03 January 2020

Towards an intersection of ‘Rule of Law’ and ‘Tradition’

Rule of Law. That was a yahapalana howl. The howl would quickly diminish to a whimper when the Yahapanalists carried out the Central Bank Bond Scam. The Yahapanalists went deaf and dumb over the dozens of people who died while under police custody. 

It’s not surprising. They know of Thajudeen but not of the thousands burnt alive during UNP governments. They know of Ekneligoda but not of Satyapala Wannigama. They talk of Lasantha but not of Richard. So, Rule of Law, is for them a demand and aspiration that surfaces when political fortunes are in decline, or as it is now, at zero.  

Sri Lanka has a political culture which makes for howls when in the Opposition and look-aside when in Government. Politicians and loyalists, therefore, get their knickers twisted when expressing outrage. 

The latest is the arrests of former ministers Patali Champika Ranawaka and Rajitha Senaratne. It is claimed Senaratne suddenly fell ill (very much like all politicians of all parties who are arrested and duly fall so seriously ill that they have to be transferred to the prison hospital). Maybe he did fall ill. Maybe he is so sick that hospitalization was necessary. However, none who talked of ‘Rule of Law,’ ‘Good Governance,’ and ‘Established Procedure’ have raised even a whine about Senaratne absconding. 

Ranawaka’s case is different. The anti-Ranawaka commentators have called the incident a hit-and-run affair. This is misrepresentation. Claims that he did not even inquire about the condition of the person who was injured is also a deliberate lie. The truth is that Ranawaka’s vehicle was hit from behind. The injured party’s condition was looked into. We don’t know what kind of agreement was reached between the two parties. We don’t know why the case was ‘closed’ but we can reasonably surmise that it was re-opened as much for political reasons as for the pursuit of truth and justice. 

What he is accused of has nothing to do with a traffic accident. He is charged with having deliberately misled the law. There’s talk of Ranawaka lying about who was driving his vehicle at the time, that he got his driver to ‘stand in’ for him etc. The court will no doubt get to the bottom of all this sooner or later. 

If indeed Ranawaka did the hanky-panky it is certainly a grievous wrong and grievously will he have to pay for it, at least in political terms. If convicted and released after punishment is meted out, Ranawaka will be ridiculed by his political opponents each time he appears in a television debate. All claims he makes will be prompt reference to claims made relating to this incident. In the event he is found guilty, the best course of action would be for Ranawaka to come clean, admit that he did wrong, that he panicked and that he has paid the price in full. To his credit he has not feigned illness and sought a transfer to more comfortable surroundings. 

What is interesting in all this is the behavior of the Speaker. Karu Jayasuriya, after visiting Ranawaka in prison has stated that he did so only because ‘normal procedure was not followed when Ranawaka was arrested, given the fact that he is a parliamentarian.’  

It would have been better for Jayasuriya to simply say something on the following lines: ‘I am not contravening any law by visiting anyone in prison. Ranawaka is a friend. I am not demanding that the law be relaxed in his case.’ Instead, he talks of ‘tradition.’  

Tradition? Is that part of the law now? What are these ‘traditions’ violated in Ranawaka’s case but upheld in the arrests of people like Udaya Gammanpila and Tissa Attanayake? Sure, there are courtesies of informing the Speaker; but courtesy is not a necessity, it is up to the discretion of the Police. And now the Speaker talks of summoning the IGP to demand explanation! 

Perhaps an extreme example would help sort this thorny issue of parliamentary privileges, established procedure and traditions that Jayasuriya talks about. What if MP X is involved in a sword fight or, like in a Western movie, a shoot-out with another MP, Mr Y. What if there’s injury or even death? What if the Police arrives just as X and Y are slashing off each other’s noses or bury bullets in each other’s bodies? What if X and/or Y, injured but still clinging to weapon decides to flee the scene?  Is the Police required to make a quick call to the Speaker, hope that he answers and then arrest the thug(s)? 

Had Jayasuriya simply said ‘He’s a friend and I just wanted to check on him,’ it would not be as ‘political’ as implying ‘damn it, there was injustice in this arrest!’ In either case the impartiality associated with his office would be questioned, but in the latter, by trying to give a convoluted justification, Jayasuriya has essentially said, ‘I am partial to the United National Party!’ 

[Not that we need to believe the man is impartial of course. His conduct in votes of no-confidence against the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa were so starkly different that no one should believe he is neutral.]

Vendetta. Politically motivated. Political victimization. These too are terms that are tossed around, typically by Colombots (aka Kolombians, Candlelight Ladies, Funded Voices and Born Again Democrats) who are either openly supportive of the UNP or are closet loyalists. Perhaps they hadn’t heard these terms when the Yahapalana Regime were putting their political opponents behind bars, instructing investigators to look for evidence with a view to arresting such people and using the state-owned media to concoct stories founded on the patently flawed premise of ‘accusation is coterminous with guilt’? 

That’s also ‘traditional’ isn’t it? People are tried by the mobs. They are tried by partisan media outfits. The act is one thing, narrative is another. The first has to be assessed by the law, the latter needs no such referents. 

So it is a circus. There is a positive though. Political connections can get you a break. Political enmity can put you in a soup. The best thing, therefore, is to try to operate within the law and if there is infringement (as in the case of a traffic violation), then do the humble thing: submit to the law, let ‘due process’ take you where it will.  

It is best that laws are robust. It is best that law enforcement is marked by a high level of professionalism. It is best for there to be absolutely no political involvement. It is best that certain cases are not focused on because they could hurt political opponents or that there are no surreptitious acts that allow others to be postponed because those who could get hurt happen to be loyalists. 

Now if that was the ‘tradition’ then we won’t hear people howling about Ranawaka getting a raw deal. We wouldn’t have to talk about Senaratne making even more a clown of himself than he did with his bearded white van drivers. And we wouldn’t have Karu Jayasuriya, a decent man who has for the most part conducted himself with dignity, slipping on procedural plantain-skins and appearing to be out of sorts, to put it mildly.  

However, if we are to push ‘tradition’ to that level, then the principle ‘equality before the law’ has to be strictly applied. All cases related to politicians of all political parties should be taken up with the same rigor. Investigations should not be lax in one case and intense in another. Courts should not have different timetables for hearing different cases.  

We haven’t got to that Moment of Tradition yet. It can and will happen only when ‘tradition’ serves only to affirm and not bend Rule of Law.  That’s something President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should think of.