Everyone is aware that in this nation of ours, the wheels of justice turn at different speeds. Sometimes, they turn at breakneck speed, often they turn very slowly and at other times, they don’t turn at all.
When Keith Noyahr, the then associate editor of this newspaper was abducted in May 2008, many close associates initially feared for his life. He was eventually released but not before he was badly beaten up, tortured and threatened with death.
At that time, there was speculation that Noyahr’s captors released him when those occupying the highest positions of power were informed of his plight. It had been suggested that, had it not been for these interventions, he would have been killed.
If the threats were meant to intimidate Noyahr, his abductors succeeded: soon after his release, he fled the country and is now domiciled overseas. He has shunned the limelight since the incident and has refrained from making any public comments, even after the previous regime was defeated and a new government took office.
The abduction and release of Keith Noyahr hit the headlines again this week because five persons including an officer in the Army and four soldiers were detained by the Criminal Investigations Department. In Noyahr’s case, most had come to believe that the wheels of justice had come to a grinding halt. Now, they seem to be turning once again, albeit ever so slowly.
Among journalists who were threatened, Noyahr is one of the lucky few to live to tell the tale. Others such as Lasantha Wickrematunge and Prageeth Ekneligoda were not so fortunate: Wickrematunge was gunned down in broad daylight while the whereabouts of Ekneligoda are still uncertain.
However, as in Noyahr’s case, it has been reported that progress is slowly but surely being made in these two cases as well, although convictions for those responsible are still a long way away. The average citizen wouldn’t mind that, unless of course the wheels of justice come to a grinding halt yet again, if and when the political canvas of the country changes.
That brings us to a different but more pertinent question. Those detained for the assault on Noyahr are an Army officer and four soldiers. Even the most of naïve among us Sri Lankans will not believe that they acted on their own initiative, aggrieved by Noyahr’s incisive and insightful articles regarding the military at that time and decided to ‘teach a lesson’ to the journalist.
At the time of the incident Noyahr was writing a column titled ‘Military Matters’ in this newspaper under the pen name ‘Senpathi’. The column had a wide audience at a time when the Sri Lankan armed forces were engaged in a tense tussle with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for supremacy on the ground in the North and East.
Noyahr, who generally kept a low profile, may not have been a household name in the country but he was too important figure for a ‘lone wolf’ type of attack from someone in the military. Besides, the manner in which it was carried out suggested that Noyahr was stalked for some time, indicating that several individuals and some amount of resources would have been involved in planning the abduction.
The common perception—and certainly a possible one-is that those who have now been detained were merely carrying out orders that they received from someone higher in the chain of command. That does not make them any less culpable because it was they who carried out the ultimate act of abduction and torture, but it doesn’t answer the big question either: who gave those orders?
This leads to even more questions than answers: where did the orders originate? The latter is relevant because this being Sri Lanka, most events have a political connotation.
If indeed there was a political hand behind this incident, then would they be called upon to answer charges? That question needs to be asked because, in other high profile investigations which are on-going, we hear of various accused being paraded before the courts of law although their political masters are still free to go about their business without hindrance.
At the last elections, the Sri Lankan voter was made to believe that this government would usher in an era where the rule of law reigns supreme and would not be a respecter of persons. There is already a sense of disappointment among the public that this promise is not being fulfilled as much as it should be.
There is some justifiable apprehension among the public that, despite all the publicity surrounding the detention of suspects, nothing much happens thereafter and that the real masterminds behind the crimes get away with hardly a mention.
There is of course a judicial process that needs to be followed and, in instances of this nature, a conviction cannot be obtained overnight. However, it is also pertinent that since this government took office two years ago, it is yet to convict anyone for a serious misdemeanour, although dozens of court proceedings are pending. This is why public confidence in the process itself is waning.
Soon, as hearings begin, the case against these military personnel will hit the headlines and will become the cynosure of all eyes, locally and internationally.
From what has happened in the past, it seems the response to these types of accusations is one of two extremes: the Eelam lobby and some elements in the international community trying to brand military personnel as rapists, murderers and abusers of human rights and, on the other hand, some local political parties and organisations providing them with unconditional endorsements, hailing them as patriots and war heroes.
The truth is somewhere in between. While the vast majority in the military deserve all the accolades they can get, there are rogue elements who have engaged in heinous crimes abusing the positions of power they enjoyed at that time.
It is important that the military gets rid of these elements so that its true heroes are not tarred with the same brush. At the same time their political overlords, if there were any, must be prosecuted and punished, if proven guilty. In this instance, if the authorities are able to do that, Keith Noyahr would not have suffered in vain.