Former US President Donald Trump suffered a heavy judicial gavel blow on Tuesday. US District Judge Tanya Chutkan, citing a US Supreme Court precedent, shot down Trump’s attempt to prevent the White House from releasing some vital records required by a select committee of the US House of Representatives, investigating the Capitol riot (06 Jan).  

In her 39-page opinion, Judge Chutkan said, “Presidents are not kings and the Plaintiff [Trump] is not President.” She noted that Trump had retained the right to assert that his records were privileged, but the incumbent President was not legally bound to go by that assertion. She cited a Supreme Court ruling to bolster her argument, which sounds very convincing. Trump has decided to appeal her ruling, and legal experts argue that the apex Court of the US will find itself in a legal dilemma. It is believed that chances of Trump succeeding in having the District Court ruling upturned are very slim.

The US Supreme Court gave a pathbreaking ruling in 1977 in a case involving former US President Richard Nixon. Three years after his resignation as President, Nixon challenged the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act in the hope that he would  be able to prevent the release of the recordings and documents about the Watergate scandal, which had led to his downfall. The Supreme Court famously said, “The privilege is not for the benefit of the President as an individual, but for the benefit of the Republic.”

Thus, it is clear that the interests of the country take precedence over those of the President. Incumbent US President Joe Biden does not subscribe to Trump’s position on the White House records, or at least the ones pertaining to the Capitol uprising, which threatened the very foundations of the US democracy and electoral system, and, above all, brought the much-vaunted American democracy into disrepute internationally. The Democrats, a section of Trump’s Republican party itself, the American legal community, most US lawmakers, the media, and the vast majority of the US public want the violent uprising thoroughly probed and all culprits brought to justice. After leaving office, Trump escaped an unprecedented attempt to impeach him over the riot which he stands accused of having instigated. Had the impeachment bid gone through, Trump would not have been able to contest future elections ever again. He is said to be trying to do a Grover Cleveland, the only US President to have served two nonconsecutive terms (from 1885 to 1889 and from 1893 to 1897).

Relevance to Sri Lanka

Judge Chutkan’s decision under discussion, and the aforesaid US Supreme Court precedent, are of relevance to Sri Lanka, far-fetched as this assertion may look at first glance. Those two rulings have rejected the claim that the President’s executive powers enable him to decide arbitrarily whether information under his custody should be released; the US Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that the White House has to act in the interests of the republic and not the President as such.

In Sri Lanka, too, the Presidents have refused to release several presidential commission reports on issues of national importance, the latest being the final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks (2019).

The current SLPP rulers made a solemn pledge before the 2019 presidential election that they would conduct a thorough probe into the Easter Sunday carnage and have all those responsible for it prosecuted. But this pledge has gone unfulfilled much to the resentment of the families of the victims and the Catholic church. Not even the full commission report has been tabled in the parliament. Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, and other church leaders have been asking for access to the entire PCoI report, which consists of 22 documents including five volumes. Only Volume One has been released. One has to peruse all documents to get a better understanding of the report.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Office refused to hand over the entire report even to the AG, initially, citing various reasons, although the commission itself wanted the whole set of documents handed over to the state prosecutor. The commissioners have said in their main report: “The COI recommends that Your Excellency the President transmit a complete set of the Report to the Attorney General to consider institution of criminal proceedings against persons alleged to have committed the said offences.”

Boost for campaign for justice in SL

Those who are pressing for the release of the entire Easter Sunday PCoI report could gain a boost for the campaign for justice from the above-mentioned US Supreme Court precedent and the federal court ruling against Trump.

SJB MP Harin Fernando told Parliament on Thursday that the wife of National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) leader Zahran Hashim, who led the Easter Sunday attacks, had told the PCoI that her husband had been in touch with some Sri Lankan state intelligence officers. He said an audio clip containing her statement was available, and the Cardinal and the Vatican had listened to it. He called for the full PCoI report, and challenged Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekera for a public debate on the issue. Weerasekera has denied Fernando’s claim. He insists that no intelligence officer ever met Zaharan.

Meanwhile, Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies, Sri Lanka Prof. Rohan Gunaratna has been quoted by the Sri Lankan media as saying that there is no concrete evidence to prove that Zahran met intelligence operatives. According to a frontpage report in The Island newspaper on 13 Nov. Dr. Gunaratne has said: “I have studied the 300-page statement she [Zahran’s wife] gave to the PCoI, the 100-page statement she made to the CID unit attached to the Commission, a 22-page statement that she made to police while at Batticaloa Hospital and two previous statements to CID while she was at her mother’s house in Kekunagolla. She doesn’t say anywhere that Zahran met intelligence operatives. I have also interviewed Hadiya for months. She didn’t tell me any such thing.”

These claims and counterclaims have left those who are seeking justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings confused. Who is telling the truth? What really happened? Has the PCoI arrived at the right conclusions in its report, or will anyone be able to find flaws in them if he or she gains access to the entire report? Is the government trying to hide anything from the public? Are the damning allegations that the Opposition is levelling against the government true? Who masterminded the Easter Sunday bombings? These are among the many questions that the families of the victims, the Church, Sri Lankans and the international community are raising, and it is the duty of the government to clear the doubts and suspicions in their minds, if it has nothing to hide.

What happened at the Capitol Hill in the US on 06 January was very serious, and the culprits have to be traced and punished, and the records and any other materials that could serve as evidence should be made accessible to the investigators including the members of the House of Representatives bipartisan committee. The recent federal court decision has been widely welcomed, and speculation is rife that Trump will fail in his efforts to prevent the release of the White House records in question.

The Easter Sunday carnage is one of the worst crimes against civilians this country has ever seen. It has also shaken the world. All attempts by the Opposition to have the full PCoI report tabled in the parliament have been in vain. MP Fernando has renewed the Opposition’s call for the whole report.

It is hoped that the Cardinal, his fellow prelates, and all others demanding justice for the Easter Sunday carnage victims will take serious note of the US federal court ruling, the Watergate-era US Supreme Court precedent, and open another front to achieve their goal. They do not seem to have seen the relevance of the US court rulings to the Sri Lankan situation.  



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