Colombo, May 10 (newsin.asia): With just two more years to go for the next Presidential and parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is eager to make up for lost time and implement its election pledge to rid the country of corruption.
Corruption had reached dizzying heights during the nine year rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and had become a potent election issue in January 2015. But corruption continued under the rule of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also, reaching dizzying heights within the first month and a half. The Central Bank Bond Scam of February 2015 was of the order of LKR 11.4 billion.
Under both regimes, corruption figures were in billions of Lankan Rupees or millions of US dollars.
Only last week, the Chief of Staff in the Lankan President Sirisena’s office, Dr.I.H.K.Mahanama, and the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Timber Corporation, Piyasena Dissanayake, were caught getting a bribe of LKR 20 million (US$ 126,606) from an Bengaluru-based Indian investor. That was only the first installment of a LKR 100 million (US$ 633,031) bribe the duo were to get.
The two highly influential officials had initially asked investor K.P.Nagaraj for LKR 540 million or US$ 3.4 million but it was brought down to LKR 100 million over two years of negotiations.
There were 745,000 corruption cases in the court in 2016 (as per the last official count) up from 632,000 in 2012.
But while cases were piling up, delays in the judicial system were increasing.
It is to speed up trials and fix corrupt political opponents ahead of the January 2020 Presidential and the August 2020 parliamentary elections that the coalition government on Wednesday passed the Judicature Amendment Bill which provided for the establishment of a Special High Court for corruption which will conduct cases on a daily basis.
Dr. Wijedasa Rajapakshe, former Justice Minister, who is now Minister of Higher Education told parliament said that the new Court will not circumvent the existing judicial system. He said that the Chief Justice has been given the power to appoint judges to the Anti-Corruption High Court and to decide which cases should be taken up by the court based on a list submitted by the Attorney General.
Stressing the need for quick disposal of cases through daily hearings the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, M.A.Sumanthiran, said that on many occasions, wrong doers have been pronounced “not guilty” due to the unavailability of witnesses who may have died during the long pendency of the cases.
“If a trial happens 10 to 15 years after the incident, sometimes eye witnesses are not among the living, or documentary evidence goes missing. This has been our experience when long delays happen in the criminal justice system,” Sumanthiran, who is also a Supreme Court lawyer, said.
“Crimes that have been committed by persons in political authority, if not taken up in a timely manner, might go unpunished with a change of regime. They could call a halt to the process. This has been one of the biggest reasons why corruption at the highest levels in this country has never been effectively addressed,” he added.
Sumanthiran pointed out that even three years after the Sirisena government came into being promising speedy justice, there has been only one conviction, which has also been made subject to an appeal.
“In a system where we generally have two appeals, we can envisage the lapse of another decade or so before finality is reached even with regard to that one conviction,” he said.
High Level of Corruption
According to www.business-anti-corruption.com/country-profiles/sri-lanka/ there is a “moderately high risk” of corruption for businesses in the island nation. There is a “high-level of corruption” in the public procurement sector and the judiciary also.
“Businesses do not have sufficient confidence in the judiciary’s independence and its ability to efficiently settle disputes and challenge government regulations. Irregular payments and bribes in return for favorable judicial decisions are not uncommon.”
“One in twenty Sri Lankans perceive most or all judges and magistrates as corrupt. The judiciary is subject to corruption and manipulation due to political appointments at every level and the intimidation and transfer of judges. Corruption and political interference are especially problematic in lower courts,” the report points out.
Sri Lanka’s record in handling investment disputes is problematic, and court procedures can be time-consuming. Police impunity is a problem in Sri Lanka. Companies lack confidence in the reliability of police services to protect businesses from crime. A third of Sri Lankans believe the police is corrupt.
There are reports that police officers bribe or pay off people to refrain from submitting complaints; making it difficult to establish the level of corruption in the system,” the anti-corruption watchdog website says.
About a quarter of SSri Lri Lankans consider most or all local government officials to be corrupt. Corruption is embedded at every level of the state’s administration.
“There is a high risk of corruption in Sri Lanka’s land administration. Property rights are protected by law, but corruption and undue influence on the judiciary sometimes restrict the enforcement of rights the assessment says.
Therefore, corruption is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. And speeding up trials through a Special Court is only one of the ways of dealing with it. The entire system has to be cleaned up every now and then to identify and get rid of the black sheep.
Two years is too short a time to achieve an overall improvement in the situation, but at least one could hope to get some convictions in a few high profile cases involving top politicians and their cohorts.