A landmark documentary, possibly the first of its kind with its meticulous adherence to the truth, an unspeakably aberrant aspect of the judiciary. It was finally screened , notwithstanding the vigorous attempts to prevent it, by Lenin Ratnayake – alias Ratnayake Banda, alias Lekam Gedera Ratnayake, alternately identified as Bulathgama Lekam Mudiyanse Ralahamilage Lenin Ratnayake ; chief protagonist in the sordid drama which the film portrays in clinical detail.

The film is brief, concise and austere in its total lack of pretension. It does not moralize, or deliver a judgment, nor embellish or dramatize any situation. The actors, if they are actors, resemble the people they portray, without prettiness, without glamour, unambiguously reflecting the desperation that is their lot. It is the starkness of the images and the harrowing simplicity of the script, which delivers to an affluent audience, lounging in luxurious seats in an expensive theatre, the anguish, the helplessness, the reality of the suffering of an underclass, at the hands of a predatory law-giver. Director Prasanna Withanage is to be complimented for the honesty of his art and the uncompromising reality of the composition.

However, there would have been no film, no exposure of this ugliness, no hope of redress to the victims, if not for Victor Ivan’s courageous journalistic efforts. He persevered for several difficult years, despite the strenuous efforts of other members of the legal fraternity to sanitize Ratnayake’s conduct, to publicize the truth and usher in some measure of justice to literally destitute victims who are unable to articulate their pain; victims who are unable to harness the resources , emotional and material, necessary to secure justice in a labyrinthine judicial process, in which equality before the law is assured, not for the deserving but for litigants with the most means.

Victor Ivan first exposed the conduct of Lenin Ratnayake, in the “Ravaya ” issue of August 17, 1997, under the caption ” Magistrate Violates Wife of Suspect “. His project to ensure justice to a wronged woman and, in the process, to ensure that the law acts against a magistrate who had befouled the judiciary by his conduct, eventually developed in to a far more complicated engagement with the then Attorney General and later Chief Justice, Sarath Nanda Silva, whose deplorable conduct Ivan subsequently portrayed in all its seamy detail in his book, ” The Unfinished Struggle”.

This writing is not just about the film, which has already been competently reviewed. It is also about a system of law-giving and law enforcement which, with increasing frequency, vandalizes the very society that it is sworn to protect. It is also about a society, which has become immune to the institutionalized depredations on its own body.

In this country there is an unbridgeable chasm between crime and eventual punishment. The wheels of justice grind slowly, selectively and justice is as often perverted as it is denied. Justice seems to depend, as much on the quality of facts and evidence, as on the stature, positions and the relationships of perpetrators and the victims.

In 1948, when we gained Independence, along with a time tested system of democratic governance, the country inherited an equally durable body of law, a judiciary composed of men of unimpeachable integrity and a highly organized enforcement arm. Since then the original values underpinning these systems have been steadily eroded, defiled, to the point where senior policemen moonlight as hired assassins ; where torture and death of suspects in custody has become a regular occurrence and a judge sees nothing wrong in obtaining through compulsion, sexual favours from dependants of litigants appearing before him, the latter with support from other members of the legal fraternity; where crime investigations are tailored and subverted at the bidding of the politically powerful.

Since the violent subjugation of the first JVP inspired insurrection, followed by the even more brutal repression of the second, compounded by the cruelty inflicted on society by both factions during our long civil war, society as a whole has become desensitized to death, destruction and infringements on basic civic rights of the disempowered and the marginalized. The irregular means employed in combating terrorist and civil uprisings and the extra-judicial empowerment of law enforcement agencies , para-military bodies and State sponsored vigilante units during times of war, have provided these groups with both the rationale and the impunity , for the employment of such strategies in normal circumstances. Most such actions have received either direct or indirect State sanction, or been sanitized and justified after the event.

We constantly boast of an ancient Sinhala – Buddhist culture, based on a doctrine of compassion, impeccable personal conduct and total abstinence from all forms of violent conduct. This country has perhaps a hundred thousand active Buddhist priests constantly preaching loving kindness and other virtues to society, but renegade members of the same clergy see nothing wrong in physically attacking places of worship of other faiths and properties occupied by communities of such faiths. Those who, during periods of intense communal violence, destroyed properties of Tamils and Muslims, and consigned such citizens, alive, to makeshift funeral pyres, simply because they worshipped differently and spoke differently, see no disconnect between those acts and the Buddhist values they have learned at the Daham Pasela.

The policeman who tortures a suspect in custody during the day and even causes death, may sit comfortably with other devotees at an evening Pirith ceremony and piously repeat the five noble precepts with no feeling of guilt. Buddhist religious rituals are observed with great devotion on significant days by hundreds of thousands but our rate of violent crime is probably higher than that of any other country where the predominant religion is Buddhism. The rape of women, molestation of minors and other forms of violence against women and children appear to be daily occurrences. The reality is that the pristine fabric of Buddhist values fails to hide the dirty underbelly of a society, both brutish and hypocritical. There is much blood underfoot in the land that the Buddha supposedly trod.

What has gone wrong and where?

As a society, we have been sliding in to a moral morass, where the line between good and evil has become increasingly blurred. A manic nationalism, masquerading as patriotism, has become the justification for all forms of intolerance against minority communities, State sponsored during the noxious Rajapaksa regime, which also made a refined art of suppressing dissent. However, let it be never forgotten that the late JR Jayewardene , presided over a regime which made a substantial contribution to State inspired, and State sponsored , lawlessness and the stifling of dissent.

Let us not forget that since the killing of Richard de Zoysa in 1990, about 20 other journalists, mostly Tamil, have been murdered. Most of these killings have taken place in daylight, generally preceded by abductions of the victims from public places , and invariably in front of several witnesses but not one perpetrator has been brought to justice so far. The case of the Tamil students murdered years ago in Trincomalee remains unresolved and Prageeth Ekneligoda’s wife is still waiting for justice.

In a macabre re-enactment of similar killings during the Rajapaksa regime, two Tamil students died under mysterious circumstances in Kilinochchi a few weeks ago. All circumstances suggest that the Police have attempted to portray as accidental death, a deliberate killing they are responsible for. In the aftermath of the incident, the Secretary for Defence makes the indefensible statement that such occurrences are not confined to the North but have also take place in the South as well. Was he implying that the Tamil society in the North should not be perturbed, as the random killing of civilians by law enforcement agencies is an island-wide phenomenon and not based on ethnicity?

The Yahapalanaya cohabitation promised the country a new beginning but the President’s recent, much publicized rant did much to dissolve that roseate vision. Yet, we take heart from the fact that the killing of the two students in the North is now being investigated seriously. The bond scandal has been probed and there is the likelihood of a legal sequel to the preliminary findings. There are many other issues in the investigative pipeline and, possibly, some will see logical conclusions. We believe that despite the gulf between rhetoric and reality, the foundation of the new governance can be restored before a breakup becomes irreparable.

Notwithstanding its glaring fault lines, we are prepared to give this regime space and time to deliver on its original promises. Transforming the State machinery from a family business- on the lines of a Mafia crime syndicate – to that of a democratic government which acknowledges the rule of law and the need for transparency and appropriate checks and balances, will be a process, both gradual and painful. We concede that the entrenched evil of three decades can impede an ideal ending but still believe that it will be an improvement on what preceded it.

The solution that this country needs is in the hands of President Sirisena. It is still within his power to make the right call and to erase the nagging fear in the minds of those who voted in the Yahapalanaya government, that they have not made yet another mistake. Given the will, the malignancy that has invaded the State machine can still be excised. Otherwise, for those seeking a decent society but have now run out of leadership options, the failure to deliver on the promises of January 2015 will be an outcome too tragic to contemplate.

— Anura Gunasekera

This article first appeared in The Island on November 5, 2016   http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=155033