Independence waylaid

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The Cabinet decision to refer the controversial Pandora Papers revelations to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (CIABOC) is laudable and has certainly taken the wind out of the sails of the main Opposition SJB, which has thus far limited itself to a lukewarm statement addressing the issue.

Documents perused by the International Consortium of International Journalists (ICIJ) revealed undeclared assets running into tens of millions of dollars belonging to former MP Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband Thiru Nadesan stashed in secret offshore jurisdictions and freeports. The revelations confirmed what Sri Lankans have always known about the country’s oligarchy and the shadowy political deal-marking that allows savvy politico-corporate players to rake in profits through Government contracts with foreign private entities.

It bears noting that former MP Nirupama Rajapaksa is niece to current and former Presidents Rajapaksa, being the daughter of their father’s brother. Their names appearing in the Pandora leaks have raised serious questions about whether the couple concealed their wealth using different financial instruments, and further concerns about corruption, money laundering and tax evasion. The Pandora leaks make it clear that although Nirupama Rajapaksa is a member of the current ruling family, Nadesan has been involved in consultations with foreign companies doing business with the Government of Sri Lanka since at least 1991 during the Ranasinghe Premadasa presidency. Sri Lanka’s old guard political elite are long-time allies of the couple who have always wielded tremendous wealth and influence, making the issues surrounding the Pandora Papers a minefield even for Opposition politicians.

Based on the President’s “instructions” the Bribery Commission has set up a special investigation team to probe the allegations against Nadesan and his wife. While CIABOC has suo moto powers to initiate inquiries into allegations of corruption, it is notable that the commission awaited Presidential orders before it launched an investigation into two Sri Lankans whose names have appeared on a global index of persons using secret offshore jurisdictions and shell companies to stash wealth and assets.

The CIABOC gained a degree of credibility along with the other independent commissions appointed via the 19th Amendment enacted in 2015 because there were certain checks and balances in play when it came to appointment members to the institutions. The 20th Amendment, which bestowed god-like powers on the executive president, removed all these safeguards, permitting sole presidential jurisdiction over these appointments, which has struck an almost fatal blow to their credibility and independence.

The current Chair of the Bribery Commission is a retired Supreme Court Judge and close associate of the Prime Minister. The former Chief of the State Intelligence Service also serves on the Commission. Under these circumstances, the public correctly views the CIABOC as a sham and an eyewash, and scoff at the prospect of a credible outcome when such commissions are tasked with investigating the ruling family’s near and dear ones.

Nor is the credibility crisis limited to the Bribery Commission. Every independent commission has been compromised since the enactment of 20A. The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) set up to investigate disappearances is a key tenet of the Sri Lankan Government’s reconciliation and accountability programmes. Set up during Yahapalanaya amid violent opposition from the Joint Opposition then, it continues to be an important part of the SLPP-led Government’s arsenal in the international arena now, when it argues for a domestic mechanism for addressing allegations of war-time atrocities. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brazen appointment of retired Supreme Court Justice Upali Abeyratne as Chairman of the OMP struck a death blow to the crucial institution. Abeyratne’s appointment came soon after he served as Chair of the Presidential Task Force on Political Victimisation, the findings of which exonerated dozens of military officers accused of enforced disappearances and murder and recommended prosecution of Police investigators who had probed these crimes. These appointments are akin to putting foxes in charge of the hen coop.

By compromising the credibility of independent commissions, the President has done himself a great disservice. At a time when public confidence has rapidly eroded in his administration, President Rajapaksa would have benefited from a credible Bribery Commission investigation to independently address the allegations against his family. Instead, the process is viewed with scepticism. He has no one to blame for that situation but the executors of the 20A who reversed the democratic gains of 20 years by its enactment.

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