I will ensure that justice prevails - Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorala | Sunday Observer

I will ensure that justice prevails - Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorala

Pic: Dushmantha Mayadunne
Pic: Dushmantha Mayadunne

The Foreign Employment Minister Thalatha Athukorala who was saddled with the Justice Ministry portfolio last week, to fill in former Minister Wijayadasa Rajapskhsa’s shoes after he was stripped of his portfolio recently, says litigations against the corrupt members of the former regime cannot be rushed through.

Expressing doubt that there could have been a deliberate delay on the part of the Attorney General’s Department over the corruption cases, she said she hoped to rectify the logistical flaws there before pointing fingers at anyone. Before long the accused will be brought to book, she said.

Referring to recent reports, she said she is not aware of an incident where the Attorney General was blasted by the ‘backbenchers’ over delays in certain court cases. “In the presence of the Prime Minister such things will never happen,” the new Justice Minister also stressed, adding that the Joint Opposition has lost all credibility in the face of the people.

Minister Athukorala was interviewed by the Sunday Observer shortly after she assumed office at the new Ministry on Thursday.

Q. You are the first woman Justice Minister in Sri Lanka. Do you consider this portfolio as a challenge?

A. Life is a challenge. I don’t consider responsibilities that come my way, as a challenge. I strive to do a good job whenever I have a task to fulfil and not disappoint those who have reposed faith in me.

Q. Given the circumstances on how this position fell vacant and your appointment, do you think you will be able to fulfil the expectations of the people to expedite major corruption cases ?

A. It has been a few hours into my assuming office at the Justice Ministry. With the discussions that I have had so far, I would say the previous Minister would have tried to do the necessary things to overcome the delays in laws in accordance with the proper procedure. We must understand that these things take time. We cannot rush through litigation in the way the previous government did. It took more time than expected. I will try as much as possible to do my best to prevent undue delays where judicial matters are concerned.

Q. The President or the Prime Minister discussed your appointment, or did it come as a surprise to you?

A. No I was not consulted. It has always been a surprise. I will try to do my best. The Prime Minister has confidence in me, I think that is why he chose me to fill this important seat. The Prime Minister summoned me to Temple Trees and said, ‘you will be sworn in as the new Justice Minister’, and added ‘await a call from the Presidential Secretariat’.

Q. What would be your topmost priorities as the Minister of Justice?

A. My duty would be to make sure that justice prevails. Every citizen of the country has a right to be protected, that is, without infringing upon others’ rights. And I want to make sure that no one will be above the law, if someone has committed a crime they should be brought to book. Everyone must fear the law of the country. With a rising population, Sri Lanka needs to develop facilities in this sector. We may need to increase the number of courts, recruit new staff as well as scale up other infrastructure facilities and services because justice delayed will be justice denied.

Q. There was an allegation mainly by the Joint Opposition that the former Justice Minister was removed because he flouted orders from the top to influence the Judiciary and the Attorney General. What is your comment?

A. The Joint Opposition is trying to mislead the people of the country. Just because someone is impatient to regain power, it is not fair by anyone to spread falsehood and try to get undue political advantage.

The Minister was asked to resign not because of that. When we are in the Cabinet, we have a collective responsibility. The previous Minister had an issue about his responsibilities towards Cabinet.

He was asked to resign over an issue and a statement he made on the Hambantota Harbour. Just because this group who misused power during the past 10 years before 2015, before President Sirisena came into power, would like to think everyone in power is as corrupt as they are, I don’t believe the people will believe their propaganda. They will make many more allegations but we don’t care as long as people don’t accept them as fact.

Q. Have you thought of a way to expedite the major corruption cases as well as criminal cases that the former regime leaders have allegedly been linked to? There is an allegation that these cases are being inordinately delayed due to some unforeseen hand.

A. It will not happen immediately. But after studying some of the cases I have realized that certain things need to be done to facilitate and expedite the procedures without a delay. We would have to do that after taking all aspects into consideration. Our aim is to increase the staff at the Attorney General’s Department and increase the number of court houses, and also bring in some kind of amendments to existing laws.

If we consider the Partition Act of Sri Lanka, e.g. you know how long a partition case could last. Sometimes, such cases drag on for 30-40 years. So we have to look into the laws, it is the same with a criminal case, a child abuse or women abuse cases.

Q. Have you thought of appointing special courts or Supernumerary judges, an arrangement that has existed in Sri Lanka before, to clear the backlog of judicial cases?

A. Not right now.

Q: Does Sri Lanka’s Constitution provide for special courts ?

A. Yes, there is provision. But then we need to look into so many things before such arrangement can be finalised. Getting the corrupt people before courts will take another few months. But it will happen.

Q. Due to delays in bringing the culprits of mass scale corruption to book, the people have lost faith in the system and the government. They have begun to wonder whether all the accusations against the leaders of the previous regime were mere election gimmicks?

A. A number of cases have already been served indictments. They will be heard in courts very soon. The police need a fair amount of time to complete their investigations. Then the cases will be handed over to the Attorney General’s Department for action.

There the staff has to go through all the files, one by one, before a case can be filed in court and the accused served indictment. There is a staff shortage at the AG’s Department and I hope to rectify that before trying to find fault with the officers.

Q. Do you think there has been a deliberate delay on the part of the AG’s Department as regards the cases against members of the former regime?

A. No I don’t think there has been intentional delay, at least not to my knowledge. The Attorney General’s Department is under the purview of the Justice Ministry at the moment.

Q. You hold the Foreign Employment portfolio in addition to the Justice Ministry. They are two equally heavy hats. The balancing act will not be an easy task, I guess.

A. It will all depend on my time management. I realize that these are two unique portfolios, not related to each other. At the Foreign Employment Ministry, my public relations skills are put to test but here it’s totally different. I need to be conversant with the legal matters, which means a lot of reading.

Q. There was an allegation that the Attorney General was castigated by the UNP backbenchers at Temple Trees. Do you condone such behaviour?

A. Whenever the Prime Minister needs to consult him, he gets summoned to Temple Trees. But I am not aware of an incident where he was blasted by the backbenchers over delays in court cases. In the presence of the Prime Minister such things would never happen.

The President and the Prime Minister are highly committed to have good governance in the country. We have been successful in ensuring good governance, free media and independence of the judiciary up to some extent. I would not say everything is rosy, there are shortcomings but the commitment is there and we work hard to get there.

I think this is some cooked up story. The Joint Opposition is full of fraudsters, they are highly skilled at that. The members of the so called Joint Opposition did not have a backbone to stand up against the former President when he tried to terrorise the Judiciary. At that time the executive and the judiciary was one. No one ever spoke about it.

Q. What will happen to the corruption cases of the past regime, that have been stalled due to unknown reasons?

A. Not only those, there should not be inordinate delays over any court case. I will look into the reasons why the cases have been delayed and take remedial action.