Noyahr, Lasantha, Thajudeen et al

Sunday Island Editorial

Yesterday’s news that investigators have taken three serving military intelligence personnel over the 2008 abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr, Deputy Editor of the Nation newspaper, is most welcome. Earlier similar arrests were made over the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunga, Editor of the Sunday Leader and the killing of ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen. While the arrest of those actually responsible for these heinous crimes is well and good, it is more important to find out who assigned them the task of doing the dirty. Obviously the men now in custody had no motive to savagely attack their victims. But their bosses up in the hierarchy were serving the agendas of VVIPs. It is these persons rather than the actual perpetrators that must be apprehended and brought to book. While those responsible for the physical acts cannot be excused on the grounds that they were mere minions carrying our orders, those who issued the orders must be held accountable. That is imperative.

The questions asked of Noyahr under torture would have surely revealed who sent the goons to get him. But he would not say anything, even to his nearest and dearest, probably because not only he but also his family was threatened with reprisal. Noyahr with his family fled to Australia where he was granted asylum. Sri Lankan detectives flew there recently to record his statement when he finally agreed to make one many years after the trauma.

Upali Tennekoon, Noyahr’s colleague editing the Rivira, the Sinhala publication of the Nation group barely escaped with his life when a goon squad attempted to bludgeon him to death as he was driving to work. His wife, riding the passenger seat, threw herself across Upali and saved his life. They were here last year and identified some suspects also from the state security services at a court ordered identification parade.

As for Lasantha Wickrematunga, his brother Lal who was chairman of the Sunday Leader group has gone public a long time ago saying that the then president had told him not once but several times that a named very high personage was responsible for the crime. But there was no explanation why nothing was done if the culprit was known. The authorities are obviously some distance away from getting conviction against those responsible for these dastardly crimes. Whether they will ever succeed is a wide open question. But at least a strong signal will go out to smaller fry in state agencies not to haul their bosses’ chestnuts out of the fire and risk their own lives and liberty. But no effort must be spared about all those responsible – those that issued the orders and those who committed the crimes – to book, the former more than the latter.

The current administration can take a bow that these developments have occurred under its watch. It is incumbent that it does not attempt to protect any miscreant now in its bosom.

RTI and asset declarations

Nobody will disagree with President Maithripala Sirisena’s assertion last week that the people of this country believe that the vast majority of out politicians and a sizable proportion of our public servants are corrupt. Whether this could be established with the high standards of proof required by the courts is another matter. While many of those who held elective office in the previous regime, including the top leadership, are under investigation by the various agencies of the state set up to bring the guilty to book, there is a widespread belief that the ongoing investigations are directed mostly against the government’s opponents.

As for the rogues under the present dispensation, the approach at best is lukewarm. Nobody believes that the incumbents are lily white; far from it. But few bloodhounds are seen snapping at their heels. Complaints, of course, have been made; some no doubt malicious and without substance. But whether the same zeal is displayed by investigators in pursuing present wrong doers as has been shown against the has-beens of the previous regime is a moot point.

The recently enacted Right to Information (RTI) law and the long extant requirement that Members of Parliament and bureaucrats above a certain rank must make annual declarations of their assets and liabilities are instruments that can be effectively used to at least curb the illegitimate amassing of wealth by corrupt means. Short of summary executions, it will probably be impossible to stop this scourge altogether. The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG), a public interest group that has been responsible for a lot of good work in pursuing the good governance ideal, had once sought information from the Secretary General of Parliament on how many MPs have made their assets declarations. They were told to ask the Speaker. There was no reply from that quarter and CIMOGG asked the Commissioner of Elections. They learned that about half a dozen JVP MPs and Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, then Leader of the Opposition, had made declarations. The vast majority had not.

Now under the RTI law such information can be sought after paying the prescribed fees. President Sirisena went on record last week saying that he’s made his declarations presumably after he was elected president. A declaration was also on file when he was the presidential candidate. We recollect that Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya attempted to arm twist candidates at the last general election to make the required assets declarations. He threatened to deprive those who did not do so of certain privileges accorded to candidates. But that didn’t result in a flood of declarations inundating his office. We do not think that the commissioner kept his threat. Hopefully the situation is improving and will further improve with the RTI in place. The president has said that certain NGOs have their own agenda in seeking information under this law. It is not clear whether this relates to assets of politicians or something else – maybe both. Even if vested interests are looking only at exposing selectively targeted persons and not others, they will have rights under the law however dishonest or venal their intentions.

Whether tax returns and state bank loan default information will come under the RTI radar remains to be seen. Generally the tax return of any citizen is a confidential document to which all and sundry have no access. It is unlikely that RTI would change that. It can be urged that it should be changed to nab tax evaders. But doing so will lead to many other problems that are best avoided. There is nothing to stop anybody with credible information on tax evasion supplying such information to the Inland Revenue Department. In fact the department rewards informers. Before RTI came into force, there have been occasions when the secrecy provisions of the Banking Act have been invoked to withhold information on defaulters. In a country where politicians have influenced state-owned banks to make bad loans to their cronies, denial of such information is doing ordinary, honest, tax-paying citizen down. Meanwhile defaulters owing state banks hundreds of millions swank around in high-end vehicles and spend their evening wining and dining in plush hotels. Whether RTI will change this remains to be seen.