Gota’s pledge to release suspects: Fresh hell for victims?

A pledge made by SLPP Presidential Candidate GotabayaRajapaksa at his maiden rally in Anuradhapura last week, that he would acquit and release ‘war heroes’ being held on ‘baseless’ charges on the morning of November 17, has left victim families reeling from shock and fear that already painfully slow investigations will be scuttled or scrapped.

Legal experts also insisted that any attempt to influence an ongoing investigation through the courts of law or law enforcement agencies would be tantamount to executive overreach and abuse of power.

The reference in the SLPP candidate’s speech appeared to be about suspects being held in custody over attacks on journalists, the murder of the Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, abduction and torture of journalist Keith Noyahr and the disappearance and probable murder of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. None of the suspects have been convicted, and many of them have been released on bail after originally being remanded based on evidence gathered by the CID.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, senior constitutional lawyer Dr Jayampathy Wickremaratne said that in the first place, a president cannot acquit people who have been convicted. The course of relief available to convicted persons is to go through the appeals process, he explained, adding that even if he wanted to pardon convicted persons, there was still a process to be followed.

“If they are not convicted, he cannot order bail. So this shows what is going to happen in the future. Do they mean that they are going to act as they did before 2015, and pressure the police and the AG’s department to agree to bail?” Dr Wickremaratne questioned. “So is he going to assume judicial powers? That’s a fair question to ask,” the legal expert added.

For victim families, the question is a gut-wrenching one.

Over a decade mothers like Jennifer Weerasinghe have been searching for their children. The CID believes Dilan Jamaldeen, Jennifer’s son, and his four friends were abducted by a gang of Navy personnel involved in a kidnapping for ransom racket in 2008-2009. The investigation has implicated a host of senior naval personnel including the former Commander of the Navy, who was recently appointed Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda. The promotion came despite the Attorney General informing the CID that Karannagoda was going to be indicted on murder charges and charges of conspiring to murder after evidence came to light that he allegedly knew of the boys being illegally detained in the Trincomalee naval base. Victims and the police have faced an uphill battle with the investigation of the heinous crime involving the abduction, illegal detention and suspected murder of Dilan Jamaldeen and 10 other young boys. While the investigations gathered steam since 2015, the obstacles have been unceasing. The 11 boys’ abduction case is unique in that both suspects and witnesses are all Navy officials. In a bizarre twist, suspects out on bail – high ranking Navy officials have continued to receive promotions, perks and political patronage. Witnesses in the same case have faced only persecution, court martial, demotion and intimidation by senior officials. At least one witness is in hiding after being threatened by no less than the current Chief of Defence Staff, Ravindra Wijeguneratne, after he testified to hearing Wijeguneratne allegedly help the ringleader of the abduction gang evade the police.

For Jennifer Weerasinghe, the SLPP candidate’s threat on the campaign trail is fresh hell. Her husband is a soldier himself, and she cannot bear the idea that the men who abducted her son are being referred to as heroes of war.

“My son was abducted by the men Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s is trying to release,” she told the Sunday Observer in an interview. “His statement is an insult to the real war heroes and the tri forces of the country.” She also questioned whether the statement meant that the military will have a free hand to do as they please in the country.

“From his statement, it is clear that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has no fear or regard for the courts. In other words, it means the military will be able to murder, abduct or do anything as they will have a saviour who will protect and save them from the law,” Weerasinghe complained. Having spoken openly against the naval personnel the CID believes took her son, Jennifer Weerasinghe also worries about her own safety if these suspects are exonerated and released. “Will I even be able to live in this country going forward?” she asked.

Senaka Perera, Attorney at Law appearing for several victims of the Welikda prison massacre case told Sunday Observer that Rajapaksa’s statement implied that he would “take the law and duty of the courts” into his own hands.

“The executive cannot carry out the duties of the judiciary. For someone who is trying to become the head of state, this is a very dangerous statement to admit that he will take over the duties of the judiciary,” the lawyer said. The statement was a signal about how he would govern the country if elected, Perera added. “During Rajapaksa rule, the military broke into the Welikada prison and killed 27 prisoners, perhaps the same system will return,” he warned.

Senior criminal lawyers insist the President cannot decide whether charges brought against a suspect are baseless or not. That decision was up to the courts, the lawyer, who did not wish to be named told Sunday Observer. It was unclear which charges against military personnel named as suspects were being referred to as baseless by the SLPP presidential candidate. “If the claim is that the B reports are false then it is for the magistrate to decide that or they can go through a court process and challenge that. It is not for the president of for politicians to be interfering with investigations,” the lawyer added.

Sandhya Eknaligoda, whose husband Prageeth was abducted in January 2010, has spent the better part of the last nine years campaigning against enforced disappearances and trying to get authorities to reveal his whereabouts. She remains convinced that if the former Defence Secretary is elected on November 16, the investigation into her husband’s disappearance will be scrapped.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Spokesman for the SLPP Candidate Keheliya Rambukwella dismissed the promise that soldiers would be released on November 17, as “rhetoric” on the campaign trail. Rambukwella insisted that what Gotabaya Rajapaksa meant was that he would tell police to expedite investigations, file indictments and mete out punishment. “Or ask that they be brought to court and let the courts decide,” he said. Rambukwella added that most of the suspects were remanded to ensure the former Defence Secretary’s name came up in the investigation.

Asked if a Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration would ensure victims of the crime got justice, Rambukwella replied that all these incidents had happened during the war, insinuating that there had been a LTTE hand involved. “When you have a civil war, there is no war that is fought pure. After 2010, once the terrorists were defeated, there was not one single incident,” Rajapaksa’s spokesman insisted. However, Prageeth Eknaligoda was disappeared on January 24, 2010, seven months after the war ended and the LTTE had been defeated.

Sandhya Eknaligoda believes Rajapaksa was giving victims like her a clear signal with his statement at the rally last Wednesday.

“My children and I are at risk now, because my struggle was directly waged against the Rajapaksa family,” she explained. “He is giving the impression that the military can commit any crime and not face the consequences.”

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