The communication by the attorney-general last week to the Colombo High Court that he was withdrawing the indictment against Labour Minister Mervin Silva in a case involving the roughing-up a Sirasa cameraman and damaging his equipment will no doubt strengthen the public perception that this particular individual is a protected animal. Mercifully, Silva has kept out of trouble for some time now, possibly because President Mahinda Rajapaksa is getting tired of his penchant to deeply embarrass the government by his rowdy behaviour. It was only a couple of weeks ago that the president, at a meeting with newspaper editors, remarked that this non-cabinet minister was not removed from that job after his antics at Rupavahini as the employees of the state-owned television station had dealt with him and it would not be fair to punish a man twice for a single offence.
That premise, of course, is debatable. The president who is a lawyer and has appeared in many courts will know better than most that criminal suspects who are too often subject to third degree treatment at police stations are then produced before the courts for a second punishment. Why people who hold public as well as those who are rich and powerful office are treated more kindly than common or garden folk is a question to which the public is entitled to an answer. No doubt the Rupavahini people took the law into their own hands and pysically dealt with the politician. Their own tapes provided ample evidence of wrong-doing for which offenders could have been held criminally liable. But the authorities wisely decided to leave well alone given the strong public perception that Silva deserved everything he got and more and nothing followed from the investigation that was ordered into the ruckus.
It can be argued with some justification that in the context of Mervin Silva being ordered by the Supreme Court to pay Rs. 750,000 to compensate for the damage caused following a fundamental rights case filed in this connection, although he was not discharged from criminal liability, that there is no point in hounding him. As folk wisdom from the south of this country had it, just because the stick is strong, a man must not be beaten until it breaks. It sounds better in the original Sinhala, polla haiya nisa kedenakan gahanna honda neha. However threadbare the cliché, it nevertheless remains true that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. When important people, be they politicians or big businessmen, are caught on the wrong side of the law, they cannot be treated any differently from the ordinary John Singhos or Suppiahs. But that, unfortunately, is often the case in this country where some are more equal than others as demonstrated by people serving jail terms in the Merchant’s Ward of the Colombo National Hospital.
Earlier there was a cheque cheating case that also involved Mervin Silva whose massive welcome hoarding to the SAARC heads of state and government continues to look down on the busy Maradana junction long after the people of this country have forgotten when exactly the summit was hosted here! In that instance too there had been a settlement and the complaint had been withdrawn with the AG, after first instituting action, deciding he will not proceed. There too it can be urged that the hands of the authorities are tied when complaints are withdrawn. In any case, why chase somebody if the matter has been settled, it can be asked. But public persona, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion. It’s sad but true that this is hardly the case in this so-called Democratic Socialist Republic of ours where politicians, by their actions, have made themselves a breed that is anything but above suspicion. In fact a highly respected newspaper editor of yesteryear used to tell his young reporters to regard all politicians as liars until they prove otherwise!
Given that the AG is a retired officer of the department, recalled to service after some years practice at the private bar and advisory services to an important ministry, to assume the important position without benefit of constitutional council procedures in abeyance for too long, there will naturally be perceptions that the decision not to throw bell, book and candle at Mervin Silva was an act of friendship to Silva’s protectors, whoever they be. This is something that the new AG, whose appointment is being challenged in the courts, must not allow to take root. The attorney general is the principal legal advisor of the government obligated to guide it correctly, professionally and impartially. Mr. Mohan Peiris’s predecessor, Mr. C.R. de Silva, sent in his retirement papers after his term had been extended by the president because he did not wish the office of AG to be an object of controversy – a risk that arose when the extension was challenged in the courts. That was in the best tradition of the office.
It is also necessary that those who hold public office should remember that they are not elected (or appointed) forever but for a period specified by the constitution or whatever rules and regulations governing such appointments. They hold such office in trust for the people of this country as President Rajapaksa himself stressed soon after his election. It is sad but true that this trust has been betrayed in the past and it is necessary that the incumbent president who has earned unprecedented public acclaim for his unswerving commitment to end LTTE terror once and for all seizes this grand opportunity to add new lustre to his office. Law enforcement in Sri Lanka has deteriorated badly over the years and successive leaderships must be squarely blamed for that. We increasingly see bad eggs nominated for election by both major political parties and the fact that Mervin Silva has been an MP of both the UNP and SLFP is a comment on the scant disregard of both the greens and the blues about the kind of people they offer for election. The fact that such people can and do get elected is a reflection on the whole electorate. It has been said not without reason that people get the governments they deserve.