile cases of murder, abduction, disappearances and large-scale fraud committed during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency.

Strong resistance from the military, whose intelligence units were implicated in numerous of the so-called “emblematic cases”, skilful legal manoeuvres by the Rajapaksas, and various alleged behind-the-scenes political deals ultimately left the most important cases unfinished by the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as president in November 2019.

Facing a major challenge from multiple high-profile cases implicating the family, their allies and police and military units under their commands, the new administration chose the bold path of directly challenging the reality of powerful and widely publicised evidence.  The government launched a campaign to discredit the evidence first by carefully cultivating public opinion through accusations of nationalist Buddhist monks and family-backed media outlets, who accused key investigators of being foreign collaborators, in the pay of NGOs.

Then on 22 January 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a quasi-judicial body, Commission of Inquiry, to probe alleged political victimisation of members of the armed forces, police and public service between 2015 and 2019. The Commission has been chaired by a retired judge of the Supreme Court, whose previous conduct was examined by the apex court itself, and found worthy of disciplinary action. The other two members are another retired judge and a retired inspector general of police who served as an advisor to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is now Prime Minister under his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Several international watchdog groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have drawn the attention of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence to the adverse impact of the commission on judicial proceedings against those charged with “serious human rights violations”.

To read the full article, go to The Wire

Contributors

Senior Consultant, Sri Lanka
akeenan23
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K. Mudiyanse (Pseudonym)
Sri Lankan researcher and rights activist