10 January 2020

A ‘working nation’ needs a judiciary that works

'Order! Order!' 

There are many ways to read the politics surrounding the raiding of Ranjan Ramanayake’s house, his subsequent arrest and the recorded phone conversations. 

Predictably the Colombots cried out in horror. Consumed perhaps by the disappointed of preferred outcomes not materializing on November 16, 2019 and/or anti-Rajapaksa sentiment that has become second-nature, Born Again Democrats, Candlelight Ladies, Funded Voices and other closet UNPers masquerading as liberals and leftists went to town decrying the action. 

Indeed, they had a point. At first glance, it seemed a trivial matter. At second glance, i.e. when ‘reason’ was mentioned, it seemed to be just another case of political victimization. There are more serious cases to investigate, which of course doesn’t mean that lesser crimes should be shelved and lesser wrongdoers allowed to wrong-do again. Still, there was objection from all quarters. 

There was no room for a third glance. It was a full show, free of charge. ‘The Tapes’: that’s the name of the movie that Ranjan Ramanayake unwittingly acted in.  What of due-process now? Those who read out the Riot Act to over-zealous police officers who raided Ranjan’s house are now dead silent on all the un-yahapalana-like activities that their hero has indulged in. 

That’s not surprising. They were up in arms over a story of abduction that an employee of the Swiss Embassy cooked up. When the Swiss, in a series of back-tracking and damage-controlling statements virtually acknowledged they had been suckered, Colomo’s twitterati went silent. They are silent now in the face of what could be called ‘Ranjangate’. 

So we talk of Ranjan’s arrest. We talk of how he slipped. We could also compare him to Richard Nixon, another tape-busted politician in a different country and era with far less sophisticated and accessible technology. Nixon taped conversations and most who conversed were ignorant of the fact. Someone blew the lid and the release of the tapes was sought. He was impeached. Nixon, like Ranjan, did not realize that such recorded information is safe only while in possession.  Ranjan could have been more careful, obviously. In both cases, there was complacency. 

Now some have argued that Ranjan had the best of intentions. Well, the jury is not quite out on that one. He was an out and out operator throwing his weight around and getting people to do his bidding by giving the impression that he was backed by the then President and Prime Minister. Maybe he was someone’s catspaw and if that were the case then it means he was knowingly an instrument in political witch-hunts.  

In any event, the tapes are well and truly undressing the yahapalana regime, down to the underpants and worse. Maybe it’s the shock of the truth that has silenced the Colombots. They would know. I don’t.

What of the ethics of recording conversations without consent? What of making calls to someone in the middle of a media conference without informing the person at the other end of the line that the speaker phone is ‘on’? Most importantly, where’s the discussion on the independence of the judiciary? 

Ranjangate is not about the sordid and underhand operations of the previous government. Such things we’ve seen in other governments as well. It is not about an idiotic politician operating as though life is just like a bad movie. It is not about closet UNPers being unintended victims of their own delusions. It is all about politics of the judicial system. 

Ranjangate has exposed all the flaws of the system. Independence of the judiciary is a myth. There are no checks and balances. Politicians can move judges. Politicians can move courts. If it’s not financial rewards, it’s a career-push. There are deals being made. 

Now it cannot be the case that judges are poorly paid and some of them are tempted to look away or determine in a particular manner for a little ‘something’. The salaries of judges were enormously boosted by the previous regime. Promotions are a different kettle of fish, apparently. Play your cards right and you can move up and move up the ladder fast. There’s unholy lateral movement between the Attorney General’s Department and the judiciary. Defend some cases and you enter the ‘to be considered’ column when it comes to appointing judges. We’ve seen this.  Judges have been pulled out of the Court of Appeal and given the post of Attorney General and later shifted back to the Supreme Court or even elevated to the position of Chief Justice. The Attorney General’s Department finds itself severely compromised by the license that politicians and of course presidents have used to position favorites in the Supreme Court. 

The wording is there in the constitution when it comes to separation of powers. However, as the late Justice C.G. Weera,amtry once said (Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial Lecture, 2012), ‘strong words in a constitution regarding judicial independence can very easily be undermined in practice, unless all members of the executive and the public act in the spirit of this constitutional provision.’  

Ranjan Ramanayake’s antics will no doubt caution all politicians and all judges. Hopefully all public servants and corporate bigwigs as well. If those who are best positioned to do wrong are forced to be wary, we could be happy about it. However, if as Justice Weramantry opined, it boils down to  a matter of ethics, then onus is on the President and his Cabinet on the one hand and the people on the other to set things right. Obviously members of the executive can do much. An alert public is an asset. We should not have to depend on ‘leaks,’ welcome though they are in showing us what we are not supposed to see. 

Ranjangate has compromised many individuals. Ranjan’s initiatives shows that there’s room for manipulation and that manipulation in fact happens often. He has no ethics, that much is clear. However, unintentionally, the man’s antics has opened a discussion on key elements that hinder justice. That’s a good thing. 

Now we know. And now that we know, we can do something about it. Indeed, now that the President knows, HE can do something about it. It’s not about ‘fixing’ Ranjan and everyone he has implicated. It is about fixing the system that allows for match-fixing if you will. Not an easy task, but if Gotabaya Rajapaksa is committed to his promise of ‘a working nation’ it is imperative that he does everything necessary to obtain a working judicial system. He could do it. And we could thank Ranjan Ramanayaka, a despicable and immoral politician though he is, for unintentionally setting things in motion. 

This article was first published in the Daily Mirror [January 8, 2020]