The travel ban imposed on Mahinda Rajapaksa and a motley group of his supporters by the Fort Magistrate following an application by the Attorney-General suffices to buttress the widely circulating opinion that “Temple Trees” was where the rabblerousing originated last Monday, leaving a bloody and indelible mark on a peaceful protest movement. It was from [...]


Let slip the dogs of war


The travel ban imposed on Mahinda Rajapaksa and a motley group of his supporters by the Fort Magistrate following an application by the Attorney-General suffices to buttress the widely circulating opinion that “Temple Trees” was where the rabblerousing originated last Monday, leaving a bloody and indelible mark on a peaceful protest movement.

It was from there that the instigators allowed the frenzy to build before the mob was let loose on several hundreds of non-violent protesters who did nothing more aggressive than urge the prime minister to resign and demand that police apply the law equally. You know like the “one law” that Mahinda’s younger brother Gotabaya promised when he appointed another rabble rouser to oversee the drafting of the “One country, one law” he pledged to introduce.

At another time at another place, standing by the body of the slain Caesar, his faithful friend Mark Antony said “Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war”. The dogs of war that slid out of Temple Trees, unlike those envisaged by Antony, might have been armed only with rods, poles and other ‘weaponry’ but they were enough to wreak mayhem in a kilometre or so stretch of road and wound the unarmed and non-violent while the forces of law stood by like silent sentinels.

While the police were been shaken out of their supine slumber days later to hold another “impartial inquiry” by President Gotabaya which is bound to raise a million cynical laughs, elsewhere a different but related drama was unfolding.

Several thousand kilometres away from the staged attacks in the heart of Colombo, equally or more condemnable retaliatory responses by disparate groups of thugs, an inquiry into the dastardly murder of editor and long-time friend Lasantha Wickrematunge 13 years ago, had reached a public tribunal.

At the time of writing on Thursday the “People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists” which convened in The Hague last week held the first of its two-day hearing on the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge.

What makes calls for an impartial inquiry from the highest levels of government — at the moment rudderless, directionless and chaotic — so laughable and peremptorily dismissible is that more than a decade later the investigations into his murder are in limbo. So are so many other murder, disappearance and torture cases not only of journalists but others who were considered obstacles to politicians, their progeny and security personnel.

A communication I received from the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) and other organisers of the People’s Tribunal hearing including the Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) — which I mention specifically for reasons that would be clearer later — said in referring to the Lasantha case: “The government has failed to undertake a credible investigation into the murder. Instead witnesses were intimidated, investigation efforts were obstructed and evidence tampered with.”

But as those in Sri Lanka and elsewhere who have followed the political interests, investigative and legal shenanigans that have stood in the way of impartial inquiries into several other cases know only too well, the Lasantha murder inquiry is not the only one that has failed to nail those responsible and where accountability seemed to be the least of the concerns of the authorities.

So when those like former Foreign Minister Prof.GL Peiris and his ministerial underling Admiral (Rtd) Jayanath Colombage (also referred in some media as Prof but of what it is rarely if ever said) appear before foreign audiences — a collection of diplomats in Colombo or at the Human Rights Council in Geneva — rejecting any form of foreign involvement in investigations and plugging for domestic mechanisms, it is scant wonder this is treated with huge amusement.

The cynicism, particularly by human rights bodies, journalist institutions and other civil society organisations, is largely because the high-level calls by political establishments for impartial investigations have proved to be a farce with little or no concern for truth, accountability and justice for victims or their families.

It would be recalled that from almost the very beginning of the protest movement over one month ago, the main slogan or if I might call it the escutcheon of the “Aragalaya” was “Gota Go Home.”

What was not mentioned anywhere that I could recall, is which home where? Was it Mirihana, his private residence in Sri Lanka or was it his home in Los Angeles which has been his residence for many years?

I raise this because a clarification of this would have important ramifications particularly in relation to the current hearings of the People’s Tribunal and its findings, which I am informed, will not be available for another month or so.

This is where the Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) which I mentioned earlier as being connected with the Tribunal hearings, is significant. During Friday’s hearings of the Tribunal, a former Sri Lankan investigator involved in the Lasantha murder inquiry giving evidence mentioned several contradictions, discrepancies and irregularities he and the investigating team had detected.

A few years back, CJA had brought such violations as claims under universal jurisdiction in the US. But according to the Centre the litigation was halted when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as Sri Lanka’s president in 2019 as he then enjoyed immunity as president.

But once Gotabaya Rajapaksa loses his present immunity then such litigation as that which CJA pressed earlier could be revived. If so one can understand why President Rajapaksa has been reluctant to resign from the presidency and he and his close circles have been insisting that he got a huge mandate to hold office for five years and he had no intention of resigning.

It was under his watch as defence secretary that Lasantha was murdered and it was alleged that military intelligence officers were responsible for the killing. If that is true as alleged some might well ask whether this is the reason why the investigations into the murder were never concluded.

There are many countries, especially in the Global North that recognise universal jurisdiction and where national courts are ready to apply the principle. It might be recalled that several years ago a Spanish court issued a warrant against former Chilean dictator General Pinochet who was then in the UK undergoing medical treatment.

The British working overtime to avoid diplomatic embarrassment managed to have Pinochet return to his country where, if I remember correctly, he was tried under local law.

As the international environment hardens against dictators and autocratic rulers, universal jurisdiction is hardly a principle to ignore, particularly if you are on very treacherous ground.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London)


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