Sri Lanka’s legal circles are abuzz regarding shockingly routine withdrawals of indictments by the current Attorney General, several of which were filed by the current Chief Justice while functioning as Attorney General at the time.
Two of the most controversial indictments, one against Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda for collusion in hiding the truth behind the ghastly kidnappings for ransom and murders of eleven Tamil and Muslim youth and the other against a key member of the Rajapaksa family, Minister Basil Rajapaksa for criminal misappropriation of public funds to the tune of a whopping LKR 36.5 million in purchases of GI pipes.
Opposition legislators took most of their time yesterday during the debates on amendments to penal and criminal procedure laws to protest against what they said, was a deeply disturbing trend. Stating that more than 20 indictments had been withdrawn in this manner, SJB MP Mujibur Rahman wanted to know if there was a Government’s catspaw working in the Attorney General’s Department who was making Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya look ridiculous by withdrawing all the indictments filed by him. Are we to think that the former Attorney General was wrong in filing these indictments? ‘Who is to take responsibility for all of this?,” he asked.
Typically, the Attorney General’s Department takes a long time in reviewing a file and deciding whether to file indictment based on the establishing of a prima facie case. Reviews take place at several levels of the Department and the final decision is signed off by the Attorney General, particularly in regard to contested and controversial cases. It is because of that strict process that courts have also been hesitant to interfere into decisions taken by the Attorney General though the Supreme Court has stated that, in appropriate circumstances, it can review. But this pattern of just withdrawing indictments has made both the Attorney General’s Department and the Office of the Chief justice reduced to jokes, critics say.
Among the other Ministers in respect of whom indictments on various criminal offenses were filed in the time of the sitting Chief Justice functioning as Attorney General but withdrawn on technical grounds, are Highways Minister Johnston Fernando, and Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage. In some instances of cases filed by the Commission on Bribery and Corruption being set aside on technical grounds namely that all the Commissioners had not signed the indictments, fresh cases have not been filed. Legal observers say that it is very unlikely that fresh indictments will be filed in the current political context.
Opposition MP Harshana Rajakaruna pointed out that it was because of these serious lapses in justice that international criticism of Sri Lanka was increasing and that the country was being humiliated globally. Opposition voices stressed that officers of the Attorney General’s Department was being paid by tax payers money and that therefore, there must be public accountability. Independent Offices and Commissions have become ‘the President’s Offices and Commissions’, they said. Blaming the 20th Amendment for what they categorised as a ‘complete collapse’ of the justice system, they said that this can only go from bad to worse.
The Government has taken the stand that it will not respond to criticisms of the Attorney General’s Department or the decisions taken by the judiciary as these are ‘independent’ processes. However senior lawyers have said that this is not an acceptable reason as it is very clear that political motives lie behind the withdrawals of indictments to an extent that is unprecedented in the history of Sri Lanka. ‘All these indictments being withdrawn are against politically powerful people, not a single indictment has been withdrawn in any other case’ they say. This is highly improper, they add.