By Tassie Seneviratne –
A fire engulfed the Supreme Court (SC) building causing considerable damage on 15th December 2020.
Initial inquiries have ruled out electrical short circuit as the cause of the fire. Speculation of arson is rife in the public domain. More so due to the questionable leasing of empty space in the Twin Towers at an exorbitant rate to house the Ministry of Justice.
The Minister of Police, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera (MSW) has been appointed by the Prime Minister (PM) to inquire into the incident. The manner of delegating this to MSW is very unusual. Neither before independence nor since independence has there been such an allocation of a crime investigation to a political figure. The reason for this assignment is not clear. In fact, the manner of action by MSW over the Easter bombing case called for some comment over a week ago. The reason for the entrustment of the investigation to MSW is seen as political. The end result therefore will not hold good for public or legal considerations.
There was earlier an idea to appoint a Committee for this purpose. That idea has been apparently abandoned in the light of the reputation of Committees since the early ‘Pitipana Committee’ eye wash. The appointment of MSW may be to serve the purpose better, but a purpose of a cloudy nature. That apart, the unclear task now set for MSW is of a law and order function, or in the name of law and order. The SC fire issue is basically an issue of law and order, though befuddled by a maze of other dimensions. Will the appearance only that the inquiry was duly conducted be sufficient for MSW who is called to the front? He is to get the assistance of the CID, according to MSW. Some comments arise in this obscure aspect of law and order. These remarks are made from the standpoint of the People for whom law and order are paramount.
Firstly, the political garb of MSW may inhibit due investigation, if due investigation were the avowed purpose. The political cloth may then not help. The attire of MSW itself does not make him a man of the cloth with those values commonly associated with it. The Easter Bombing statement made in Parliament that he (MSW) would the very next day go and meet the AG to check of the ‘progress’ of action by the AG in that case, is a case in point. Comments gleaned from the public, which I made to the media just last week, questioned the stance of MSW and the manner of his pronouncement in Parliament. Those statements of MSW to Parliament were premature and precipitate, I pointed out. My comment asked whether MSW was not aware that other Commission proceedings have run parallel and crosswise with the criminal investigation already with the AG. The political drift of this speech by MSW went as a Fast Attack Craft (FAC), I noted last week. Some circumspection was prudent, I suggested. As it stands now, it is said that since the initial speeches, MSW has met the AG and all that I envisaged has been explained to MSW. In brief, the FAC has been brought to anchor at that meeting.
Secondly, the military disposition of MSW will fall short of due investigation of the fire at the SC. Hence the military propensity of MSW and impulse should be avoided all the same. The military predisposition to law and order has hitherto had disastrous consequences – at Welikada, at Mahara, at Ratupaswala etc. that the public are well aware of. The mix of the means and the compounding of the final result at the hands of MSW need no repetition. However, to explain the reasons for the muddle up some perceptive earlier writings may help. It was Count Leo Tolstoy who said in his philosophical writings: ‘Military service always corrupts a man, placing him in ……..absence of intelligent and useful work, and liberating him from the common obligations of humanity……..demanding [of him] slavish subjection to superior officers’ – Resurrection, at page 76- para 1. And Count Leo Tolstoy, mind you, was a decorated artillery officer who had fought in the Crimean War.
MSW is at once a political and military figure combined and confused as in the speech of MSW in Parliament. This statement was not addressed to a discerning public but was made loud and clear, perhaps to his superiors. The sounds of the hollow bells ringing are all too familiar. It is well, therefore, to bear all the sounds echoing such refrain, only in mind, today, as it was in the time of Count Leo Tolstoy. The hope is that the inquiry into the fire at the SC will be duly conducted without the straight jacket of the military or of the crooked bent of the political that the public apprehends.
Thirdly, is the resort to the CID intended to show that he means serious business? The job assigned must then be executed by MSW solely in terms of the criminal law for investigation. MSW seeks the assistance of the CID in this endeavor. In this MSW has an initial set back in that the CID is the same CID that has been disparaged in the hands of MSW and the very authorities MSW now serves. MSW may entertain, though only in dreamy thought, a request for Shani Abeysekera’s help! MSW will do so only at his personal peril, leaving aside a successful inquiry into the SC fire.
Probably all this is to make for something that makes nothing. But law and order as a problem remains.
The action taken or not taken for due investigation over the SC fire inquiry weighs heavily on law and order. The issue is then of leadership MSW can even now offer for law and order, together with the Police Commission, again recently appointed. Previous Ministers and National Police Commissions were sorry failures in this respect.
This expectation is a very difficult task to fulfill in this mix; a problem for both MSW and the Police Commission, given that there is much mud flow at the bottom of the ranks. For instance, the manner of suspects escape from custody, the manner in which lower ranks in the police were made to collect kassippu by superiors to pay for the election work of these touts, collecting and distributing monies to influence election process, the drug problem and its political influence, the daily incidence of serious violent crime, all these viewed down with a benign look by superiors. These are but a few aspects to relate. All these are well known to the rank and file, though ignored at the higher echelons. The whole structure for law and order, as we see, is surely compromised. The new Police Commission Chairman is personally aware of these untoward problems only too well. Others in the Commission may know of this only as hearsay. The public good of law and order has nevertheless to be served even in this quagmire. The onus is now cast upon MSW and the new Police Commission.
The tone therefore that MSW and Police Commission may set in the given predicament, and their leadership roles in the SC fire inquiry can, nonetheless, help greatly. Their task and responsibility however are onerous and daunting.
*The writer is a Retired Senior Superintendent of Police