The equanimity of the law is lopsided in reference to Gajendran Kumar Ponnamabalam and Lohan Ratwatte



Everyone, except perhaps the President of the country who has immunity from prosecution, is supposed to be equal before the law in Sri Lanka but this is not the reality today.


Two recent events illustrate this: a report into the activities of State Minister Lohan Ratwatte and the arrest of parliamentarian Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam. The two incidents are distinct but both involve the alleged obstruction of duties and have been dealt with entirely differently: Ratwatte walks away scot-free and remains a State Minister to this day, Ponnambalam was promptly detained by Police.


The incident involving Ratwatte occurred in September 2021. At the time, he was State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation as well as State Minister of Gem and Jewellery. Ratwatte is alleged to have entered the prisons at Welikada and Anuradhapura accompanied by others while apparently intoxicated, lined up Tamil prisoners some of whom were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, pointed a loaded pistol at their heads and threatened to kill them, thereby obstructing the duties of prison officials.


At the time, the incident raised eyebrows and caused public anger. In response to this, then Justice Minister Ali Sabry appointed retired High Court Judge Ms Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena to inquire into the issue. That did happen but the report of this inquiry was not released to the public by the government until it was obtained a few days ago under the Right To Information (RTI) act. The report makes harrowing reading and makes one question Ratwatte’s mental state at the time of the alleged offence.


More importantly, the retired Judge of the High Court recommends that action should be taken against Ratwatte, suggesting that he be charged with several offences under the Weapons Ordinance, the Guns Ordinance and for several other offences including attempted murder at the Anuradhapura prison.


Nothing of that sort happened, of course. At the time the controversy erupted, Ratwatte resigned as State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation but then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa retained him as State Minister of Gem and Jewellery. The report of Retired Judge Ms Weerawardena was available a few months after the incident, by November 2021, but the Ministry of Justice did not release its findings until it was ordered to do so by the Right to Information Commission a few days ago.


What of Ratwatte? He continues to thrive and is now the State Minister of Plantation industries under President Ranil Wickremesinghe to this day!


Compare this with the plight of opposition parliamentarian Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam. The parliamentarian who is the leader of the Ahila Ilankai Thamil Congress (AITC) or the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress in Parliament is accused of obstructing the duties of Police officers.


The alleged incident occurred when Police officers reportedly asked Ponnambalam to call off his public meeting at the Thalaiyadi playground, in consideration of the students sitting the Ordinary Level examination being held at the nearby Thalaiyadi Roman Catholic Mixed School. Ponnambalam claims those who interacted with him were in civilian clothes and refused to confirm their identities.


Ponnambalam was detained in Colombo despite informing Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena of his intentions of attending Parliament and produced before a Magistrate where he was granted bail.


There are various versions of the incident involving Ponnambalam and some video clips of the event have been circulating on social media. We are not in a position to sit in judgment on whether Ponnambalam’s actions were justified or not and whether he is indeed guilty of an offence. However, even before charges against him have been proved, Police Spokesman Nihal Thalduwa has stated publicly that Ponnambalam is guilty of obstructing Police officers on duty and the Minister in charge of the Police, Tiran Alles told Parliament that the “Police has done nothing wrong.”


Regardless of whether Ponnambalam is guilty of the offences he is accused of or not, these two incidents highlight the inequalities of the law in Sri Lanka. Ratwatte, a ruling party parliamentarian against whom it has been recommended by a retired High Court Judge that he be charged with attempted murder, faces no consequences. Ponnambalam, who allegedly challenged a Police officer, is promptly detained and charged.


The government’s slip is showing in the fact that the Ministry of Justice did not think it fit to release the report on Ratwatte until it was ordered to do so by the RTI Commission. Moreover, even after the release of the report, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, that great advocate of democracy, thinks it fit to retain him as a State Minister.


It is also this same government which arrests people and detains them without the option of being granted bail for referring to Prince Siddhartha as ‘Suddhodana’s little one,’ the reason being that they have been charged with inciting hatred under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).


Nevertheless, Ratwatte, who allegedly storms into a prison outside the permitted visiting hours, singles out Tamil prisoners, subjects them to the degrading treatment of lining them up and threatening them with death by pointing at them with a loaded gun, remains a Minister of State, despite the findings of a Retired Judge of the High Court being made against him.


The ethnic war in Sri Lanka which bled the country for thirty years and cost thousands of lives did not originate overnight. It evolved after years of degrading treatment of the Tamil community as second-class citizens. The end of the war against terrorism has not healed all the wounds of that war.


The treatment meted out to Tamil detainees by Lohan Ratwatte- and the fact that he faces absolutely no consequences as a result- will do nothing to inspire confidence in the Tamil community that ethnic harmony is alive and well in Sri Lanka. It will only highlight that racism is still rampant, at least in the hearts and minds of ruling party politicians.


That President Ranil Wickremesinghe does nothing about this is only to be expected. He is not concerned about the nation, only about the next election. That has been Sri Lanka’s plight under almost every leader. If our leaders do not change, then it’s time to change them.