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Lankan conflict over corruption

As parties continue to be at logger heads no progress has been achieved in bringing offenders to book, writes Arun Srivastava.

Lankan conflict over corruption

With the high profile probes against former rulers not moving ahead in a productive direction, discontent has been brewing in political circles as well as amongst the common people of Sri Lanka. In recent months the ruling coalition has had to face public criticism for mishandling the growing issue of corruption.

In the backdrop of the rising criticism, only two days ago Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said; "The public wants AG's Department to show the same efficiency as it has in the past. The government is considering setting up of a special court in the High Court to hear corruption cases involving top politicians and officials of the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa regime." He said that the CID had completed investigating as many as 43 files related to corruption cases. These cases had occurred during the previous regime and the files had been forwarded to the AG's Department two years ago. Senaratne expressed his disappointment and disapproval regarding the course adopted by the AG's Department in connection with cases against politicians and top officials of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
Minister Senaratne said that the entire country and the government expected the AG's Department to show the same efficiency as it has in the past when filing charges against corrupt ministers and officials. He said that those accused had allegedly misappropriated public money amounting to billions of rupees. The present government has completed a period of two and half years but a doubt regarding its credibility has risen in the minds of the general public. At the time of the election, the Yahapalana leaders had projected the battle against corruption as a central issue. The election manifesto of the ruling party had promised to enforce the law strictly and follow policies of good governance. Those found to be corrupt in the previous regime were also expected to be meted out adequate punishment. People now wonder whether the promises made were mere rhetoric.
Transparency of a government can be measured by actions taken by the political leaders. Meanwhile, ruling party leaders claim that the government is considering setting up of two Trials-at-Bar at the Special Court to hear cases of murder, embezzlement and other financial crimes- including fraud and corruption- which allegedly had been committed during the previous regime. Ironically, there is a lurking apprehension that the government has failed to complete even one investigation into corruption. This perception certainly does not augur well for the government.
The trade unions, professional and civil society groups and left organisations had rallied around the government to work for a functioning democracy with good governance and to also make the authorities take punitive action against corrupt members of the Rajapaksa government. The present coalition government of the two main political parties had made several changes. It constituted several commissions and the police have also taken measures to investigate critical corruption cases in the country. They had, in fact, requested the government to reform the Constitution and provide a platform for national reconciliation. The level of corruption during the former regime was one of the main issues highlighted during the election campaign.
What is significant is that a section of the leaders supporting the present government also plans to launch a Satyagraha. They feel that moral pressure should be exerted on the government and the administration to hasten up the process of investigation. They are also planning to involve influential civil society organisations. "By staging the 'Satyagraha' we would like to urge the government to implement a separate court to probe corruption which had occurred during the previous regime and is now occurring in the present regime". The 19th amendment to the Constitution witnessed dilution of many powers of the executive presidency. The government had introduced the Victims and Witnesses Protection Act. They also appreciate the step taken to reform the Constitution. But they want that the primary focus of the government should be to deal with politicians and officials of the previous regime who were involved in corruption.
Since Rajapaksa's defeat in the presidential elections, complaints have flooded a Sri Lankan anti-graft commission alleging huge corruption by members of his administration. He even faces allegations that he tried to use military force and remain in office when it became clear during the vote count that he was headed for a defeat. The Government has so far been unable to file a single case against any leader of the former regime except for the one against Chanuka Ratwatte.
In fact, the demand for setting up high courts or transforming one or two existing high courts into Trial-at-Bar is based on the argument that since it takes over 10-years to finalise a corruption case involving a politician, these courts are necessary for conducting speedy trials. At his weekly Cabinet press briefing, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said that trials at bar could sit on a daily basis and hear a minimum of two cases daily, which would help clear the backlog of cases to a great extent. There was a well-planned conspiracy to delay the cases against some members of the Rajapaksa regime until 2020, hoping that the Rajapaksas would be back in power. But, that would not happen, he asserted. He also made it clear that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration was not on a witch hunt against members of the previous regime and it was only acting according to the mandate that people had given President Maithripala Sirisena at the last presidential election.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Arun Srivastava

Arun Srivastava

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