24 September, 2018

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‘We Can Fix Cases, We Can Free People’ – Mahinda Rajapaksa

By Uvindu Kurukulasuriya

Uvindu Kurukulasuriya

In a shocking revelation, a former army intelligence officer Kandegedara Priyawansa told the Mount Lavinia Magistrate 12th May 2011 that he was instructed by the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Terrorist Investigations Department (TID) to claim that a top army official was involved in the killing of former Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. The intelligence officer who is now in remand, told open court that he was instructed to say the army official, whose name was not mentioned in court, was involved in the killing in return for a chance to go overseas and security for himself a house in Sri Lanka.

While the former army intelligence officer was allegedly instructed to frame the top army officer for Lasantha’s death, he also claimed he was told to frame the same army officer for the assault of two top journalists.

It is pretty sure that the “top Army Officer” must be former Army commander general Sarath Fonseka. Until he stood against the Rajapakses in late 2009 he was a pet of this regime. Nobody was arrested apart from a village boy who had stolen Lasantha’s mobile phone but, soon after Fonseka join the opposition a bunch of army intelligence personnel were arrested. Killing Lasantha was clearly a political decision and not just an Army commander’s decision. Now the Rajapakses are trying to fix General Fonseka for the Lasantha killing.

I am reminded of my own experience of the then burgeoning signs of absolute impunity that I saw when I met Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2008. I was meeting him as the Convenor of the Free Media Movement. We were not alone. Other members of his then cabinet were present. After a cordial conversation the President rose from his chair, saying, “Have some dinner before you go.”

“one more issue” I said.

“What?” asked the President.

“Tissainayagam’s issue”, I said.

“Oh that. I want to free Tissainayagam. His wife had sent a message through Mangala Moonesinghe”, said the President with a smile on his face.

“Then why did you summon the Deputy Solicitors General two weeks ago and order them to file action?” I asked.

The President was visibly angered by this. He glanced at Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and SLFP General Secretary, Minister Maithripala Sirisena, and then looked directly at me. Angrily banging his palm on the table, he said, “We can fix cases and we can free people.”

He then came near me and hit my solar plexus with a bunched fist. “You know everything, don’t you?” he asked.

The above conversation took place in mid September 2008, when we met with him. The president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association, Sanath Balasuriya, and it’s secretary, Jayantha, accompanied me as the convenor of the Free Media Movement to this meeting with President Rajapaksa.

You know everything, don’t you?

What was the story President Rajapaksa had tried to cover-up?

This was it. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had summoned the Deputy Solicitors General from the Attorney General’s Department for a meeting in third week of August 2008. He was impatient with the Department’s lack of success in securing convictions of ‘suspects’ detained by the Police. One was the case of Mawbima journalist Parameswary Munusamy arrested on suspicion of aiding the LTTE and released for the lack of evidence.

The President’s first query was directed to the Deputy Solicitor General in charge of the Tissainayagam case. The DSG said that the grounds for prosecution were poor. The President ordered him to prosecute regardless. The DSG in charge of the ACF case (The gruesome execution-style murders of 17 aid workers with the French organisation Action Contre La Faim in 2006) was asked about the case. The DSG replied that there were two strong witnesses in Australia. Presdient Rajapaksa’s younger brother Senior presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa who was present then inquired whether people in Australia died in road accidents?

An angry Deputy Solicitor General rang me the following day and asked me to come to Independence Square – a popular place for walkers. I met him there. While we were walking he told me the story and asked me to leave the place. Until now nobody dared write about this issue fearing for their lives. The international media would not write about it because they could not get the story from an original source.

According to some DSGs Basil Rajapakse’s question was a joke in bad taste but others were angered and did not see the humour in it. The discussion with the DSGs reveals the mindset behind the repression. Soon after the meeting, the following week 25th August 2009, journalist Tissainayagam, who had been tortured and held for four months since 7th March 2008, against mounting international pressure, was indicted in the Colombo High Court.

Sir, grounds for prosecution are poor

The Terrorism Investigation Division produced a confession signed by Tissanayagam as evidence against him. Tissanayagam claimed it was dictated to him, and he was pressured to write it. On August 31, 2009, the High Court in Sri Lanka sentenced Tissainayagam to a total of 20 years rigorous imprisonment, for arousing “communal feelings” by writing and publishing articles that criticized the government’s treatment of Sri Lankan Tamil civilians affected by the war and for raising money to fund the magazine in which the articles were published in furtherance of terrorism. On 3 May 2010 the Sri Lankan Government announced that Tissainayagam would be pardoned by President Rajapaksa to mark the 2010 World Press Freedom Day. This is what happened to a case in which “ the grounds for prosecution were poor”

Whether people in Australia die in road accidents?

What happened to the ACF case? On the 4th of August 2006 at around 4.15pm, one Muslim and 16 Tamil ACF aid workers were forced to their knees, begging for their lives, and shot execution style at point blank range in their office compound in Mutur. The victims of this crime were not caught in cross fire, killed accidently or mistaken for combatants in the midst of an encounter. They were sought out and murdered. Available evidence points to the responsibility of police officers and Muslim home guard members who have acted in the presence of Sri Lankan Army commandos.

In this, or any premeditated crime of this nature, the State has a responsibility to independently determine the facts of the case and the identity of the perpetrators. The Government has not only failed to fulfill this duty, it has obstructed efforts to do so through the Presidential Commission of Inquiry.

The government made sure there was no proper witness protection in place. It changed its earlier identification of a 5.56 mm bullet involved. The presidential order to stop video conferencing of testimony by witnesses who had to flee the country was another blatant move to suppress the truth. The police investigation unit of the Commission of Inquiry came to function as an intimidation unit towards the witnesses, making sure that the truth was suppressed.

Even before the Commission of Inquiry was constituted, several arms of the state including the Judicial Service Commission undermined a proper inquiry, including by replacing the sitting Magistrate (a Tamil, who was replaced by a Sinhalese) just prior to his announcing the findings of his inquest. After the Commission of Inquiry was formed, the Attorney General’s office along with the defence lawyers continued to work as a team to discredit any information which might point towards the real culprit. The role of AG’s office was questioned by the IIEGP (International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, mandated to observe the work of the Commission of Inquiry) but their concern was discarded.

On July 21, 2009 the Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, Justice Udalagama told The Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka that ‘the use of video conferencing was essential to hear evidence from the witnesses abroad but this practice was stopped by a Presidential directive’.

The Commission of Inquiry ceased with a whimper in mid 2009. According to the Chairman, the culprits in the ACF case were not identified because he ‘ran out of funds’. However this admission has not prevented the Government from coercing the family members to sign documents stating that they “agree with the findings of the Commission that the deaths were caused by the LTTE. ( See UTHR-J Special Report No.33 )

This is the end of a case where there were “two strong witnesses”

Criticizing Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu ,the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in an article published in the Daily Mirror of 12th May 2011, Professor Rajiva Wijesinha then secretary of the ministry of Human Rights and now a ruling party MP said; “There is a difference between those who have given up position and public favour for their commitment to ideals, and those who consistently benefit, financially and in terms of prestige, through their criticism of government from what seems an idealistic standpoint. That perspective which I continue to believe a useful tool explains my continuing publicly expressed admiration for institutions such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights”.

So those who do not want to believe what other civil society organizations say could always read what the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights says about the ACF case and which organisation has been given a stamp of approval by Wijesinha himself. You could find them at www.uthr.org.

It is in this context that the latest drama regarding Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder investigation should be viewed.

And these are examples of the shocking extent of President Rajapakse’s arbitrary power the president boasted to me of when he told me, “We can fix cases and we can free people.” The case reveals the mindset behind the repression. If the trend continues, in the end there will be no standards or laws the citizen and communities could appeal to.

Anarchy is complete where truth loses all meaning and the state itself incapable of rationality and foresight. The end of war rather than marking a return to normality or better yet an opportunity to improve inter ethnic relations and justice in Sri Lanka appears to have been only another political milestone for chauvinistic, kleptocratic and authoritarian elements in power.

*This article is first published on May 27, 2011 in Lanka Independent 

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