When a slip of a girl is suddenly elevated to the ranks of parliament and, with pride swelled crest and power bloated head, holds court in her political office and dispenses the Bharatha Lakshman brand of summary street justice to one kidnapped by her goons and forcibly brought to her feet, it is time President [...]


Maithri’s Yahapalana at stake over Hirunika’s kangaroo court


When a slip of a girl is suddenly elevated to the ranks of parliament and, with pride swelled crest and power bloated head, holds court in her political office and dispenses the Bharatha Lakshman brand of summary street justice to one kidnapped by her goons and forcibly brought to her feet, it is time President Maithripala Sirisena took serious note and asked himself whether his vision of creating a just society, governed by the much vaunted principles of yahapalanaya, is now perilously poised to vanish in a whiff of scandalous smoke.

One year ago, Maithripala was the inspired hope of a nation. His vision of ushering ‘just governance’ where, amongst other commendable principles of democracy, the rule of law would prevail and abuses of power would end; where selective law enforcement would cease to dictate the police log and sacred cows would be slaughtered in the name of equality to all, moved a long suppressed people to rise from their darkness, to break free from their shackles, to breathe anew the first fresh bracing breaths of freedom reborn.

But did the laboured painful birth assisted by millions of Lankans produce a delicate blue eyed cherub only to be strangled by a female member of his own national government, even before it had stepped out of its bassinet?

Hirunika Premachandra’s conceited belief that she is the fountain of justice in her Kolonnawa electorate and her capricious bent two weeks ago to hold a kangaroo trial at her office and to question one forcibly abducted by eight of her henchmen and brought before her against his will, has forced the President and his Government to make its much propounded and extolled yahapalanaya face the first real acid test even before an year has passed since its introduction as the guiding base of a new political order.

KOLONNAWA'S AGONY AUNT: First-time Parliamentarian Hirunika Premachandra lands in a soup after trying to patch up her cuckolded supporter with his unfaithful wife

For isn’t the tenet that no one will be allowed to take the law into one’s own hands and, if they do, that the normal due process will swiftly follow without fear or favour, no matter the position or power of the personage, the very touchstone of yahapalanaya as expounded so eloquently by the joint opposition candidate exactly an year ago in the run-up to January’s presidential election?

The strongest steel is that which has gone through the furnace, the mettle of which has withstood the test of fire. The principles of yahapalanaya are no different. If the practical application of its principles fails to meet the rigid test, it becomes moribund and not all the professed hallelujahs sung thereafter to infuse new life and blood into it again can raise it from its comatose state.

First, consider the scenario of events that took place in these last two weeks. On the afternoon of Monday December 21, six men walk in to Lucky Stores, a drapery shop at Dematagoda. They stride briskly with a singular sense of purpose. It is clear from their demeanour that they hadn’t strolled in here to indulge in a spot of seasonal shopping nor to land the bargain of the year. They are here to question a certain man who is having an affair with a Pettah pavement hawker’s wife. The little girl accompanying the six member gang is the daughter of the cuckolded husband who is also present. The small child has been brought here to identify her mother’s paramour.

The gang’s purpose becomes clear when CCTV footage shows them surrounding a man and then, as he tries to escape, grabbing him by the collar and dragging him out of the shop to the busy street. He is then bundled into a black defender vehicle and driven away. Later the vehicle is identified as one belonging to Hirunika and the men as members of Hirunika’s staff, presumably her body guards.

The whole operation had been staged in typical gangland style abduction. The thugs hadn’t given a fig for the crowd present or the CCTV cameras recording their movements. They had acted as a law unto themselves and hadn’t shown the slightest diffidence to the presence of shoppers and people on the street. But none had dared to prevent the abduction or to raise cries.

DRAPED GUILT: Police lead Hirunika's body guards to the police bus after the magistrate ordered them to be remanded

Later the news breaks and it transpires that the abducted man had been brought to Hirunika’s political office in Kolonnawa and had been subjected to an interrogation by her. The following day Hirunika Premachandra, who entered politics only two years ago, holds a media conference with a lawyer by her side for assistance. She states that she knows a certain pavement hawker in Pettah who practices his trade down Second Cross Street. He and the association of pavement hawkers numbering around 400 had helped her enormously, she says, during the general election. The pavement hawker had come to her office the previous day with his two children, a daughter aged 12 and a son aged 8.

Describing what occurred thereafter, Hirunika says, “He had met her bodyguards with whom he and the other hawkers are very friendly and had told them that his wife had been taken by a man. He had told them he had gone to the Wellampitiya police and sought their help to get his wife back but the police had told him there was nothing they could do if the wife went with another man and that it was something he would have to sort out by himself. He had asked my guards what he should do. Since the daughter could identify the man who had gone with the woman and the man’s workplace was known they had taken my defender vehicle and gone with the husband and the daughter.”

Hirunika then places before the nation her cast iron alibi. She says that at the time of the abduction, she was at the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Colombo Municipal Council and was hobnobbing with no less a personage than President Maithripala who was participating in the event.

Earlier she had made the same statement outside the Chief Magistrate’s court. “A lot of people are asking how these people could have done this without my knowledge. Actually the abduction was done without my knowledge. I was with the President at the 150th CMC commemorations.” I was there and there were also a few ministers present at that occasion. She even urged the gathered TV personnel to check for themselves. “You can look at the TV images and compare the place with the time. Anyone can look at it. I have no reason to lie, anyone can look at it. So it is without my knowledge that this incident took place,” Hirunika states in a manner that seems to convey that her physical absence at her office at the relevant time was all that was required to absolve her of any possible involvement in the abduction.

She then proceeds at her media conference to relate what had occurred when her bodyguards had visited the drapery store. She says, “My men met the man and asked him to come out. When he refused, they had caught him by the neck, as the CCTV cameras show, and taken him out and had brought him here. Though he says he was assaulted there was no scar or anything to show that he had been and it is a complete lie. Then the woman was brought here. I talked to all of them and settled the problem. I even told the man that if he loses his job at the drapery store as a result of this, I will find him a job also. It was only after talking all that and settling the problem that the man had gone and made a complaint at the police station.”

But the 34-year-old man, Amila Priyanga Amarasinghe, who was forcibly taken out from his workplace and bundled into Hirunika’s vehicle by Hirunika’s men emerged from the shadows the following day, Wednesday, to tell his side of the story to the media. In a TV interview with the Daily Mirror on December 23, he states, “Some men came to the shop in Dematagoda where I work and ordered me to come outside and talk with them. I told them to ask my boss for permission to take me out. They then scolded me and assaulted me. As I tried to dodge them they held me by the neck and one grabbed at my T shirt which tore. Then they dragged me out of the shop by my collar while assaulting me, and put me into a black “Defender” vehicle. But before they did it, they assaulted me thoroughly, hitting me on the head, stomach and other areas of my body. I asked them where they were taking me and they said, “to a police station. But they took me to Ms. Premachandra’s office building.”

“The place was crowded,” Amarasinghe continues, “and the abductors dragged me through the crowds and then threw me into Hirunika’s office as if they were going to kill me. She was inside the office seated behind a desk. She looked and asked the abductors, ‘is this the man?’ Then she got up from her chair and came round and sat on the table. She then spoke to me that I had been abducted at the request of one of her supporters who had helped her greatly at the election time. Then she said she knows the law and can lift me at any time she wishes.

“Then after about fifteen minutes she got a call saying that my boss had lodged a complaint at the police station regarding my abduction. She then turned to me and told me to go and get the complaint removed. She asked me to tell my boss that they hadn’t hurt me and had brought me back safe and sound. They told me not to worry and that if I was sacked to come to them and they will get me a job. They continued to threaten me and asking me to get the compliant withdrawn. Then it was around six and I was allowed to leave. I then returned to my work place and then went with my boss to the police and made my complaint.”

On Monday when the abducted man was finally released in the twilight hours of the evening it may have seemed to Hirunika that it was a case of all’s well that ends well. She had managed to patch up the cuckolded husband with his unfaithful wife and even guaranteed the paramour that he would be found a job should he be sacked from the drapery stores as a result of this episode.  But it soon became clear that her clumsy effort to play Agony Aunt to Kolonnawa’s heartbroken had landed her in a soup. And put the government in a pickle.

At her press conference on Tuesday, she explained that after she was informed late Monday that her bodyguards had brought the paramour by force, that he had made a complaint of abduction at the police and that the police had issued a warrant for their arrest after identifying them with the aid of the CCTV camera footage, she had great difficulty in contacting them. She stated, “They had not come out and surrendered to the police because they were scared of me. They were scared of me that I will get angry. That I will shout. Actually they accepted they did wrong. But they didn’t come out thinking I would blackguard them. So I told them don’t be scared, there won’t be any problem. Come out and surrender. I will even take the responsibility. Only then did they come out.”

What a pity that this awesome dread of Hirunika and the all enveloping paralysing fear of her wrath felt after the act was not present in the minds of these thugs on her payroll before they abducted a drapery store salesman and forcibly brought him to her office in her own car without her consent? No wonder, as she said, a lot of people were asking her how these people could have done this without her knowledge.

Furthermore, she should also give an explanation as to what she meant by her statement to her thugs who were charged by the police for abduction, for being members of an unlawful assembly and for assault and injury, when she told them “Come out and surrender. I will even take the responsibility?” Responsibility for what? As she herself declared at her press conference, she is not a lawyer, so perhaps the man seated next to her at the conference, answering questions on her behalf, should have advised her that, in criminal law, one cannot voluntarily take responsibility for offences one personally has not committed.

But it is not only Hirunika who is in the nation’s dock. She is only a small catalyst to test yahapalanaya and to determine whether it’s found wanting. Initially it seemed to be working well when the police creditably recorded the complaint of the victim made against a powerful local politician. During the past regime there have been instances where such complaints against the Rajapaksa cronies would not have been even tolerated with the victim punished for daring to think of lodging a complaint against a sacred cow. Furthermore the police have arrested the eight suspects who physically took part in the abduction. They are presently in remand and their case comes up tomorrow. But suddenly yahapalanaya seems to have hit a rut and the first cracks have begun to surface. After the servile minions had been arrested, investigations as to whether there was a phantom puppeteer seem to have hit the buffers.

Up to now Hirunika has given two statements to the police. Last Saturday the Colombo Crime Division obtained yet another statement from her.  On Tuesday, the Police announced that it had sought an opinion from the Attorney General. Then on Thursday the Police obtained an order from the courts to make the TV stations hand over their video footage of Hirunika’s press conference to be forwarded to the AG. All will rest on the AG’s decision as to what course of action should be taken in respect of Hirunika.

Since the abduction took place on the 21st of last months, a political storm has broken out over Hirunika. The UNP’s General Secretary Kabir Hashim stated last week that “she is not a member of the United National Party”. SLFP spokesman Dilan Perera said “she is no longer a member of the party. Thus there is no question of our party taking action against her” effectively rendering Hirunika as a ‘nobody’s child’. JVP Vijitha Herath charged that the Police were under heavy pressure not to deal with Ms. Premachandra.

And Mahinda Rajapaksa when asked to comment on this incident involving Hirunika who, not even two years ago, continuously called him her adopted father and relished relating stories of her childhood days and being the daughter Mahinda never had, quipped “five suspects taken, one left behind.”

Yet it still does not call for presidential or prime ministerial intervention. It is not yahapalanaya if the president has to intervene in police duties or if he has to personally set in motion the wheels of law enforcement. The police seem to be batting on as they should. And it is to the credit of the President’s Yahapalanaya that no slip is showing so far.

But a storm’s brewing in the distance which does not bode well for yahapalanaya. In recent times it has become common place to submit politically awkward cases to the AG and many controversial cases have been relegated to the pits of oblivion simply because the AG has ruled that there is no sufficient evidence to launch a prosecution. It may well be the case. But isn’t such discretionary power vested in the hands of one man which makes him the final arbiter of whether to prosecute or not, conflict with the transparency component contained in Yahapalanaya? Unlike judges who have to give reasons for their decisions, the AG does not have to reveal his reasons to the public. The decision is taken in the dark, the reasons only known to insiders in his department and his ruling is final. It is not open to public examination for the people to consider whether the reasons given merit the decision.

Whatever his exalted constitutional position may be, the Attorney General is only another lawyer and his opinion is as good or bad as any other counsel. To allow such unfettered discretion to rest in the hands of one man is to allow him to usurp the role and duty of judges in criminal courts to determine whether or not the evidence is sufficient for the case to be entertained. As a result, should the AG’s final ruling be unfavourably and suspiciously viewed by the public, it will reflect badly on yahapalanaya. It will put yahapalanaya at stake.

The question on people’s lips is: if any employees use a vehicle belonging to their employer to abduct a man whom they think the employer would be interested in meeting and then forcibly bring him to the employer’s residence where the employer questions him on his private sex life and later releases him, will not the police arrest the employer first and obtain statements later? Isn’t it the normal procedure for the police to then produce him in court for the magistrate to determine whether the person should be remanded or not?

Even as justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done, yahapalanaya too must not only be practised but visibly practised. Else a blanket fog of disillusionment will descend upon the land. And the floodgates will be open for any politician lording over his electorate to send in the goons at whim. To ignore this episode would be to set a bad precedent for others to follow.

It should be remembered that Mahinda Rajapaksa was not toppled by the people because of cost of living issues. Apart from his own abuses of power, he was overthrown by the people because he committed the folly of extending to his MPs and Ministers the prerogative of the harlot — power without responsibility.

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