By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Anoint a villain and he will prick you.” – Rabelais[i]
The punishment might not be commensurate with the crimes – murder and gang rape. The sentence might get commuted; there might be an outright presidential pardon; an appeal might produce a more unjust outcome.
But at least for now Sampath Chandrapushpa Vidanapathirana is behind bars. True he may receive most favoured treatment in jail or spend his time comfortably in the prison hospital. But the main thing is that he was convicted, sentenced and imprisoned. Some justice has been done, at least for now. And hopefully the verdict will give a modicum of peace to the grieving family of Khuram Shaikh and to Victoria Tkacheva.
But the verdict provides no hope for Lankans. For Lankans, it does not mark a turning point nor signals the beginning of the end of impunity. The verdict is a singularity, which has no effect on the way Lankan justice works for Lankan citizens. If it proves anything, it proves that impunity has become thoroughly encrusted and that national justice is possible only with an extraordinary amount of international pressure.
Sampath Chandrapushpa’s real error was not that he murdered and raped. His real error was that he murdered and raped non-Lankans. Had Mr. Shaikh and Ms.Tkacheva been Lankans, there would have been no case and no conviction. Sampath Chandrapushpa would still be the favoured chairman of the Tangalle Paradesheeya Sabha, free to inflict his brutal violence on the hapless populace. In fact impunity may have prevailed had Mr. Shaikh not been a citizen of a First World Country. Even then justice moved at glacial pace. And there was blatant political interference, such as when the Ministry of Defence got Minister Dinesh Gunawardane to inform the parliament that according to ‘police records’ Ms. Tkacheva was not raped[ii]. (Will some opposition member query from the Minister of Defence and his fraternal secretary on what grounds that palpably apocryphal statement was made, to the legislature, no less?)
Mr. Shaikh’s brother, together with his parliamentarian Simon Danczuk, mounted and maintained a superlative campaign. Ms. Tkacheva refused to be intimidated and told her harrowing tale to the world with courage and dignity. But the Shaikh family’s dedication and Ms. Tkacheva’s bravery may not have sufficed, had it not been for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s desire to become the king of Commonwealth. Presidential venality provided a window of opportunity for the UK to demand justice for its murdered citizen. Until then, as Mr. Shaikh’s brother said, “Everything was against us.” But at the Colombo Commonwealth, Prince Charles and PM Cameron raised the Shaikh case privately and publicly. After that, as Mr. Shaikh’s brother said, “There was no hiding place”[iii].
The Shaikh verdict is a very welcome one. But it also serves to demonstrate the helplessness of ordinary Lankans and the hopelessness of the current Lankan condition. When victims are Lankans (as is the case almost all the time) privileged criminals will continue to have plenty of hiding places. And justice will not be done.
Infected by Impunity
In the small and sparsely populated village of Uri, in Karainagar, Two little girls (aged 11 and 9 years) were allegedly raped by several navy personnel, for eleven days.
The horror reportedly came to light when school authorities asked the parents why the girls were not coming to school and the parents said that the girls left every morning to go to school. The alleged perpetrators serve in Navy camp in the area. According to the 11 year old victim, “the suspects had given her chocolates and biscuits and befriended her. The victim had said her nine-year-old cousin, who walked with her to school was also sexually abused on multiple occasions”[iv].
International community is uninterested in the case. Tamil Diaspora is busy chasing grand mirages to do anything about the antithetical ground reality in the North-East. There is no one to mount a campaign for the victims in Western capitals. Instead there are attempts to silence the families. “When Dinasena Rathugamage of BBC Sandeshaya talked to the parents and relations about the incident, they said they cannot say anything because a group has threatened to kill the entire family if they speak out”[v].
Last week, one of the child victims failed to identify the suspects produced in court by the Navy. Was it a result of the threats? Or is the Navy hiding the actual suspects? After all, despite tremendous international reportage and British pressure, it took quite a while for Sampath Chandrapushpa to be arrested, let alone charged.
As Charles Saravan pointed out, “Other incidents involving adults, most often women, pass unrecorded for several reasons. A complaint can be made only to the army who are, invariably, the perpetrators: sheep complaining to foxes and wolves about attacks by foxes and wolves. This, in turn, results in bullying and with punishment of different kinds. Why complain when there is no hope of justice and every possibility of further harm?”[vi]
That is the reality of the North and parts of the East five years after the war ended.
Palestinian writer and poet Mourid Barghouti said, “What is asked of us today…..is to coexist with their tanks in our bedrooms! Show me one person in this world…who can live with a tank in his bedroom.”[vii]
What is demanded of Northern/Eastern Tamils is to live with rape, imprisonment and murder, with injustice, insecurity and fear.
What is the norm in the North is yet not so normal in the South. But this is the general national direction.
In the South, killers and abductors of political opponents and media personnel roam in freedom. The most recent police failures included the curious inability to arrest those who were threatening the president of the country’s Bar Association. Custodial torture is almost normal. As a very recent Sinhala victim of police brutality said, “We were also forced to admit falsely to alleged crimes. They threatened us to not go to even a hospital adding that they would shoot us and throw us in the Ocean after taking us in again. For one month and 10 days we could not go to the hospital as a result.”[viii]
Though more than a month has passed since the Aluthgama violence, the high level investigation promised by the President is still non-existent. Meanwhile Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera continues to sow his toxic seeds, unhampered by law.
Colombo’s hapless poor continue to be evicted, under cover of beautification. In her piece ‘From Shanty to Home: Myth vs. Reality of Colombo’s Urban Regeneration Project’, Iromi Perera comments on the UDA promotional video which depicts the victims of the mass eviction programme as beneficiaries[ix]. This practice was honed to perfection during and post-Fourth Eelam War. Now it has come home to the South.
This week the regime decided to conduct a national inquiry into alleged war crimes. This is obviously to evade the UNHRC probe. The national inquiry, if it actually happens, will be purely a result of international pressure.
The Shaikh verdict and the decision to conduct a war-crimes probe are exceptions which prove the rule – in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka international pressure is a precondition for national justice.
[i] Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and His Son Pantagruel
[vii] I Was Born There, I Was Born Here.
[viii] Disgusting! Suspect wants water – Police Sgt urinates in his mouth – Ruwan Laknath Jayakody and Saman Waduge http://www.ceylontoday.lk/51-68647-news-detail-disgusting-suspect-wants-water-police-sgt-urinates-in-his-mouth.html