In the famous dicta of Lord Hewart, a Lord Chief Justice of England, “Justice must not only be done but must also be seen to be done.” This is what is glaringly absent in the persecution initiated against leaders and participants of the rallies that had happened in recent months.
Last week the Police arrested a trade union leader who allegedly took two official flags from the President’s House and used them as a bed sheet and a sarong after he was revealed on social media during the 9 July mass protests. The same week Police arrested a student leader inside a SriLankan Airlines flight minutes before it took off. The warrant for his arrest was regarding the blocking of the gate at the Presidential Secretariat and therefore obstructing officials from attending a meeting with visiting IMF officials.
A protestor who counted over Rs. 17 million in cash at the President’s house and handed it over to the Police has also been arrested and produced before a magistrate. A young Catholic priest who is a prominent figure in the months-long protests at Galle Face Green is now being hounded by the Police and his parish church in Ratnapura has been raided. These are but a few examples of those who are being prosecuted alleged for participation in “unlawful assembly and damage to public property.”
While the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration is quick to pursue these protestors whose main crime was to topple a deeply unpopular president, what is glaring are those who are not pursued in this newfound zest for law and order. The instigators of the 9 May violence, which was launched by well-known politicians after a rally at Temple Trees on the day then prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, have not only been untouched but some of the leaders of that violence are very much back in prominent positions.
One of the main suspects, Puttalam district Member of Parliament, Sanath Nishantha recently went on record to state that protestors should be handled as the insurgencies were handled by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene governments. This chilling call is to unleash a spate of violence against mostly peaceful protestors clamouring over the state of the economy. The “handling” of the 1971 insurgency saw at least 15,000 extra-judicial killings by the government and the second JVP insurgency in the 1980s witnessed at least 60,000 such killings. Nishantha is not alone to avoid the reach of justice and many goons including ministers and members of parliament who unleashed violence against peaceful protestors are yet to face arrest or any legal repercussion for their actions.
There has not been any inquiry against the use of lethal force against protestors either. Over a dozen protestors have been killed due to police and military actions since March 2022.
If justice is seen to be done at the very least, it should be fair to all and applied equally. This clearly is not the case. Furthermore, for a vast majority of people, the protests campaign that eventually toppled the Rajapaksa presidency was legitimate. That legitimacy cannot be destroyed by attributing petty crimes such as stealing a flag or having a bath in a presidential pool. Furthermore, trying to do so while overtly covering up the actual instigators and organisers of violence against peaceful protestors exposes the duplicity of the ruling regime.
When there is a glaring injustice it is natural for a people to resist and fight against a State that perpetuates this injustice. The continuation of the witch-hunts against the leaders and participants of the protests will only further alienate a regime which lacks popular legitimacy and a mandate to govern.
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