The Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra murder trial came to a conclusion last week. Former parliamentarian R. Duminda Silva was found guilty by a majority verdict and sentenced to death. Silva’s lawyers have said he would be appealing the verdict, but the trial was notable for many reasons.
At the time of the incident, Silva was a parliamentarian from the ruling party. He was also known as a loyalist of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Being close to the Rajapaksas, he was also the ‘monitoring MP’ for the Ministry of Defence, then ruled with an iron hand by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The murder trial had many twists and turns. It was made famous by Silva’s statement that he ‘could not remember’ events related to the incident. During the trial, Premachandra’s daughter, Hirunika Premachandra fronted to the cameras on many occasions, pleading for justice. Today, she is herself a parliamentarian, returned to the legislature for the first time at the August 2015 general elections.
There were fears that Silva would be declared innocent because he represented the establishment. He was close to highest power centres in the country. He also had vast financial resources at his disposal that allowed him to access the best legal assistance as well as state-of-the-art medical care in Singapore for his injuries, sustained at the incident that led to Premachandra’s murder.
We will never know whether that was the case because by the time the trial had run its course, the winds of political change had swept across the country. Rajapaksa was no longer the President. It is no secret that the judiciary breathed a collective sigh of relief when power was transferred from Rajapaksa to President Sirisena.
The verdict on the Premachandra murder will go a long way in restoring confidence in the integrity of the judicial process in Sri Lanka. However, this verdict alone will not suffice to sustain that integrity.
The present government has paraded many a politician being quizzed by the Police or being sent to remand prison before being bailed out. Most of them have been charged with offences related financial misappropriation. Some have been indicted. However, no one has been convicted as yet. That is partly because the judicial process has been painfully slow.
Among these accused are some government politicians as well. Most of these are individuals who were in power during the Rajapaksa era. They found it convenient to switch loyalties to President Sirisena, when the latter won the elections. Another accused is Hirunika Premachandra herself, who is charged with aiding the abduction of a youth. The public are waiting with bated breath to see whether these politicians too would be prosecuted with the same gusto that Rajapaksa loyalists are being pursued.
In fact, people who endorsed the concept of ‘good governance’ or yahapaalanaya and voted for candidate Maithripala Sirisena now complain that most of the crooks who polluted the Rajapaksa regime are now back in power, currying favour with the new government. There is some truth to this and sections of civil society which helped bring President Sirisena in to office are gasping in despair.
Prosecutions, at least in theory, have nothing to do with the government in power. This government made an election pledge that it would not interfere with the functions of the Police, the Attorney General’s Department or the judiciary. The time to test that premise has now come.
That is the challenge this government faces. The verdict in the Premachandra murder case is undoubtedly a feather in the judiciary’s cap because Silva commanded power and influence even though he was out of power and out of office. But, more needs to be done to convince the general public of the judiciary’s new found integrity and independence.
Now, justice must not appear to be done, it must be done as well.