All Power Corrupts, Absolute power Corrupts Absolutely


Ajit Kanagasundram

This famous aphorism by Lord Acton is particularly apt for Sri Lanka. In this article I will contrast how other countries have handled corruption with our meagre efforts – not in the advanced western democracies but in Asia, Africa and South America.

We started off on a high note – relatively rich after independence and the Korean war rubber boom, with an incorruptible Civil Service who ran the administration with little interference from politicians and an independent judiciary. The governments under DS and Dudley Senanayake were models of rectitude and large projects, like Gal Oya, were implemented without a hint of scandal. The Sirimavo government from 1970 to 1977 did so little investment or development that there was no opportunity for corruption and instead they went to on to nationalize and degrade the best economic asset left to us by the British – the tea estates.

The floodgates of corruption were opened after JR Jayewardene came to power with a massive majority and created the all powerful Presidency with no checks and balances. The Mahaweli project under Minister Gamini Dissanyake was an example – there was a great deal of truth in the prevailing joke that the "Mahaweli had been diverted from Trinco to Finco". This was followed under this regime and the subsequent ones with massive corruption in all public projects without exception – highways, ports, airports power generation, purchase of aircraft… the list is endless. My purpose is not to repeat this sad litany but to show how other countries have dealt with this scourge, while we seem helpless to tackle it.

The Dirty Dozen

Japan - The Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was convicted of bribery in the purchase of Lockheed L1011 planes for All Nippon Airways and was sent to jail in 1978. The only other airline in Asia which bought this same aircrafttypewas– yes you guessed correct - Air Lanka !

Korea – Two Presidents were convicted of corruption. In the most recent case the past PresidentMrs Park Heun-hye was convicted of influence peddling and sentenced to 24 years in prison in April this year.

China – a number of politburo members, mayors of major cities like Shanghai and army generals have been convicted of bribery and corruption and jailed and in some cases sentenced to death.

Taiwan – former President Chen Shui-bian was charged with taking bribes in a land deal and he and his wife were jailed for 11 years in 2008.

India – the hugely popular Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was convicted of having disproportionate assets, removed from her post in 2014, fined Indian Rs 1 billion and jailed .

Indonesia – former president Suharto was charged with corruption and after his death in 2008 while the trial was in progress, the charges were continued against his family.

South Africa –PresidentJacob Zuma was ordered to step down this year for corruption ( and dealings with an Indian family called the Guptas) by his own party the African National Congress.

Saudi Arabia – In November 2017 the Crown Prince Bin Salman rounded un 381 rich businessmen (all billionaires) who had for years had corrupt dealings with the government of the rich oil producing country. They were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and kept incommunicado from their families and lawyers until they agreed to pay back all that they had stolen. All but 54 agreed and over $ 200 billion was collected for the state coffers. The 54 who did not come to an agreement will be tried under terrorism laws in a special court.

Brazil –President Lula de Silva was convicted of bribery in dealing with the state oil firm Petrobras and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2015.

Peru – former President Alberto Fujimori was extradited from Chile in 2005 and sentenced to a total of thirteen years in jail on multiple charges of corruption and human rights abuses.

Argentina – Former PresidentMrs Kirchner is under indictment and steps are being taken to lift her Senatorial immunity for a corruption trial.

Pakistan - the powerful Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was barred from all public office for life by the Supreme Court, and is currently under trial for corruption and holding dual nationality with Dubai (forbidden under Pakistani law for politicians). The consensus of legal opinion is that he will be sentenced to 14 years in jail. His brother and daughter are also standing trial with him for corruption.

This is what the rest of the world has done to deal with corruption in countries with different legal traditions. In our case the present government was voted into power with a specific mandate to bring to justice those in the previous regime who were responsible for massive corruptionand have done nothing in two years. The countries I have quoted above have varying legal traditions but had two things in common –the political will to fight corruption and a judiciary and investigative organizations that were both not corrupted and were free to do their job.

We have all the external trappings of a "justice" system – august judges who wear wigs on ceremonial occasions, an attorney general’s department with the brightest young legal minds, an ostensibly independent Criminal Investigating Department (CID) in the Police and a Financial Crimes Investigating Department (FCID) with accountants as well as lawyers. This whole system is however essentially a shadow play or a charade, with no substance,and has not once delivered a semblance of justice to victims of the war, victims of state violence or perpetrators of corruption. It is no wonder that the UN and Western countries now demand that foreign judges are required in War Crimes trial to ensure that justice is done – a demand that I personally oppose as it is an infringement on our sovereignty, but we should realize that we brought this ignominy on ourselves. The same lack of credibility is shown in the fight against corruption.

There are many reasons for this – the AG’s department, CID and FCID are infiltrated by supporters of the past regime who delay investigations, and the fear of the few honest officers that if they are too enthusiastic in investigating past crimes that they may be targeted in future when the government changes. Judges are ever willing to grant injunctions that delay trials and tolerate time wasting tactics by lawyers.All this is coupled with a lack of political will that may be due to an unwritten understanding among the political class that no stern action will be taken against corruption as long as the favour is returned when they are out of power. Once a file is "referred to the Attorney General’s department" no one knows when a case will be brought to court and how long the court process itself will take.Politicians know that if they delay long enough they will get away with it.

The only way to bring those responsible for past corruption to justice is to have special courts under specific legislation and simplified rules of evidence, together with a small elite investigative force. In America, even today, Mafia and drug related offences can be charged under the RICO Act – Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act. Although America is a bastion of private property, under the RICO Act the FBI and the Justice Department are empowered to seize the property of the accused or their relatives even before conviction unless they can prove that they were acquired legitimately and taxes paid on them. The suspects are also kept in custody (and can communicate only with their lawyers) to prevent them from tampering with evidence or suborning witnesses.

We needed similar laws and a special court, with simplified rules of evidence together with an elite task force of Police officers, lawyers and financial specialists. Two years ago when the Yahapalana government first came to power, even if it needed special legislation with a two thirds majority in Parliament the necessary support was available. Only the JVP advocated similar measures but this was ignored in the euphoria of the unexpected victory. Instead the UNP was involved with the Central Bank Bond scandal which forever tainted it with corruption, and which undermined its moral authority to prosecute corruption. However the truth is that the money lost in the Bond scandal is only a fraction of what was stolen under the previous regime. The result is not even one case filed in court let alone a conviction, when it is known that billions of dollars were syphoned away and who did it. I know from personal experience that Singapore banks have a legion of private bankers to serve the specific market for Sri Lankan clientele when under our Exchange Control Act it is even forbidden to have a foreign bank account!

"Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It’s self-defense. It’s patriotism." – Joe Biden former US Vice President

It is time the Sri Lankan public stopped accepting lame statements like "the file has been referred to the AG’s department" and demand a systemic change to our system of "justice" that will produce results within a reasonable time. The names of the corrupt and what they stole is widely known. If the 12 countries shown above can do it, why cannot Sri Lanka with our longer history of a modern judicial system and a surfeit of lawyers in public life?

The author welcomes comments


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