Controversy over a phone call rocks the House | Sunday Observer

Controversy over a phone call rocks the House


IGP Pujith Jayasundara found himself at the centre of a major controversy this week, after receiving a controversial phone call while addressing a Police event in Ratnapura.

Instead of waiting until he was finished with his speech, the IGP stopped midway to answer the phone and failed to move away from the microphones placed by local news correspondents, making the media, and by extension the public, thereby privy to what could only be a private telephone conversation, with a figure of political authority.

The IGP, who addressed the caller as ‘Sir’, briefed him on an investigation carried out by the Police Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) - the unit to probe large-scale cases of corruption – and gave him repeated assurances that an unnamed ‘nilame’ would not be arrested, despite the outcome of the FCID’s questioning.

The IGP, in fact, went so far as to say he had specifically asked the Director of the FCID to refrain from arresting people ‘unreasonably’.

Now, there are only two well-known ‘nilames’ who have faced FCID inquiries in the recent past: One is Diyawadana Nilame Pradeep Nilanga Dela. The other is Dishan Gunasekera, the incumbent Basnayake Nilame of the Vishnu Devalaya, Devundara.

The investigation on Diyawadana Nilame Pradeep Nilanga Dela did not make progress for some reason, although reports about an inquiry into allegations he had engaged in malpractice at the Sri Dalada Maligawa surfaced last year. There is little reason to believe the FCID has restarted investigations into the Diyawadana Nilame again, at this point.

Basanayake Nilame Dishan Gunasekera, who held a high-profile position in the state sector during the time the previous government was in power, has also had multiple allegations levelled against him over alleged malpractice. Speculation was rife that Gunasekera would be summoned before the Police unit at some point, which is why some are now connecting those dots to assume the Police Chief was referring to Gunasekera.

On a more sombre note, if, as the telephone conversation indicated, the IGP has indeed ordered the FCID Director to consult with higher authorities before making arrests, it is a serious indictment on not just the independence of the Police service, but the government as a whole.

This was reflected in the exchanges that took place when the Parliament met on Wednesday for the committee stage debate on the Budget 2017 - the IGP’s controversial telephone conversation was a hot topic among the MPs. Some Ministers were livid at the foolishness displayed by the IGP by answering the phone without moving away from the microphones. Others have argued that the IGP’s decision to answer the calls directly in front of the microphones was a shrewd ploy:

“It is hard to believe that the IGP forgot about microphones when he answered the phone. If he is so careless, he is not fit to be the Police Chief of the country. Perhaps he wanted to bring the politician who called him into disrepute. Now, no one will call him to ask about any inquiry,” one parliamentarian said. This speculation was greeted with mixed reactions by his fellow MPs.

On Thursday, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake raised the matter officially in Parliament, severely criticizing the conduct of the IGP and questioning the government’s commitment to strengthen the rule of law.

“Dishan Wickremaratne Gunasekera faced many charges over alleged abuse of state vehicles and misappropriation of funds belonging to the devalaya. He was fully protected by the top-brass of the former government. “Today, when the Police try to investigate into the charges, the IGP gives assurances that he will not be arrested.

How are they going to protect the rule of law? The House must know the name of the politician who called the IGP,” Dissanayake stressed.

President Maithripala Sirisena was in Parliament when the JVP leader drew everyone’s attention to the matter, and as the President concluded his speech during the Committee Stage debate on the ‘Budget 2017’ under the Financial Heads of National Dialogue, National Integration and Reconciliation and Disaster Management Ministries, Joint Opposition MP Wimalaweera Dissanayake demanded to know how the IGP felt he could make such an assurance.

“I would like to pose a question to the Government when the President is also present,” he said. “We saw on TV news the previous night how the IGP was bending the law again.

“This time he tells a minister over the phone that the FCID would not arrest a particular ‘nilame’. I would like to know whether the IGP was referring to Devinuwara Devale Basnayake Nilame, Gunasekera,” the MP asked, directing his question to the President.

The President, responding on behalf of the government said that he too had watched that visual on TV the night before and had found the IGP’s conduct completely wrong: “I intend to summon him and ask for an explanation,” the President said.

Sarathchandra controversy

The opposition MPs thanked the President profusely for his quick response and had thumped their desks in approval. The President’s statement indicated that the Police Chief is in hot water over the manner in which he responded to the telephone call.

However, Leader of the House Minister Lakshman Kiriella, on Friday, gave a funny twist to the controversial telephone call involving the IGP.

Commenting on the matter, Kiriella said the JVP’s leader’s position was only his personal opinion.

“What the JVP Leader says is his own opinion. It could be either right or wrong. Based on the same interpretation he cannot level various allegations against others. We don’t know whether one of IGP’s school teachers gave him a call. Even now we call our teachers ‘Sir’,” Kiriella said, addressing the House, on Friday.

Be that as it may, this is the second time the IGP has run into an issue with the President within the past two weeks. Last week, the President reprimanded the IGP for arresting former STF chief retired DIG K.L.M. Sarathchandra for allegedly abusing a state vehicle and causing a loss of Rs. 140,000 to the government.

It was widely rumoured in the political circles that Sarathchandra was arrested over a minor charge as a high-profile Police officer had a personal issue with the former STF Chief.

The President, last week, asked Jayasundara why the Police had arrested the retired DIG without conducting a ‘Department-level inquiry’. Sarathchandra’s arrest was also raised in Parliament earlier this week when Joint Opposition MP Dinesh Gunawardena demanded an explanation on the arrest.

Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, responding to the question, said he too did not approve of incarcerating those who served the country. Turning tables on the Joint Opposition MP, Wickremasinghe even said when he opposed the arrest of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, after the Presidential election in 2010, there was none to support his call. Gunawardena had at that point served as a member of the Rajapaksa government, and had not uttered a word against the former Army Commander’s arrest. The Prime Minister had said that he too looked into the circumstances leading to Sarathchandra’s arrest.

“If there is any injustice, we can sort it out,” the Prime Minister said, adding that the former STF Chief was arrested not by the FCID, but by a Special Investigation Unit.

Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka had also responded to the Joint Opposition’s allegation, saying former DIG Sarathchandra’s arrest was not politically motivated:

“There was no political motivation or interference. The law has taken its own course,” the Minister said.

“The former DIG was arrested for covering fuel expenses of the jeep used by him from 8th to the 28th of August, which belongs to the government. The government has incurred a financial loss of Rs. 140,000 as a result of the incident.

Therefore, the arrest was not a politically motivated decision but simply the implementation of the law,” the Minister said.

It is against this backdrop that Colombo Chief Magistrate Gihan Pilapitiya ordered the release of Sarathchandra on bail. The former DIG was ordered released on two sureties of one million rupees after Chief Magistrate Gihan Pilapitiya took into consideration the facts presented by his lawyers - the former DIG’s lawyers had requested the Court to release the suspect on bail, in consideration of his health and his active role at the Asian Cricket Council.

Duminda Silva

While the IGP found himself in hot water over a telephone conversation, the Prison Department ran into a fresh trouble on the matter of a number of Facebook profiles operating under the name of former Parliamentarian Duminda Silva, who is currently serving a death sentence for the murder of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra.

As persons serving death sentences are not allowed communication with the outside world, the former parliamentarian’s Facebook profiles, which have been updated even after his incarceration, threw prison authorities into controversy.

Several senior prison authorities, including the department’s media spokesman Thushara Upuldeniya, were hesitant to speak on the matter. When questioned, Upuldeniya said he could not comment on the issue without approval from the Prison Reforms Ministry.

When contacted by our sister paper the Daily News, Prisons Reform Minister D.M. Swaminathan had said he was not aware of the activity on the former Parliamentarian’s Facebook pages, but had promised action if the former parliamentarian or any prison officials were found guilty of offence.

“Precise instructions have been given to have me informed of any matter relating to the imprisonment of the former parliamentarian,” the Prisons Reforms Ministers said, “Not a file is transferred without my knowledge.” He had also promised to look into the matter immediately.

However, legal experts have opined that this is an unprecedented situation, as allowing Facebook profiles to operating in the name of those serving death sentences makes a mockery of the country’s legal system.

Legal basis

Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa, former Dean, Faculty of Law at Kotalawela Defence University and Commissioner of Human Rights told our sister paper Daily News that activity on the former parliamentarian’s Facebook page was illegal.

“There are two ways in which this kind of activity is possible. One is that the former parliamentarian has been given access to a device while inside the prison – which is an offence and prison officials must be held responsible,” he said.

“The second is that some other third party is posting on behalf of the former parliamentarian – which begs the question: How would a third party have access to content from the former parliamentarian, if not through the prison?” he queried.

“If a third party is updating on behalf of the former parliamentarian, the CID must investigate it. They must find out on whose authority this party is updating the former parliamentarian’s Facebook profiles, and investigate if an affidavit of authority was given to these people, to act on the former parliamentarian’s behalf.”

“The CID also needs to look into when this affidavit of authority was given,” Dr. Mahanamahewa said – “Was it given before he was locked up, or after? At which point and how did this exchange happen,” he asked.

He said that if it was discovered that the former parliamentarian had not given any third party instructions to tend to his Facebook profiles and was not aware of how these Facebook profiles were still active in his name, the CID must then request an order from the Chief Magistrate to have Facebook notified and have those profiles censored.

“This should not be the precedence that is set,” Dr. Mahanamahewa said, of allowing those serving death sentence an online presence.

Dr. Mahanamahewa acknowledged that Sri Lanka had no specific laws governing the conduct of incarcerated former parliamentarian on the Internet, but did venture that it would be a good time to amend Sri Lanka’s law:

“If you look at Section 3 – 12 of the Computer Crimes Act of 2007, which sets out what is considered a computer crime,” he said, “there is no section relating to crimes committed on social media. This may be a good time to reform the Act to incorporate elements relating to crimes committed on social media,” Dr. Mahanamahewa said.

Amila Indika Mawalagedara, a lawyer who appeared for Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra’s party in the murder trial also expressed the same sentiments.

“To update Facebook you need either a mobile phone or a laptop,” he said, “and a working network connection. Who is supplying the former parliamentarian with this? The Prisons’ Commissioner, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Prison reforms must look into this matter immediately and provide the media with an answer.”

“If not,” Mawalagedara said, “they must resign. How is it that only the Facebook pages owned by Duminda Silva and Dematagoda Chaminda are still operating, while everyone else who is serving the death sentence is not? This needs to be looked into immediately.”

Sister takes responsibility

However, a day after the revelation that the former parliamentarian’s Facebook profiles were still active, Duminda Silva’s sister, Dilini Silva took responsibility for the act.

“Please note Duminda Silva Facebook page and accounts are administered and updated by me (Dilini Silva - His Sister). The post clearly states i (Dilini Silva) have uploaded the pictures & videos. The accounts clearly states it’s administered by Dilini Silva.

It is evident that he cannot update Facebook any more. Any Facebook page can nominate a number of administrators to handle the accounts and anyone who isn’t aware of this, need to educate themselves on digital technology. It is yet another effort to mislead the public,” Dilini Silva said, in a statement on Duminda Silva’s Facebook profile.

The ‘Intros’ on all of the former parliamentarian’s Facebook profiles were also edited to read ‘Administered by Dilini Silva’ – which fact was not evident at the outset, but committed in retrograde, after revelations by media.

However, while discrediting the journalists’ knowledge of digital enterprise, Duminda Silva’s sister failed to identify the functional difference(s) between a Facebook ‘profile’ and a Facebook ‘page’.

The media reports were based on the controversy brewing around activity on the incarcerated former parliamentarians personal Facebook ‘profiles’ - not his public Facebook ‘pages’ – which can be managed by a third party, social media team or any number of specified administrators.

This issue clearly highlighted that time is ripe for Sri Lanka’s law enforcement authorities to take action to curb such activities in the cyber space, as they reflect badly on the country’s legal system.