By N Sathiya Moorthy
Talking to newsmen after visiting churches across capital Colombo and suburbs on Easter, the Archbishop of Colombo, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, has reiterated the call for action against the culprits behind the unforgettable and humanly unforgivable Easter carnage two years earlier. Memories are hard to come by, especially for men of god, who would not have imagined blood, bones and flesh all around them, that too in the house of the Lord. But that happened, and the revulsion of the Church cannot but be under-played, over-looked or side-stepped.
Yet, for Cardinal Ranjith to name then President Maithripala Sirisena and seek action against him may be over-stretching his ecclesiastical duties, or his responsibilities to his Lord, the Saviour. It is another matter that his if the religion of ‘Forgive and forget’. Christians are told that if someone hit them on one check, he has to offer the other cheek. That may also be extending the kindness, equanimity and grace preached by the Lord a little too far, yes. But the reverse is equally harmful, if not more.
There can be no denying that the internal political squabble that was inevitably written into the scheme and structure of the eminently forgettable Government of National Unity (GNU) would have contributed to this carnage, if not worse, was all too well known. By the same token, the West that midwifed the birth of the GNU, and also threw out the baby with the bathwater when it became too early cannot escape its own share of the blame for interfering in the internal affairs and effecting ‘regime-change’ to suit their geo-strategic agenda centred on Sri Lanka, is unforgivable even more.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that went into the circumstances that contributed to the Easter carnage has pointed its finger at President Sirisnea, yes. But is there a provision in the Constitution or the criminal laws of the land, to penalise a political administrator for what could at best be legally termed as ‘criminal negligence’?
In penal laws, the penalty for ‘criminal negligence’ is not the same as the one for cold-blooded murder, that too as many as that lost their lives and limbs in the Easter carnage. Unless the direct involvement of Sirisena could be proved beyond reasonable doubt before a court of law, and that he too conspired with Zahran & Co, no case of murder could lay at his door.
Sure enough, the good Cardinal had sought and obtained sound legal advice from within the laity before going public with his kind of finger-pointing and demand for Maithri’s blood. When the law does not permit it, Cardinal Ranjith may suitably be advised to scale and scale down his demand – sticking to what is possible. Cut to the bones, it means, the Cardinal should be speaking like a community leader, not a political boss facing his next election. Full-stop.
In the same vein, media reports have quoted the Cardinal setting an April 21 deadline – the very day the Easter blasts occurred in 2019 – for the Government to take action against all those responsible for the heinous act. Else, the community would take to the streets, he declared.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as if to responding to the Cardinal’s statement, has since promised early action in the matter. Still, the Church should remember that the government can only launch criminal investigations and take it to the courts through the good offices of the Attorney-General’s department. Then it is for the courts to decide, from the lowest to the highest in the land.
Suffice is to point out in this case, how the pending cases against blasts-time Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Inspector-General of Police (IG) Pujith Jayasundara, are not pending before the Supreme Court, with no one talking any more about an early trial. The Supreme Court case flows from the two challenging their arrest in the first place. It is not without reason.
Granting that culpability is established, will it be ‘criminal culpability’ of the prosecution kind, implicating them for murder. In criminal jurisprudence, unless ‘mens rea’, or intention (and hence participation), is established, it can at best only be considered a ‘rash and negligent act leading to death’. Here, the number of victims does not alter the legal and judicial culpability.
It is the same as a rash bus-driver getting his 50 or more passengers dead, or an irresponsible construction engineer contributing to the collapse of a dam and causing the death of thousands and more. Under these circumstances, what is the kind of punishment the Church expects for Sirisena, when criminal culpability for ‘murder’ cannot be established even in his case, under the existing law?
Alternatively, Parliament will have to amend the criminal laws, to make such acts of negligence, too, as equal to an offence of ‘murder’. If that were to be the case, it could amount to ‘criminal accountability’ for an act that is not so, until now. Read with the pending UNHRC process, a law of the kind could well apply to any ‘internal processes’ of the state to address the concerns outlined in the UNHRC process.
In the absence of the same, for the Church to threaten protests that will not result in any anticipated outcome of theirs – if they are clear about such outcomes – it will only aggravate the ground situation. Taken to the extreme, it can end up identifying the nation’s Sinhala-Christian community, too, as yet another ‘minority community’ that has turned against the Sri Lankan state.
Poll as a punishment
In all traditional democracies, punishment for the political class for their own acts of omissions and commissions, is linked to the immediately next, electoral victory or defeat. This was the case with the Rajapaksas in 2015 polls, when the Tamil, Muslim and Christian minorities supposed to have done them in, for alleged rights violations, independent of one another.
In this background, the Church too has to consider if by forcing the issue now and seeking to set a new precedent where none exists, it now wants Sirisena disenfranchised, through required legislative processes. For, that could only be the way he could be stripped of his right to contest – which is among the demands that Cardinal Ranjith seems to be demanding, among others.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Colombo Gazette’s point-of-view