If the sound of the “koha” heralds the coming of the National New Year, the resurrection of the Wasim Thajudeen and Lasatha Wickrematunge murders usually heralds the coming of an election. So sneers a meme now circulating on social media, on the heels of a report that the Attorney General (AG) has ordered police to [...]


Fiat justitia!


If the sound of the “koha” heralds the coming of the National New Year, the resurrection of the Wasim Thajudeen and Lasatha Wickrematunge murders usually heralds the coming of an election.

So sneers a meme now circulating on social media, on the heels of a report that the Attorney General (AG) has ordered police to “speed up” investigations into four criminal cases, all of which occurred during the former administration.

These are the Thajudeen and Wickrematunge killings, the forced disappearances of 11 men in Colombo and the murder of 17 NGO workers in Mutur.  The oldest incident goes back 13 years; the most recent one, five. “Speed up” is an absurd understatement.

The Presidential election will take place at the end of the year. And it is bitter past experience which has bred this widespread cynicism and belief that it is only for the purpose of gaining political mileage that certain criminal cases are pulled up from time to time.

This is not to cast aspersions on the office of the AG.  The top seat was filled just last month by Dappula de Livera, President’s Counsel, who appears eager to alleviate “unnecessary delays” in high-profile cases such as these.

But negative public sentiment is a reaction to stark reality. Behind the grim humour is very real concern that the system is not working for the good of the greater public but for the personal interests of politicians. And light-hearted jabs on social media mask an absence of confidence in Government and governance.

Most politicians everywhere are self-serving. Still, most do it with a finesse that is distinctly lacking in the Sri Lankan breed. This week a Muslim leader from the East told Parliamentary Select Committee on the Easter Sunday attacks that he was happy Zahran Hashim, the bomber from Kattankudy, had died because he could “now win the next election without any trouble from his group.”

The remark may have come from a desire to distance himself from the murderous bombers. But the sensitivity chip that is missing in M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, the former Eastern Province Governor, is also absent in most other Sri Lankan politicians.

Foreign journalists attending the first Government news conference after the Easter bombings were aghast that Ministers at the head table were grinning from ear-to-ear while taking questions on the disaster. Even while expressing remorse, they could not deign to be remorseful.

There are more serious issues than missing sensitivity chips. And these are to do with due process and the administration of justice. This Government assumed power in 2015 with a serious and determined pledge to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of alleged mass-scale corruption, regardless of political colour. And they started with aplomb.

The Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) was set up, the Bribery Commission was revitalised, the police were trained by elite foreign investigators and cooperation was initiated with the World Bank’s Stolen Assets Recovery Initiative. Opposition politicians went in and out of remand custody. But not a single conviction took place. In fact, in recent months, the tendency has been more towards acquittals.

Soon, the Government was embroiled in the Central Bank bond scam, on which there have also been no convictions. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the matter produced a report. End of. The one on SriLankan Airlines (sittings are throwing up examples of serious malpractice and abuse) will also throw up a report. End of.  To many, it comes as no surprise that the wrongdoers are seldom punished. “How,” they ask, “can thieves order thieves to be investigated?”

But these are not laughing matters. And the fact that the contemporary public lets them go with a sardonic grin should worry anyone who has interest in the future of Sri Lanka. Ayesha Thajudeen, the sister of the murdered rugby player, told a newspaper in March that the family’s “only hope” now is that justice will be served by God.

Nobody’s only hope in a democratic country with purportedly old, strong, democratic institutions should be for justice to be served only by God. But the Thajudeen family, like many others, has gone through the mills of Sri Lankan justice and learned bitter lessons. Despite months of investigation throwing up troves of crucial evidence, there have been no convictions.

So, what does the Attorney General asking police to expedite investigations really mean? Would it require revisiting the evidence already gathered? Or would it, in all honesty, mean fending off political interference so that the integrity of the process can be preserved and the case be taken to a conclusion?

Are the police and the AG robust enough to hold the fort? Or will our institutions fold under pressure or political command as they have done in the past? In Sri Lanka, a mere order to speed up investigations has never led to the anticipated result.

And this is where the public cynicism comes from. That, and the undeniable fact that most high profile cases are, indeed, pulled up when an election is due; or when a politician in an opposing camp seems to be getting a “little ahead of himself”.  Not only does this apply pressure on the protagonist, it attempts to remind the public that he is a scoundrel, even if it was never proven in a court of law.

But this situation is not tenable. Sri Lankans must demand the preservation–or return–of integrity of their institutions. It is one battle worth fighting because, while politicians come and go, it is institutions that form the foundation of governance. And it is they that will ensure justice does not become even more of a joke here than it already has.

Nothing is more glaringly representative of a breakdown of law and order, of accountability–and, perhaps inevitably, the justice system–than the Easter Sunday attacks. The leaders knew, they failed to act and they remain in power. Accepting this status quo is an indictment, not only on them but on us, the voting public that pay for their upkeep.


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