Government Seeks to Absolve Allies for Abuses, Prosecute Officials Pursuing Justice
by Human Rights Watch, April 30, 2021
(New York) – Sri Lanka’s parliament should reject a resolution to exonerate officials implicated in human rights abuses and to prosecute police and prosecutors investigating them, Human Rights Watch said today. Adopting the resolution, brought before parliament on April 9, 2021, would further undermine the independence of the judiciary and rule of law, which have been severely weakened under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The resolution would put into effect the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimization, which President Rajapaksa established in January 2020, to derail investigations of his relatives and allies begun by the previous administration in 2015-19, Human Rights Watch said. It seeks to block investigations and prosecutions in emblematic human rights cases, overturn a murder conviction, reinstate security force members disciplined for serious misconduct, and protect Rajapaksa family members and others from investigations into fraud and money laundering.
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is being brazen in his efforts to help his family and associates evade Sri Lankan justice,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Rajapaksa’s administration has spared no effort in covering up serious alleged crimes, including those implicating Rajapaksa himself.”
During its hearings throughout 2020, the commission of inquiry impeded or prejudiced legal proceedings. It quickly intervened in cases in which Rajapaksa allies and associates were facing police investigations or prosecution for alleged corruption or human rights abuses, leading the attorney general to repeatedly accuse it of exceeding its authority.
The commission threatened to take action against investigators in human rights cases, including the former Criminal Investigation Division investigators Shani Abeysekara and Nishantha Silva, and officials in the attorney general’s office with expertise in combatting money laundering and corruption.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has said that the commission’s report, which was submitted to the president on December 8, but not yet officially published, “may undermine the Rule of Law in this country, impair the independence of the Judiciary, and erode the impartial and efficient functioning of the Attorney General’s Department.” The cabinet approved carrying out the commission’s recommendations in the report, purported copies of which have been leaked, on January 19.
Among the human rights cases that the Rajapaksa government has attempted to block are the legal proceedings in the 2008-2009 enforced disappearance and suspected murder of 11 men and boys by alleged members of naval intelligence as part of a conspiracy to extract ransom from their families. Fourteen former and serving naval officers including Adm. (ret.) Ravindra Wijegunaratne, a former chief of defense staff, were due to stand trial last year before the trial was postponed.
Other cases include the 2008 abduction and torture of a journalist, Keith Noyahr; the 2009 murder of a newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge; the 2010 disappearance of a journalist, Prageeth Ekneligoda, in which a criminal trial is proceeding; and the 2012 Welikada Prison massacre, in which security force personnel are currently facing trial. In all of these cases, evidence produced in court by the police has implicated Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defense secretary at the time, in the crimes. The resolution before parliament would acquit the suspects and instead bring prosecutions against police, prosecutors, and witnesses in the cases for supposedly fabricating evidence.
Political interference in these cases has already led to lengthy delays in the justice process, Human Rights Watch said. Following the persistent failure of the Sri Lankan authorities to provide accountability for these and other grave crimes, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in March that establishes an investigative capacity within the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to collect and analyze evidence for use in future international accountability efforts.
The commission of inquiry also investigated a number of high-profile corruption cases relating to events when Rajapaksa family members were previously in government, between 2005 and 2015. The commission similarly recommended that suspects be acquitted and that officials responsible for bringing cases be charged with fabricating evidence. Some of these corruption cases, such as suspected fraud in the purchase of MiG military aircraft, are linked to alleged human rights abuses.
The commission’s mandate was to examine cases involving members of the military, police, and public service. However, it appeared to exceed its mandate by also examining a number of private sector corruption and money laundering cases involving allies of the president and members of his family.
Instead of fostering impunity for serious offenses, the Sri Lankan government should uphold its obligations under international law. It should cooperate with the UN in carrying out the Human Rights Council resolution to create an independent mechanism to secure evidence and investigate allegations of grave human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and to prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Rajapaksa government should reject the findings of its bogus commission of inquiry and instead take seriously the UN Human Rights Council’s March resolution,” Ganguly said. “Concerned governments should make clear that pursuing the commission’s recommendations will be a major setback for Sri Lankan government accountability.”