Sri Lanka: The Deshabandu Dilemma

It was believed that the president did not favour the appointment of Tennakoon, a principal contender for the position, who appeared to have enjoyed the backing of Law and Order Minister Tiran Alles.

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Acting IGP Deshabandu Thennakoon

It is not necessary to labour the fact that Thursday’s order by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court determining that Acting IGP Deshabandu Tennakoon, among four policemen, pay compensation of Rs. 500,000 each from personal funds to a police torture victim will be deeply embarrassing both to President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government.

They recently made the three month acting appointment of Tennakoon, the Senior Superintendent of Police at Nugegoda at the time of the human rights infringement upheld by court, occurred. He is alleged to have participated with other cops in the torture of the victim by beating an ex-soldier robbery suspect who had been stripped naked and ordered to rub Siddhalepa on his genitalia.

The determination held that Tennakoon, named in the fundamental rights petition, had produced no evidence to distance himself from the offence. “I am of the view that supervising officers are to be directly held liable for the conduct of their subordinates in appropriate instances, even in the absence of direct participation.

Supervising officers can be held liable where there is affirmatory participation or participatory presence on the part of such supervising officers; or, where they have, directly or indirectly, implemented or enabled unconstitutional policies by turning a blind eye towards unconstitutional practices directly under their authority,” Justice S. Thurairaja observed in the determination.

It is well known that President Wickremesinghe had on several occasions extended the tenure of previous IGP Chandana Wickremaratne beyond his retirement age. The Constitutional Council stood in the way of a further extension and the acting appointment was recently made probably because of that.

It was believed that the president did not favour the appointment of Tennakoon, a principal contender for the position, who appeared to have enjoyed the backing of Law and Order Minister Tiran Alles. However that be, the protracted period during which the appointment of a successor to the previous IGP was delayed, resulted in a controversial claim by the president that the Constitutional Council was part of the Executive, something which has been contested.

The public perception of the Constitutional Council is that it was created as a ‘checks and balances’ mechanism with regard to appointments by the State to important public office. The Parliamentary High Posts Committee, created prior to the Constitutional Council, has long been in existence and continues to function. But we do not recall any occasion, bar one, where the High Posts Committee rejected an appointment.

This was in the case of Mr. Upali Wijewardene, who had already served for a long period as Chairman and Director General of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC) was ex post facto deemed an unsuitable choice. The High Posts Committee at the time was chaired by then Prime Minister R. Premadasa whose antipathy to Wijewardene was very much in the open. But President Jayewardene, who appointed Wijewardene to the GCEC which was the precursor to the BOI, decreed that he remains in office despite the High Posts Committee determination.

All that, of course, is past history and water under the bridges. What arises at the present moment of time is whether Acting IGP Tennakoon, who is on record saying the police will not harass peaceful protests, and has been at great pains to demonstrate that intensive anti-narcotic action by the police will be a major priority during his tenure, will continue to remain in office despite the Supreme Court determination.

Most readers know it is a given in most countries that the official held culpable in circumstances such as this will resign post haste or be made to do so. But this is Sri Lanka which tourism promoting blurbs proclaim to be “a land like no other.” So what is to follow is anybody’s guess.

Any search for precedents will take memories back to the J.R. Jayewardene presidency where the legendary Vivienne Goonawardene, the firebrand woman MP of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in its glory days, was roughed up by police. The government rewarded the police officer involved with a promotion! Later the homes of Supreme Court judges were stoned. Anything is possible in a country such as this.

Since the determination in the instant case has been made by the Supreme Court, there is no easy way out as there is no higher court where an appeal may be lodged. Whether the incumbent president will opt for the same route chosen by his uncle Dickie remains to be seen. But it must not be forgotten that RW was not an enthusiastic backer of Dehabandu Tennakoon for IGP. It could also be mentioned here that Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, who is also the Chief Government Whip, held guilty of a criminal offence, remains in office pending conclusion of legal appeals, This contrasts with with what happened in India where Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, lost his Lok Sabha seat over a court conviction.

The budget debate concluded last week with the government winning a comfortable majority on the third reading despite apprehensions raised by several SLPP MPs. The country is heading for a difficult year with little doubt that inflation will gallop with the recent increase in VAT effective from next January. The opposition continues to press for a parliamentary election so that the people can decide who will govern them.

None would disagree that the present rulers have lost their mandate. Although constitutionally empowered to dissolve Parliament at any time of his choosing, President Wickremesinghe who has assured there would be a presidential election next year but not declared his own candidacy, has only gone public with a promise of a parliamentary election in 2025 and not earlier. However events unfold, 2024 is going to be a difficult year for Sri Lanka and her people.

Manik De Silva

Manik De Silva is the Editor of Sunday Island, a Colombo based weekly published by Upali Newspapers Ltd.

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