Photo Courtesy of hrw.org
“There is an evening coming in across the fields, one never seen before, that lights no lamps.” Phillip Larkin (Going)
“I want to reveal this. CID officers tried to show pictures. I had to order them to leave the chamber.” That was Fort magistrate Ranga Dissanayake speaking in open court, on June 24th 2020. The pictures the CID officials wanted to show possible witnesses just before an identity parade were of lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah, detained under the PTA since April.
Mr. Hisbullah is yet to be charged with even a single wrongdoing, but has already been pronounced guilty of any number of the most heinous crimes by a complicit media and an uncritical public. The CID seemed to have tried to resolve that contradiction with a plan that was as simple as it was diabolical.
One of the many crimes attributed to Mr. Hisbullah was that of sowing seeds of Islamic extremism in the minds of children. The CID previously obtained statements from some children, allegedly under duress. The identity parade was to determine whether these children actually knew Mr. Hisbullah or not.
Had everything gone according to the CID’s script, the children would have been browbeaten into pointing their fingers at Mr. Hisbullah. The plan went awry because the magistrate refused to play the role assigned to him. Instead he upheld the principles of justice and the rule of law.
The magistrate’s accusation was both solemn and serious. Yet, from the corridors of power, from the halls of officialdom, there was no expression of shock, outrage or regret, not even a mealy-mouthed statement or the pretence of an inquiry. There was just silence, but a silence clearer, more unambiguous, and more unequivocal than a thousand words. Had the CID officials acted on their own volition, the silence would not have been so complete. The totality of the silence cannot but indicate that the CID officials were merely following orders, probably from the very zenith.
This incident demonstrates Mr. Hisbullah’s ultimate fate is likely to be no different from that of journalist Tissanayagam or former army commander Sarath Fonseka. But the incident also has a wider relevance, extending to the absolute majority of Sri Lankans, be they Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, pro-government, anti-government or apolitical.
The Criminal Investigation Department’s willingness to break the law before the very eyes of a magistrate is a clear warning of the dark and unjust times ahead, a warning we can disregard only at our own peril.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, the emperor isn’t conscious of his nudity. But in our times, the emperor parades his nudity on purpose, to make us first suppress and then forget our shock, revulsion and horror at the outrage.
At the cabinet media briefing on February 28th, spokesman Bandula Gunawardana was asked about former navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda repeatedly ignoring judicial summons. The minister not only offered a full-throated defence of Admiral Karannagoda’s indefensible conduct; he also came up with a general theory placing certain people above the law. “If innocent people are being arrested, depending on the service they have rendered to the country and the positions they have held, they have the right to present alternative information. It was by presenting such information he didn’t go to courts.”
What is this but making abuse and impunity so commonplace, such facts of ordinary existence, that they become the new normal?
The twilight hour
In the run up to the 2015 presidential election, members of a street theatre group were attacked when they tried to perform in the Rajapaksa bastion of Hambantota. A case was filed against the attackers and is ongoing. When it was called up on January 8th 2020, a lawyer for the defence threatened a lawyer for the complainants in open court, in the presence of the magistrate with a revealing declaration: “This is Hambantota courts” (https://www.vikalpa.org/?p=36576).
If the SLPP gets the two thirds majority Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa so desperately desire, the entire judiciary might go the way of the Hambantota court.
Today we are in the twilight hour, in the brief parenthesis between an imperfect day and an endless night. The twin incidents of Hejaaz Hisbullah and the Hambantota courts are not the only warnings about the Cimmerian darkness awaiting us.
In a must-read article (Did cops cover up Mendis hit and run? – The Island – 8.7.2020) Senior journalist Rex Clementine points out two salient facts regarding national cricketer Kusal Mendis’s hit and run accident. Firstly, the death was not inevitable; had the cricketer taken the victim to the hospital instead of speeding away to his home, a life could have been saved. Secondly, the norm in such accidents is for the accused to be remanded for 14 days. “Mendis could have been charged on many counts –causing death, hit and run, speeding, driving on the wrong lane,” Mr. Clementine writes. “But Panadura police chose to ignore all counts…” The cover up, he suggests, could have been the work of senior DIG in charge of Western Province, Deshabandu Tennakoan.
We don’t know the ethnicity, religion or political affiliations of the victim. His fate would have been the same had he been a Sinhala-Buddhist-Rajapaksa fanatic. Because the only material fact in this tragic tale is the size of the victim’s house, that it was too small for his coffin (the coffin had to be kept in a neighbouring house). The victim was poor and powerless. A complicit officialdom gave a free pass to the killer. A man’s life was valued at a million rupees, because his alleged killer had connections.
When impunity is normalised, no one is safe.
This week, the police shot and killed a man in Lunawa, Moratuwa. Initially the police alleged that the victim was drunk. Now it is being said that the police were drunk. Again this week, IP Neomal Rangajeeva, interdicted due to his alleged role in the Welikada prison massacre and reinstated during the October 2018 coup, manhandled a photojournalist in the premises of Colombo High Court no 1. Confronted with protests, the assailant inspector apologised for any inconvenience he may have caused. If this was how he conducted himself inside the courts, towards a journalist who just wanted to take his picture, what won’t he do to the witnesses in the Welikada prison massacre case?
One or even two incidents of injustice and illegality could have been dismissed as coincidences. But the proliferation of such incidents points to an emerging pattern. Abuse and impunity are marching forth, proudly, and openly, enabled not just by Rajapaksa rule, but also by our growing willingness to become bystanders.
The growing lasses faire attitude towards abuse and impunity extends to matters environmental too. On February 20th, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was reported saying that there are too many laws in the country and people have to get so many permits and this must change. There is a direct link between is presidential statement and the removal of permit requirements for sand, stone, and gravel; or the nefarious plan to amend or withdraw circular 5/2001, announced by Minister Bandula Gunawardana at July 2nd cabinet media briefing. If implemented, it would remove 500,000 hectares of land gazetted as other state forests from the protective purview of Department of Forest Conservation place them under the control of district or divisional secretaries. What will happen to those forests then is not hard to guess.
A two-thirds majority for the SLPP would be the death knell not only to humans but to animals and trees as well.
No darkness is inevitable
Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants a presidency that is unlimited by the constitution, and untrammelled by either laws or norms. He wants a free hand to rule as he sees fit, with the military as the weapon of choice. As he stated baldly at the Annual Conference of the BASL in February 2020, “The executive in particular has a mandate to act to fulfil the requirements of the people. It is therefore important that the judiciary does not obstruct the development efforts undertaken by the executive to ensure the wellbeing and prosperity of the people.”
But to realise his vision of total personalised rule, he needs a parliament that will bow and scrape before him. He can then use that parliament to browbeat the judiciary into compliance, as his older brother did between 2010 and 2015.
The regime was planning to win a (near) two-third majority on the basis of beating Covid-19 pandemic. Intent on cloaking itself in the mantle of victory, the government disregarded repeated warnings by the WHO about the inevitability of a second wave. The country was opened up. PCR testing – which rarely exceeded 2000 per day – was scaled down. No random testing was done.
The government also refused to gazette the health regulations prepared by the Elections Commission. According to a report in today’s Irida Divaina, the gazette has been suspended because it will impede electioneering. Instead it will be issued after the election, doubtless as a means to clamp down on opposition and dissent.
At his Tulsa rally, President Donald Trump complained that America has a Covid-19 problem because there is too much testing. “So I said to my people slow the testing down please,” he complained to the faithful. Since around 30% of those infected are asymptomatic, and many more show symptoms that are identical to common or garden flu, not testing widely and randomly, is a way good way of hiding the magnitude of the infection-spread.
Sri Lanka, from the beginning, followed a policy of testing as little and as narrowly as possible. The Jayawardanepura University lab has pulled out of testing, accusing the government of deliberately overlooking positive testing, a clear indication that the government was making a conscious effort to hide the extent of the problem (http://www.themorning.lk/covid-19-pcr-testing-jpura-uni-lab-pulls-out/). It is perhaps for these reasons that our infection curve never flattened. Instead it continues to display a series of rapid hikes and rapid drops. (https://covid19.who.int/region/searo/country/lk). Our curve is therefore is less likely to reflect the actual infection-spread and more likely to be the outcome of adequate and targeted testing. It is as a result of this attitude towards testing, that a new cluster could breed in silent invisibility in Kandakadu, to the point of explosion.
The government is trying to contain the situation, in such a way that it can continue to use the pandemic as an election tool. For instance, though one obvious response to the emerging second wave is to close down all schools, the government is yet to announce such a decision. Instead it is focusing on minimising the political downfall by controlling the narrative. The police announced, again, that stern action will be taken against those who spread ‘rumours’.
If the emerging second wave cannot be contained, the government is likely to place most of its politico-propaganda eggs in the racism basket, both ethnic and religious. The efforts are underway even now. Namal Kumara is already campaigning for the SLPP in Ampara. A SLPP candidate for Vanni was caught on camera trying to incite Tamils against Muslims (https://theleader.lk/news/3539-sinhala-wealthy-candidate-provokes-anti-muslim-sentiment-among-tamils). Monk Athuraliye Rathana has issued an ultimatum demanding that all madaras close before July 14th. If the second wave is not containable, bombs will be discovered in the North and extremist cells uncovered everywhere else. The regime will try to make us forget the virus by focusing all attention on Tamil Tigers and Islamic Terrorists, on separatist threats and fundamentalist dangers.
There is still a chance to evade the ultimate disaster of a racist, extremist, militarist dictatorship. The regime is not yet fully consolidated. Despite his very public histrionics, Gotabaya Rajapaksa cannot have his unimpeded way still, partly because the regime is plagued by fissures, including at its very heart, the Rajapaksa family. Sans a two-thirds, it might be possible to stop the worst excesses of the Rajapaksas.
We cannot stop the night, but if the SLPP’s victory is contained to a bare minimum, we can prevent it from being Cimmerian and endless. The first step towards a less darker, less longer night is to vote against the Rajapaksas, and to vote for those opposition candidates (be they of the UNP, SJB or the JVP) who are least likely to back the Rajapaksas, post-elections. Vote to shackle the Rajapaksas as much as possible, so that the march of injustice and impunity can be slowed down, to our common benefit.