Govt. legalising bribery and corruption

It is one of those ironic twists. Most people know that bribery and corruption are rampant in Sri Lanka today, but the Government is unwilling and the Bribery and Corruption Commission unable to do much about it.

The Government's feet-dragging in extending the warrant of the Commission after March 29 comes as no surprise. It is therefore a case of the Government virtually legalizing bribery and corruption and wishing the Commission good riddance with all the bad rubbish.

The statistics speak for themselves. There are 4,500 cases pending before the Commission, which comprises 100 investigation officers and 20 lawyers. Its website gives the convictions: A Reserve Police officer - for accepting a bribe of Rs. 300 for a traffic offence - fined Rs. 4,000 and suspended sentence; a clerk - for taking a bribe of Rs. 2,000 - fined Rs. 5,000 and suspended sentence; and so forth.

What of the case against the Minister for Nation Building for allegedly accumulating more than Rs. 450 million? Can one imagine a minister amassing such wealth? The Commission is confused as to the status of the case. One senior official said the case was dropped due to lack of evidence, another said they were still sifting through the evidence.

When the Supreme Court asked the Commission to proceed to investigate the infamous Waters Edge case where former President Chandrika Kumaratunga used her office for a businessman friend of hers to make a buck from the deal, the Commission stamped 'priority' on the file, and went to sleep.

There are several cases involving complaints against Government Ministers but political pressure is brought all along not to prosecute these cases. Now, these files will be closed come March 29 unless the Commission's term is extended.

The Police Department has been named as the most corrupt public institution in the country. One would hardly expect police investigators assigned to the Commission to go after their colleagues, surely. No separate investigations desk has been established within the Commission all these years by a set of unimaginative Commissioners who seem to have merely marked their time till retirement.

The creation of the Commission itself in 1994 was flawed. Those who drafted the law had little or no clue as to the composition of the Commissioners ideally needed for such a task. There were retired superior court judges, but no accountants. Moreover, there were other flaws in the law that permitted the likes of former Treasury Secretary R. Paskaralingam to get away on a gaping legal loophole.

The Commission itself was riddled with intrigue and in-fighting in the early years with investigations by the Commission against senior staffers and the Commissioners themselves.

Later, the sharks were able to get away as senior counsel ran rings around inexperienced legal officers of the Commission. Hot shots like former Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, Minister S.B. Dissanayake and Public Trustee N.S. Seneviratne got away with alleged 'blue murder' while the sprats like the reserve policeman, the government clerk and a principal of a girls' school were convicted -- the latter for accepting a tea set as a bribe to get a child admitted to her school.
That mega-deals are underway right at this very moment, and an OGL (open general licence) has been given for racketeering and profiteering.

Colombo's business circles are constantly buzzing with stories of 'oiling ministers and officials' to get a job done; of middle-men (brokers wielding influence with politicians) and at all levels of the Government.

Several young persons with a penchant for a fast buck and fast lifestyles have joined the party. The ongoing public exposures of favouritism in the procurement of military hardware is a classic example that things were not squeaky clean in the multi-million dollar arms deals that the Government was forced to engage in due to the northern insurgency.

The media were once cautioned not to demoralise the soldiers by divulging questionable arms deals. Now it is these very questionable deals that are being selectively gone into by Government investigators purely for political considerations.
Had the ex-Army Commander not dared to enter politics and challenge the incumbent President, and then gone on a trip making all kinds of public remarks about the President and his family, these deals would have remained 'military secrets', the exposure of which would be tantamount to treachery.

To think that hundreds of other deals have not taken place or are not taking place this very moment is to live in cuckoo land.
With corruption being raised as an issue at the last Presidential election by the combined Opposition, the ruling party announced that the matter would be tackled in the next term. It was a veiled if unintended admission that bribery and corruption were rampant in the country.

The next term has arrived, and the Government is put to test straightaway. What does it hope to do with the extension of the warrant of the Bribery and Corruption Commission; Not only that, is it going to give the Commission 'real teeth' instead of the denture it has right now to combat the twin menaces of bribery and corruption in this country?

The way many ruling party politicians have purchased properties and are lavishly spending funds in their bid for re-election to Parliament in the upcoming General Election is prima facie evidence how they are, as they say, living champagne lives with toddy incomes.

What then is Government policy? Is the closing down of the Commission, sending the message that bribery and corruption are now legal in Sri Lanka? In the absence of any other mechanism to investigate bribery and corruption, there will be a vacuum in this aspect and therefore what the Government seems to be effectively doing is legalizing bribery and corruption.

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