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Impunity is Strongest Incentive for Crime and Profit

"He has committed the crime who profits by it" - Seneca

Mr. Lalith Kotelawala is probably going to win the legal tap dance which will ensure that he gets bail. Even though the Merchants' Ward is hardly uncomfortable, it is surely less than he has become used to all these years. The whole point of course is to buy time with as little personal inconvenience as can be arranged, because justice delayed is not only justice denied, it is the essence of profitable crime. Similarly, Mrs. Kotelawala, like the more down to earth Sakviti Ranasinghe, will only have her conscience to trouble her in whatever salubrious clime she has chosen to reside.

In the meantime, the duped investors and a few idealists will agitate for redress; some will actually hope that justice will prevail in the end. But, the simple yet devastating question remains, why should we get justice in this case when we haven't in any other, in this climate of complete and utter impunity? The AGs office will pursue the case in its usual desultory manner, a modus operandi over which it has a perfect record, and time will pass, healing some wounds and deepening others.

Key questions will remain or receive unsatisfactory responses: what has happened to the money taken from 9000 customers? How can they even begin to be paid back? How did such blatant illegality take place under the Nelsonian eye of the relevant regulatory bodies, and is there no accountability at that end? And, in good time,  as a country, we'll move on to marvel at other injustices, other scandals, scarred by this travesty but no closer to resolving the underlying issues that make these frauds possible.

No, these unresolved issues do more than create such possibilities: they provide every incentive for the further perpetration of such illegal and immoral acts. Whether investors were foolish or greedy is irrelevant. So too is our incredulity about how some of these people earned the money that they have deposited with Golden Key. This is the legitimate purview of another investigation by the Inland Revenue Department, but it does not mitigate the crime perpetrated by the Kotelawala Empire one little jot. The state is committed to ensuring that its laws are respected, that potential violations are nipped in the bud. The state must do its job, whatever the consequences, whoever the personalities, but this is what it simply will not do.

It is a basic principle of our legal system that the decision-makers at both the subsidiary, Golden Key, where the fraud took place, as well as the leadership of the main company, Ceylinco, should face a properly-prosecuted trial as expeditiously as possible. And, that redress is provided to all aggrieved parties. Forgive us our cynicism in doubting the modicum of political will that is required to make this happen. And, even if it does provide some form of redress to investors, that is only one aspect of the problem that this scam has brought to the surface.

Firstly, issues remain about the Central Bank's role and responsibility in all this. It is manifest that the supervisory and oversight functions of the Central Bank have not been discharged satisfactorily, or, indeed, impartially. Who will take responsibility for this? Who is accountable? This is not an isolated case of negligence and unconcern, moreover.

Secondly, of concern is Mr Kotelawala's skill in keeping the press at bay. For the longest time he basked in the mass media's glow as a knight in shining armour who provided succour to the deserving poor and needy. His munificence, always lavishly publicised transformed him into a cult figure. Now he seeks to silence the press with outrageous libel suits directed at individual reporters, not the newspaper itself. Whether it is due to threats or charisma, or a careful combination of both ingredients, the entire case has not been publicised as much as it deserves. We leave it to you to work out the reasons for this state of affairs.

Mr. Kotelawala claims ignorance as his defence, but what he describes is idiocy. The fact that Golden Key Credit Card Company has not had its accounts audited in three years, nor had a board meeting in four is nothing short of scandalous. Kotelawala could not have been unaware of this state of affairs. Twenty six billion rupees do not disappear overnight.

It is crystal clear that systematic fraud has taken place over a number of years, and that deposits have been misappropriated and misused. The AGs office will, no doubt, require a great deal of time to find out what has happened to the money collected. Given the tangled web of 400-or-so companies within the Ceylinco Group, there will be plenty of opportunity for inordinate delays and debilitating obfuscations that will, in effect, create a mockery of justice. 

Mr. Kotelawala has long presented himself as a philanthropist with only altruistic motives of the highest quality. Long have TV viewers and newspaper readers been fed on a surfeit of his deeds of charity and magnanimity.  Many were shocked by his fall, some even hope for another explanation, but there is no one we have found who supports or condones the way he has responded to this crisis.

First, expressing outrage and claiming blissful ignorance of any wrongdoing, next minimising the catastrophe and promising swift and complete redress, he has followed all this grandstanding with a singular lack of significant action. The mass media construction of the selfless soft-spoken giver has been transformed into an arrogant unrepentant old man. One can hardly avoid seeing that this shedding of masks is an apt dramatization of De La Rochefoucauld's cynical wisdom that "We frequently do good to enable us with impunity to do evil."

Mr. Kotelawala has influence in high places and must have earned himself a lot of favours. While such friends and favours may assist doing good, they certainly come in handy in times like this. In a country in which impunity takes a myriad shapes and forms - military, political, bureaucratic, judicial, financial - this is exactly par for the course. How can we expect accountability and transparency in a case that involves one of the richest and most influential citizens of this country, when no significant prosecutions have been undertaken against human rights abuses or corruption even by minor military or political functionaries? 

Whether, like De La Rochefoucauld, we are cynics or not, impunity is certainly the core problem affecting our society today. It is impunity that has fuelled corruption and cronyism, that has exacerbated human rights violations, that has destroyed transparency and accountability all round. Impunity stalks this country like a cancer, infecting even the smallest interstices of everyday life and contaminating the very fabric of our collective ethics.

In this country today it would seem that the only criminals who are brought to book are those who are too poor to bribe or influence their way out of retribution. All the others, from Sakviti Ranasinghe and Lalith Kotelawala to pyramid scammers, from ransom-seekers to goon squads, share an impunity that is mind-boggling.

What is on trial then is not only Mr. Kotelawala and his cronies, but the filigreed overlapping systems of impunity in this land. Not that successful prosecution and swift redress will signal the end of corruption and killing, but if nothing tangible happens, this failure will mock even the pretence that the rule of law operates in Sri Lanka. If Mr. Kotelawala really goes down we may cherish a ray of hope for our future, but if he doesn't we're beyond redemption.

That may well be our national prognosis, but for Kotelawala the man there is perhaps less at stake. He has lived the good life, and what matter that it may have been upon the back of others?  Unlike Macbeth, he has had his share of "honour, obedience, troops of friends." What's a few years of solitary comfort after all that glory? Too bad, Hannah Arendt's warning comes to us too late:  "Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."









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