The outgoing Attorney General’s pronouncement this week that charges and indictments against ‘conspirators and abettors’ of the 2019 Easter Sunday jihadist attacks on churches and hotels could not be presented during his tenure of office due to ‘incomplete’ investigations by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) is an indictment on Sri Lanka’s entire justice system. A [...]


The grim sin of the Easter Sunday attacks and a state’s failure


The outgoing Attorney General’s pronouncement this week that charges and indictments against ‘conspirators and abettors’ of the 2019 Easter Sunday jihadist attacks on churches and hotels could not be presented during his tenure of office due to ‘incomplete’ investigations by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) is an indictment on Sri Lanka’s entire justice system.

A predictable result

Of course, that result was predictable, inevitable even. For what other end could possibly ensue when the CID itself is decapitated, its skilled investigators either in jail or in hiding overseas and the criminal investigation machinery,  fundamentally compromised? This is despite roaring in Parliament by the Government that, ‘justice will be done’ to victims and a few high profile arrests of ‘extremists’ carried out in response to threats by the Roman Catholic Church and its (selectively) vocal Cardinal.

Such shadow games are somewhat akin to, I might say, the United States bombing Iraq, as famously declared by its generals, ‘back to the Middle Ages’ under the false pretence of locating weapons of mass destruction in the wake of attacks on New York while Islamist jihadism continued to be globally funded and propagated by ruling echelons in the power structures of American allies, including Saudi Arabia. The rest is, of course history, leading to the great destabilisation of that region and several ‘holy wars’ which erupted in hideous manifestations in consequence of that capricious misadventure.

Fast forward decades later to Sri Lanka and we see transparent shadow games in failing to carry out actual investigations in regard to one of the greatest atrocities committed on our nation’s soil while all the time, protesting that the perpetrators will be punished. Let it be said that this too, will have consequences, sooner or later as the case may be. From extraordinary revelations by opposition members of parliament on alleged complicity by state agents in the attacks made in the House under the cover of parliamentary privilege to the Public Security Minister’s repeated warnings in regard to ‘continuing threats’ of religious extremists, this is a State that has failed hundreds of innocents.

Tactic to whip up religious hysteria

Rather, this atrocity will be used to whip up religious hysteria against the Muslim minority whenever that is needed for political purposes. And in what is the final insult to horrendous injury, a Commission of Inquiry report raised more questions on many aspects of these attacks, including pinpointing the ‘mastermind’ of the attacks. The Commission report essentially reproduced what was common knowledge though some of its recommendations including the taking of stringent action against religious extremist groups, Buddhist and Muslim alike, are salutary.

Yet, this again is not something that a Commission needs to emphasise. It is the ordinary criminal law that should be worked in this regard, not for the law to be used selectively to imprison critics and poets for ‘subversive’ writings which has been the case.  Essentially if investigators had done their job properly and if the Commission report had resulted in concrete findings against responsible individuals, the 2008 amendment to the Commissions of Inquiry Act, No 17 of 1948 may have been utilised to bring the full weight of the criminal law to bear on those responsible. That amendment conferred upon the Attorney General, the power to ‘institute criminal proceedings in a court of law in respect of any offence based on material collected in the course of an investigation or inquiry, as the case may be, by a Commission of Inquiry’ appointed under the Act.

The amendment was the result of long advocacy by civil rights practitioners who pointed to the importance of reforming the Commission of Inquiry process. However, rather embarking on indepth reform and revision of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, this amendment was brought as a ‘patchwork’ gesture. It was predicted in these column spaces at the time that, absent an overhaul of the entire process including Commissioners being appointed at the whim and pleasure of the political command,   the amendment would have little effect by itself. The decade since then has proved that gloomy prediction correct.

Commissions of Inquiry have not fulfilled their purposes

Indeed, whether it is the Central Bank bond scam or the 2019 Easter Sunday investigations, each time a Commission of Inquiry sits,  gigantic dust is thrown in the eyes of the public. These have had little impact on institutions of justice except when a Commission established to investigate political victimisations of public officers recommended the cessation of trials and the setting aside of convictions entered into by courts of law. That will remain the grandest irony that Act, No 17 of 1948 has seen fit to inflict upon the Sri Lankan legal system.  Yet that reality remained to be grasped even as Commission upon Commission entertained the masses, as much as the satirist Juvenal mocked the Roman people for their fascination with ‘bread and circuses.’

Our modern version of these circuses had acrobats, clowns and  jugglers aplenty certainly.  Even so, that insistence to close one’s mind to critical thinking is pervasive. In a curious paradox, this afflicts more the (presumably) educated in regard to which educationists and sociologists may perhaps enlighten us. In 2015, when the country was swept by a fervent desire to see the end of one-family rule, the Government that came into power perpetuated the Central Bank bond scam not once but twice. As we may remind ourselves, this was enabled not only by the colossal arrogance of the United National Party leadership but also by Colombo’s educated. ‘What scam?’ questioned some, ‘it was just a passing conflict of interest with the Governor of the Central Bank and his son-in-law,’ they said.

Here too, a Commission of Inquiry entertained the public but to what ultimate effect? Indeed, these are failures of governance  that pervade the full spectrum of the Sri Lankan State, from investigating Easter Sunday attacks to competently handling the covid-19 pandemic. Today, those helming the public health sector stammer and stutter as the virus erupts in a full blown third wave in the country. Unlike when countries with just five or six cases insisted on the strictest precautions, what we had was the contrary. Medical talking heads at the Epidemiology Unit, the Director General of Health Services and his deputies kept on insisting that there was no community spread.

Failures of accountability from one end to the other

Ridiculously, every case was traced to the Brandix/Minuwangoda cluster. With no overall guidance by the Government in early April despite warnings by Public Health Inspectors (PHIs), people threw caution to the winds. Now we have the Avurudu cluster with a steady daily increase in infections and deaths. Who should be held responsible? A far stricter burden of care rests on the Government to put into place safety precautions in time. And rarely do trade unions in the medical sector agree but it seems that all, including the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) are at one on the failure of the Epidemiology Unit to share timely and crucial data.

In fact, the humble Public Health Inspectors Association (PHIA), though treated cavalierly by the Ministry of Health, has been the more reliable if not independent voice among the rest eagerly genuflecting to the political command. In sum, whether it be deaths by jihadists, terrorists, state agents or brought about by a global pandemic, these need accountability and genuine corrective action. If not, more deaths are inevitable. That is the tragically common denominator across all these contexts.

We have yet to learn this, to our grim cost.

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