Former Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunge is the first high profile figure under the Rajapaksa regime to suffer punishment for the abuse of office, in this instance for misappropriating public funds. He, together with former Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Director General Anusha Palpita, were each sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment. In addition, the duo were separately fined Rs. 2 million and each ordered to pay Rs. 50 million to the TRC. Colombo High Court Judge Gihan Kulatunga found both guilty for misappropriating Rs. 600 million belonging to the TRC, which was used to purchase sil redi, for distribution among temples island-wide, on the eve of the last Presidential Election.
Delivering the order, the judge observed that the public servants’ tendency towards illegal activities, under the political culture that prevailed at that time, was obvious, in obtaining Rs. 600 million from the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, without the approval of the Board of Directors, to distribute sil redi, giving it priority, though it was not an urgent need, clearly indicating the dishonesty of the accused. The judge also added that the accused failed to justify the circumstances that led to the distribution of the sil redi during the election campaign, with funds allocated as a matter of priority and that distribution of this material should have been suspended during the election campaign, even if it had been a routine activity.
In mitigation, counsel for both accused claimed that they did not personally benefit by even a single cent from the transaction, which apparently failed to impress the judge, who, in essence, declared that it was an election bribe at the expense of the public.
The predicament of the one time highest ranking public official in the country, who was no less than the Secretary to the all powerful Executive President, hopefully will act as a deterrent to all public officers, against carrying out illegal orders, issued by their superiors. We say this because there is already a campaign that is being carried out by the pro-Rajapaksa media that the fate of the Weeratunge-Palpita duo will hold back public officials from even executing their legitimate duties, which will affect the smooth functioning of the government machinery. These elements claim that a public official will now think twice before placing his signature on any document, fearing the consequence that may visit him in the event of a change of regime.
However, in our book, public officials are not obliged to carryout illegal orders from a minister or political panjandrum and has only to perform his duties true to his conscience. There were public officials in the past who refused to carry out orders against their conscience, and, while, some suffered dire consequences, there were still others who gained the respect of the authority who issued such orders. One recalls an instant where, a recently deceased police officer, refused to carry out an order of a once powerful politician from the south. When the politician came to the station to inquire as to why, he was promptly shown the door by this highly respected police officer. One also recalls an instance where former SSP Nihal Karunratne, head of security of ex-President Chandrika Kumaratunga, exerting pressure on the then OIC Peliyagoda, Inspector Samudrajeewa to release the notorious criminal Beddegane Sanjeewa, but drew a blank at the other end. These are just two illustrations to indicate the calibre of public officials we had in our midst, who refused to toe the line of the authorities.
One cannot wash his/her hands of wrongdoing by saying he/she was only carrying out orders, or, in the alternative, he/she would have been thrown out of his/her job. This is an all too easy excuse to wriggle out of responsibility. Equally if, one knowingly executed an illegal order he/she should face the consequences. In the Nuremberg trial, all those who carried out Hitler's orders to massacre innocents were executed. In the Ali Bhutto murder trial, the soldiers who allegedly carried out Bhutto's orders to assassinate a political opponent suffered the same fate.
An attempt is being made by the JO to throw dust in the eyes of the public vis-a-vis the punishment of two powerful officials under the Rajapaksa regime. Rajapaksa himself says that the duo has been made to suffer for the assistance they rendered to Buddhist affairs Bauddha katayuththakata sambandha wunu nisa, in a clear attempt at obfuscation, when the sil redi was distributed as an election bribe on the eve of the Presidential Election. Why wasn't this Bauddha katayuththa carried out at another time during his 10 year tenure as President. An attempt is also been made to compare the Rs. 600 million with the astronomical sum involved in the Bond scam. Those making the comparison has failed to realise that the Bond scam is being priced open under a government in power, with State Counsel of the Attorney General's Department going to the extent of naming and shaming powerful ministers, while the sil redi episode would certainly have not come to light had Rajapaksa won a third term.
Daily News, September 11, 2107