The culture of impunity and immunity


We have, during the last twenty years, descended to the lowest levels of civility and relegated to limbo whatever respect there may have been for the law of the land. It has turned out that the rule of law has become a mere slogan at various forums, where pseudo intellectuals parade their learning to an equally snobbish audience as if to help them digest the food served to them by the organizers of such seminars, with foreign funds. Their sermons are of no use to the people troubled by the culture of impunity, as they do not understand what the rule of law is and are not aware of their basic rights including that to education. The poor cannot depend on the police for protection. Politicians interfere with the police who are also under pressure from the underworld with political connections.

On Feb. 15 1997, famous film star Sriyani Amerasena and her husband, Arthur and I were dining at the Canton Sea Food Restaurant in Colpetty. The dinner was hosted by the owner and parliamentarian Sarath Kongahage. Suddenly, there was a burst of gunfire and the place was plunged into darkness. Goons in army fatigue entered the restaurant and moved about in search of Sarath Kongahage, who had in the meantime escaped through the window and run into the house of A. J. M. Muzammil. The goons shot at random and we were asked to lie on the floor. We heard a burst of gunfire and the whole restaurant was searched and damaged. We all knew the attack had been led by the underworld character Beddeganna Sanjeewa, who was living at Temple Trees at that time. This restaurant was situated in the High Security Zone with several army and other barricades in the vicinity. Those manning the checkpoints had orders not to challenge the goon squad in military fatigues. The restaurant was destroyed and we just escaped death by hiding under a table. Complaints were made but no one was arrested though everyone knew the attack had been carried out by Sanjeewa. Before that film star Anoja Weerasinghe’s house had been burnt to ashes. No one was bothered, no NGO protested.

No government after 1956 could take criticism. The culture of impunity took roots. This permitted the politicians to plunder State resources and distribute some crumbs to their supporters to keep the unholy alliance in power. No one ever questioned the authority of the state to demolish and destroy the homes and business places of their opponents. Long before one of the most amiable and decent persons I came to know, as fellow practitioner, MP Nadaraja Raviraj, was killed and an equally decent human being, Kumar Ponnambalam was gunned down by Moratu Saman. No one was made to pay for those crimes.

Once, a former Minister of Health told me a fascinating story. "You will be surprised to know the number of patients who are literally killed by the medical fraternity. Most patients are poor, illiterate and without any power or connections. The patients die due to sheer medical negligence. The entire hospital staff knows about it. Everything is done to protect the negligent doctor. The Ministry of Health is powerless as doctors’ unions would thwart any impartial investigation. If there is any investigation the threat of a strike which every political leader wants to avoid. So, the negligent doctor goes scot free. One of the worst nightmares faced by a Lawyer is to institute a medical negligence case against a doctor. The negligence could be proved only if a medical expert gives evidence in court to prove negligence. Unless you are prepared to invite some foreign expert, at a tremendous cost, it is next to impossible to prove the existence of the tort, which is defined as a civil wrong that unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm resulting in legal liability for the persons who commit the tortious act. I remember an incident where a child was in the operating theatre and a heating instrument was placed to keep the temperature of the child from receding. The nurse accidently and negligently forgot to turn off the heater at the appropriate time. As the child was under sedation, the back of the child was burnt due to the heat. The parents did everything in their power to file a civil case. But, once the case was filed, they found it impossible to prove the ingredients of the plaint as there were no experts willing to testify against the powerful private hospital.

This is true of all other professions as well. If you are well connected you could do any wrong and get away with it. The legal profession is perhaps the worst. The impeachment of the former Chief Justice was one occasion where almost the entire profession rallied around the Judiciary to protect the sacred institution. But, only the exceptional and unique person was the late S. L. Gunasekera, who said that he would not appear before any Chief Justice appointed outside the Bench. He, true to his word, never appeared before Chief Justice Mohan Peiris till his untimely demise. Others who protested against the appointment lay half prostrate before Chief Justice Peiris. When virtually the whole Bar protested against the appointment of Sarath N. Silva, as the Chief Justice, there was a long queue to welcome him and one President’s Counsel who appeared for the petitioners who sought to have Sarath N. Silva removed from the roll of attorneys welcomed Sarath N. Silva and embraced him.

Now, it is the talk of the town that many President’s Counsel and senior Counsel, more than 15 of them, have jointly appealed to the Attorney General that Justice Sarath De Abrew should not be charged. One of the most hilarious reasons, given by them, is that the poor complainant will not be able to stand the cross examination. How sympathetic these gentlemen are to this woman! The heavens will open and showers of blessings will fall upon their feet and angels will sing hymns in praise of the efforts of these great men, legal luminaries, who took this extraordinary stand to protect the poor victim. Amen!

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