This was a week of many wrongs and virtually no rights. The optics of the image released to the public when the Bodu Bala Sena’s Galagoda atte Gnanasara and his mother met President Maithripala Sirisena following his pardoning while serving a prison sentence for contempt of court said it best, smiles and merry laughter all around as it were.
The discarding of ‘good governance’ niceties
This presidential pardon must be read for what it is, with no frills and furbelows to obscure the core point. Clearly it is an unequivocal signal that ‘good governance’ niceties have been discarded in what is essentially, a battle for political survival in an election year. Advocates of the Rule of Law may vainly screech themselves hoarse on the palpable affront to Sri Lanka’s judicial institution that this pardon most certainly denotes but let us unflinchingly recognize ugly realities in all their permutations and combinations. Indeed, by keeping silent on this remarkable pardon, the United National Party shifting uneasily in their government seats while trading insults with the President and his men, has also communicated that very same message.
The monk had been sentenced for insulting the Bench in the most horrendous manner possible. But this pardon reduces that fact to a frivolous bagatelle of no worthy account. For those of us with short memories, it may be instructive to recall precisely what the Court of Appeal pronounced in handing down the punishment late last year. This was consequent to the monk’s barging into the hearing of a habeas corpus petition in the Homagama Magistrate’s Court filed in respect of the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda during the Rajapaksa years and haranguing the magistrate and the state counsel as eunuchs.
In exceptionally stern language, the Appeal Court pointed to the fact that the accused who had no connection to the court hearing with no standing to appear, had ‘addressed’ the Bench without express or implied permission, intending to ‘intimidate’ the magistrate into granting bail to the suspect intelligence officers after the magistrate had already refused to do so. His ‘address’ to the magistrate was in a high tone, heard ‘even by those waiting away from the court room’ and in ‘abusive, offensive and commanding’ language. In doing so and in saying that this was the ‘white person’s law’ and that he did not accept that law, he had tried to coerce the Bench into obeying his commands and to reverse an already pronounced Order.
Pious statements and past reprehensible conduct
The Court observed that whether the law is foreign-made or locally-made, it is the ‘prevailing law that the courts have to apply’ and that ‘the Court will administer justice according to such law irrespective of its genesis.’ The accused’s behavior was assessed as degrading the honour and the Court, amounting to a categorical refusal to accept its authority and deserving therefore of the most stringent response. Later and upon an appeal being filed against the appellate court order, that judicial position was upheld by majority decision in the Supreme Court. Effectively therefore, a punishment affirmed by the apex court in the country has been tossed aside by the Office of the President as mere trivia. This is made worse by the fact that the presidential pardon has been granted after a mere few months of the sentence being served.
So the controversial monk’s pious injunction to the public soon after his release this week that ‘everyone must work prudently and responsibly’ contrasts oddly with his behavior resulting in the sentence for contempt of court in the first place. For this was conduct that was neither prudent or responsible by any standard whatsoever. In fact, his unpardonable behavior before the Homagama Magistrate’s Court was the very least of those wrongs. This was on the heels of even more riotous conduct hardly befitting his robes, to put the matter mildly. An ugly cacophony of unreasoning hate and racial prejudice had targeted Sri Lanka’s Muslims with no perceptible differentiation between the innocent and the guilty.
Indeed the very violence of that behavior resulted in warnings issued by the Bodu Bala Sena in regard to the spread of Wahabism in Sri Lanka not being taken with the seriousness that was perchance warranted. If even the part serving of a jail sentence has resulted in the correction of past reprehensible conduct, that is to the good. But dogged skepticism prevents any such assumptions being made in good faith. Ultimately therefore, this pardon by the President, in the wake of increased insecurity of the country’s Muslim community following communal violence politically instigated in Minuwangoda and Kurunegala following the Easter Sunday attacks on Christian and Catholic churches and high-end hotels in Colombo will be read by many as a non too subtle signal to the country’s ethnic and religious minorities; behave or the (literal) barbarians will be at your gates. Unsurprisingly, wary apprehension has been heightened, increasing the persecution complex felt by Sri Lanka’s Muslim community.
A series of diverting and distracting side-events
One month from the Easter Sunday atrocities therefore, we are faced with diverting and distracting side events. The smoke and ashes of that fateful day had hardly faded away before we saw organised violence against Muslims in Minuwangoda and Kurunegala. Now we have the pardon of a convicted monk known for tirades against the Muslim minority and to boot, a Joint Opposition no-confidence motion competing for primacy with a Government supported Parliamentary Select Committee hearing on Minister Rishad Bathiudeen.
Others who face similar allegations of instigating Wahabi radicalism, including the Governor of the Eastern Province who, along with his son, is implicated in a so-called Shariah University in the East escape unscathed. Quite apart from the disturbing scent of a politically motivated witch hunt in the baying of the Joint Opposition for Bathiudeen’s blood, probably as fitting revenge for not joining their ranks in the ill fated and short lived ‘political coup’ last year, why is the Parliament tasked with ascertaining his guilt or innocence as the case may be?
If that is the case, for what earthly reason do Sri Lanka’s criminal investigation agencies exist? Previously, a Tamil Minister was accused of making statements in support of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in addressing a public meeting in the North and the criminal law was moved against her following consultations with the Attorney General. Why is this approach followed in one case and not in the other?
First priority of the political leadership
The first priority of the Government and the Opposition should be to bring to brook those who were responsible as political handlers and protectors of Wahabi jihadists who brought about the Easter Sunday atrocities in Sri Lanka. That must manifestly be the common purpose. Political responsibility must be assessed against the strict standard of the law, evidence and proof and applied equally to wild eyed fanatics preaching devastation for unbelievers and infidels in fiery sermons as well as to a parliamentarian, a Minister or a Governor who promotes or protects them.
But instead of a measured response to twin evils of terrorism and extremism, a dueling President and Prime Minister with their merry men grandstand politically while a Joint Opposition plots and schemes, greedy eyed for power at all costs to the extent of spilling blood without compunction. These political blocs led by impossible men have become the primary cause in bringing about a nation that is now a powder-keg of communal, racial and religious suspicion, where one match lit with calculated and deadly intent will suffice for a conflagration.
This is Sri Lanka’s melancholy reality.