Above the law

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

It’s December 2010, and two young law students are sitting for their exam.

One is in a hall full of students, who are being monitored closely by the examiner to make sure they’re following the rules:  no phones, no electronic devices, no cheating.

The other, meanwhile, is taken to a private, air-conditioned room with a computer with internet access, and is allowed to keep his phone.  As an added bonus, he has two teachers from the college sitting by his side. Perhaps simply for moral support, or perhaps for slightly more.

It’s an unthinkable scenario in Europe where recently a couple of high profile cheating and plagiarizing scandals have destroyed hitherto illustrious careers, but not so for Sri Lanka, a country pulled increasingly into the international spotlight for an ever widening smorgasbord of human rights abuses.

A prince above the law
The student in the second scenario is Namal Rajapakse, scion of the country’s ruling family, and a prince in the making.  The other student is D.M. Thushara Jayarathna who was one examination paper away from his law degree from the Sri Lankan Law College when he filed a complaint against Namal Rajapakse for examination violations.

Within days he was receiving death threats and being ordered to keep silent. But Thushara didn’t choose to keep silent. He pressed the complaint to the college, sent petitions out to human rights commissions, NGO’s and the press.  After he gave an interview to the BBC Singhala service, the mood turned really nasty.

Since then he’s received threatening phone calls which he’s managed to trace back to various police owned landlines and mobiles. He’s tried to officially file his case with the police, but they’ve refused to write it up.

Police have come to his house with piles of documents they won’t allow him to read but want him to sign and uniformed officers have told him to put up a white flag outside his house – a traditional sign that there’s been a death in the family.

He’s been abducted twice.  The first time he was detained for 11 hours and though there was no physical roughing up, the stress left him with enough mental trauma for him to go on medication.  The second time he was picked up they weren’t so polite.  He was beaten up, his sarong was pulled off him and he was so frightened that he hasn’t been able to sleep properly since. 

Meanwhile Thushara’s father has had two brain hemorrhages that have left him unable to speak.  His mother was already a Parkinson’s patient, so Thushara decided it was best if he left home.  He’s been living in hiding since last April.  His neighbours and friends have been threatened and he says: “Everyone is so scared in Sri Lanka of this government, they don’t dare go against them.”

A half life in hiding

Thushara now lives a weird half life, neither graduate nor job candidate, with a family he can’t visit, a college that doesn’t want him back.  He depends on NGO’s and human rights activists for a safe place to sleep, and meals to keep him going.

“I’m a beggar” he says matter of factly. He tells his story again and again to media in the hope of stirring enough of an outcry for the persecution to stop, but it’s hard not to think of him as a skinny unarmed David, spitting in the wind against a Goliath that’s almost too big to grant him much notice besides a casual smack when he pipes up too loudly.

The Rajapakses' Sri Lanka: a family concern
President Mahinda Rajapakse has made ruling Sri Lanka a family concern. His brothers and sons occupy top positions in the Ministeries of Defence and Economic Management, a Rajapakse is the Speaker of the House, others are high ups in the army and navy. 

His relatives are ambassadors and provincial politicians, and very rich businessmen with controlling shares in industry and aviation.  Namal, the eldest son, and above mentioned character in the exam scenario is an MP.

But Thushara has another title for them:  “They’re criminals and gangsters,” he told RNW. “And I won’t leave this country because I want to bring democracy back to Sri Lanka.”

He adds: "The president has immunity, not his son, yet what’s happened in my case has given immunity to Namal Rajapakse too but he’s nothing more than a gangster.”