By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey….” — Shakespeare, Troilus And Cressida
Impunity is to a country what cancer is to a body; it creeps in unnoticed and spreads with gathering-speed, inexorably annihilating everything healthy and functional in its path. Impunity never completely spares any member of the society it finds a home in.
We may seem safe from its contagion for now, but someday our turn to be afflicted will come.
D.M. Tushara Jayaratne, a final year student of Sri Lanka Law College (SLLC), has alleged that College authorities made “exam papers available beforehand to selective students” and offered “special privileges to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, MP….. The student says he lodged a formal complaint after he overheard a conversation involving at least two examinees discussing questions in the Commercial Law question paper 30 minutes before the exam. President Rajapaksa’s eldest son, Namal….was not one of those students allegedly overheard by Jayaratne…. Mr. Jayaratne also alleges that the President’s son received special treatment by providing him facilities to sit the examination in an air conditioned computer room” (BBC – 10.1.2011).
An allegation is just that – an allegation; Namal Rajapaksa is innocent of wrong-doing until and unless he is found guilty. But for this principle to work properly there must be an unbiased inquiry by a panel of indubitable probity in an atmosphere free of favour or fear. Not only must justice be done to both the accused and the accuser; it must be seen to be done. The process of turning law students into lawyers must be as above suspicion as Caesar’s wife.
Initially the authorities remained mute about Jayaratne’s charges. Then the Chief Justice stepped in, promising an investigation: “In a letter to whistle-blower Jayaratne, SLLC has said that a preliminary inquiry will be held on the 11th of January. SLLC Principal has informed that the inquiry will be held at the Law College premises by attorney-at-law Uditha Egalahewa” (ibid).
There is a problem though; the complainant is said to be in hiding, unsurprisingly: “The student says he currently is in hiding as he regularly receives telephone calls threatening him with death and demanding he withdraw the complaints. Student Jayaratne says he does not feel confident to attend the inquiry to be held on Tuesday as some of the calls came from the college’s official numbers. ‘If the student is facing death threats as a result of revealing such a misdeed, it is of course a serious concern,’ CJ Asoka de Silva added (Ibid).
The allegations, as the Chief Justice told the BBC, are a ‘serious matter of concern’; especially because they involve a member of the President’s family and the legal fraternity. A country with a dysfunctional justice system is, by definition, a dysfunctional country.
When the executive and the legislative are both under the thumb of a single family, the judiciary becomes the last reservoir of hope for the citizenry. If the judiciary too succumbs to the Familial malady, that last hope evaporates, stranding the citizenry in an aridity of despair.
If the proposed investigation is not carried out in a manner which inspires public confidence or if the complainant comes to some harm, irreparable damage will be done to citizens’ faith in the judiciary. And a country in which people have no faith in the judiciary is a country one step away from anarchy.
When a society becomes habituated into turning a collective Nelsonian-eye to the injustices done to its most powerless and vulnerable members, it enables the creation of precedents which will some day be used against all of its members. For instance, if the arbitrary mass-eviction of Colombo’s low-income families does happen, a precedent will be created which will enable the rulers to appropriate any property they desire in the name of ‘development’, outside of the due process and without the payment of adequate compensation. Because a considerable segment of Colombo’s poor earmarked by the authorities for eviction are legal owners of their properties.
The authorities, however, are totally unconcerned about the gross illegality of summarily evicting legal-owners from their properties: “Urban Development Authority Chairman Janaka Kurukulasuriya said the families who had valid deeds to their houses would be evicted as part of plans to develop the Colombo city” (The Sunday Times – 9.1.2011).
The sale of 10 acres of prime Colombo land to a Hong Kong-based company for a tidy-sum seems to have whetted the Rajapaksa-appetite for more lucrative land deals: “The premises of the Gangarama temple and the former Commercial Company would be converted into a recreation area and the existing main road would be relocated soon…. A foreign investor has already presented a proposal to construct a 40 storey mixed development project at this venue….” (The Sunday Observer – 9.1.2011).
The result is illegal and arbitrary mass evictions: “Hundreds of Colombo families having valid deeds for their houses and land are being told to be prepared to vacate their homes, as the Urban Development Authority wants more land in the city for new development plans” (The Sunday Times – 9.1.2011).
The state can appropriate private property for development purposes, via due process which includes adequate compensation for affected owners. If the authorities apply the same procedure vis-à-vis those Colombo families with title deeds to their properties, their eviction will at least be legal, even if it is unjust and inhuman.
But the state is planning to appropriate these high-value lands ignoring the due process, by main force, and without paying adequate compensation: “….some 400 families holding deeds or valid documents issued by the National Housing Development Authority were called for separate meetings with UDA officials and were offered a rent of Rs. 8,000 a month for the next one and half years to leave their homes. But they were not promised new houses in the areas where they live now” (ibid).
A perch in Colombo 2 must be worth several million rupees; yet these Lankan citizens, the lawful owners of their properties, will get a mere pittance; A maximum of Rs.144,000, for the land, and for the house, rebuilt or improved over the years, with their hard earned money, often as migrant workers in some Middle Eastern country. This is more than unjust; this is a crime. What the regime is planning to do is to steal from the poorest of its citizens, rendering them homeless and futureless in the process.
This Chandi Malli method of land acquisition must be opposed, because if it becomes a reality, the Rajapaksas will be armed with a precedent which can be used to punish political opponents or to dispossess any citizen who happens to own a land the Ruling Family covets. The monster of impunity, once grown into its full strength, has no respect for law or for those other attributes (such as ethnicity, religion and class) which we believe can shield us from the fates of the Northern Tamils or Colombo’s poor. And it is our collective indifference to the suffering of others who are ‘The Other’, this rapacious monster feeds on with greatest avidity.