The price of integrity

Tuesday, 29 June 2021 01:49 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Two weeks after former CID Director Shani Abeysekera was enlarged on bail following a scathing order against the authorities holding him in detention by the Court of Appeal, calls are mounting for his safety.

For over a year now, there has been a Herculean effort to paint SSP Abeysekera out to be a political operative and vindictive police officer. His name has been dragged into at least three criminal cases, with every single one falling apart on the evidence after months of investigation.

The truth is that Abeysekera was an upstanding, forthright criminal investigator long before he became the face of investigations the CID conducted into major human rights crimes committed when Mahinda Rajapaksa held office as President.

Abeysekera joined the CID in January 1999. His career at Sri Lanka’s premier criminal investigation agency spans 19 years. During this period, Abeysekera rose the ranks as an investigator, hand-picked to lead or support investigations into the most complex criminal cases including the LTTE bomb attack at the Katunayake Airport, the Royal Park murder, the murder of businessman Mohamed Shiyam in Bambalapitiya, the Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra murder, and a host of other marquee crimes etched into public memory over the past two decades.

Abeysekera’s investigations into deaths in police custody in 2005, 2009 and 2010 led to convictions of police officers and during his time at the helm of the CID, the agency nabbed at least five DIGs of police for murder-related crimes. SSP Abeysekera’s leadership at the CID marked an end to the culture of impunity that had shielded senior police officers from punishment. It was his investigation that led to the conviction of DIG Vass Gunawardena for the murder of Shiyam in 2016. On being handed back emblematic crimes committed in the 2005-2014 decade in 2015, Abeysekera and his team persevered, revealing details about these atrocities that no other law enforcement inquiry had uncovered. At the CID and in the Police Department, Abeysekera is best known for his straight-as-an-arrow conduct as a police officer, with the strength of character and courage even to investigate bent senior police officers. His investigations have been hailed as ‘meticulous’ by the current Chief Justice when he served as Attorney General. Tomorrow Shani Abeysekera retires from the Sri Lanka Police. His exit marks the end of an era. The public will vouch for the fact that officers of his calibre are few and far between in law enforcement in Sri Lanka. 

Abeysekera’s independence and integrity earned him powerful enemies. His contribution to the conviction of murderer Vass Gunewardane led to Abeysekera’s nearly year-long incarceration by the Colombo Crimes Division on charges the Court of Appeal says appeared falsified. For years, Abeysekera and his family have been threatened with physical harm and assassination. In a recent appeal for protection from the IGP, Abeysekera says he and his family have appealed for security against these threats from nearly every state institution tasked with protecting witnesses, to no avail. Out on bail and completely exposed while hardened criminals face justice in courts all over the country because of Abeysekera’s investigations, makes him a marked man. This was recognised by the Core Group on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, led by the UK, which called on the Government to ensure Abeysekera’s safety. Daughter of slain journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, Ahimsa, has also raised grave fears for the investigator’s security. With the pardon granted last week to Duminda Silva who was convicted of the murder of Premachandra, these risks have multiplied for the CID director who dared to cross a key government ally.

It is paramount that the IGP takes urgent measures to ensure Abeysekera’s safety, even as he ceases to be a member of the Police Department this week. If harm should come to him, it will set the precedent for what officers of integrity can expect for their dedication to professionalism and independence in public service. Retribution internationally will be swift, and an increasingly unpopular Government can expect more condemnation over its conduct and campaigns of persecution against perceived enemies and critics.