Gotabaya Rajapaksa and accountability

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It has been two weeks since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country like a thief in the night. After flying to the Maldives in an air force plane he moved on to Singapore. Maldivian Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed is on record stating that the former president fled Sri Lanka because he feared for his life. However, Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena now says that former president Rajapaksa had not in fact fled the country and is awaiting a moment to return to Sri Lanka. 

It has been reported in international media that a rights group had written to the Attorney General of Singapore demanding the arrest of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Lawyers from the International Truth and Justice Project had submitted a complaint that argued that Rajapaksa committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions during the civil war in 2009 when he was secretary to the Ministry of Defence and that these are crimes subject to domestic prosecution in Singapore under universal jurisdiction. “These include murder, execution, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, deprivation of liberty, severe bodily and mental harm, and starvation.”

In addition to the accusations of war crimes during the war, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is accused of numerous other crimes including the murder, abduction, torture of numerous journalists, activists and political opponents. He is further accused of corruption, embezzlement and misappropriation of State funds. 

While there was some progress in the investigations into crimes committed by Rajapaksa during the Yahapalana regime, most of these cases were deliberately stalled either through political deal making, interference into investigations by the police and prosecution by the Attorney General’s department. There were also several shameful instances where the judges hearing these cases deliberately stalled judicial processes. In one such instance a judge recused herself, stating a conflict of interest, after stalling the process for several years. This allowed Rajapaksa to make a successful presidential bid after which all his judicial cases were thrown out. The policemen who investigated, the prosecutors who prosecuted and journalists who reported these cases were severely persecuted while the judge who recused herself from hearing Rajapaksa’s case was given a plump position within the executive.

Through all this it has been made abundantly clear that justice will not be delivered to Rajapaksa’s victims by the Sri Lankan judicial system. It is far too corrupted as witnessed in the last few years and relies on draconian laws on contempt of fear to instil fear and silence any meaningful criticism. The number of former Chief Justices who are holding positions within the executive or as personal lawyers to political leaders is ample proof of the level of corruption within the judiciary. If these are the actions of the chief justices, there need not be much debate about the conduct of others.

With this reality, there is no other option or avenue available for victims of these crimes other than to seek international jurisdiction. 

The daughter of slain journalist, Lasantha Wickremetunga has already initiated legal action against Rajapaksa for her father’s killing. Several individuals who were tortured by the security forces also have sought to hold Rajapaksa accountable in international courts. There is nothing wrong in others following this path. If there are concerns about the precedent such international judicial action set, then those who have such concerns should have clamoured for domestic actions and to strengthen the domestic judicial mechanisms.

Singapore is highly unlikely to arrest Gotabaya Rajapaksa and prosecute him. That however should not mean the end of the road to prosecute Rajapaksa internationally. He and many others like him must pay for the crimes they have committed and by holding them accountable it would set a precedent that no one is above the law. 

While Gotabaya Rajapaksa is one individual his victims are many. Whether these victims are dead or alive they deserve their day in court and justice for the harms caused to them. With the Sri Lankan judiciary failing such victims time and time again it is time to look at other options. If this means international jurisdiction, so be it. 

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Disclaimer: Gotabaya Rajapaksa and accountability - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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