Recordings, shocking revelations and UNP’s future

A week, it has been said, is a long time in politics and what a week it has been for United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake. The film actor turned politician has rocked the political, legal and law enforcement establishments with the release of dozens of audio recordings following his arrest last week.

After being released on bail Ramanayake was arrested again on Tuesday and his shenanigans represent a major headache for the UNP, soundly defeated at the presidential election and still unable to resolve its leadership crisis as Ranil Wickremesinghe continues to fight for his own political life.

The saga began on Saturday, the fourth of January, when Police swooped on Ramanayake’s official residence at Madiwela after obtaining a search warrant. They then arrested him. Initially there were reports that the detention was because he had not renewed the license of the pistol provided to him in his capacity as a parliamentarian.

It appeared that even government parliamentarians were in the dark about the events that led to Ramanayake’s arrest. Addressing a media briefing at Anuradhapura, State Minister Shehan Semasinghe was to say that there may be a conspiracy behind the arrest as it could have been carried out to defame President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

After spending a day in detention, Ramanayake was produced in the Nugegoda Magistrate’s Court on Sunday and released on bail. A travel ban was also imposed on him. At that time however, government spokesman Mahindananda Aluthgamage stated that Ramanayake was arrested not over the unlicensed firearm but over phone recordings that had been recovered from his residence which indicated he pressurised the judiciary and Police officers while his party was in power.

Since then, audio tapes of these recordings have gone viral on social media. They include purported conversations with judges, police officers, actresses and some of his colleagues in Parliament such as former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, UNP backbencher Hirunika Premachandra and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) parliamentarian Sunil Handunetti.

In the conversation with former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Ramanayake discusses an incident where his pistol misfired. “Who are you trying to kill?”, Wickremesinghe asks to which Ramanayake responds by mentioning Aluthgamage’s name.

Aluthgamage has taken this matter seriously, even though he was asked at a media briefing whether the conversation had been made in jest. He also raised the issue in Parliament, compelling Wickremesinghe to respond by saying that he is not a conspirator. “I request the Speaker to obtain the recordings from the police, have them examined and inform the House whether any MP had done anything wrong,” Wickremesinghe told Parliament.

Social media

However, the allegations regarding Aluthgamage are not those causing the utmost concern. The recordings leaked to social media include a purported conversation with former High Court Judge Padmini Ranawaka where she appears to seek Ramanayake’s support for a promotion prior to her retirement as well as alleged conversations with Magistrates Gihan Pilapitiya and Dhammika Hemapala.

Parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila has already raised issue about members of the judiciary allegedly having discussions with Ramanayake. He has asked that cases they were involved in, be reviewed. Retired High Court Judge Ranawaka was one of the judges involved in the conviction of former parliamentarian Duminda Silva for the murder of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, a verdict later affirmed by the Supreme Court.

The most number of recordings are with the former Director of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), Shani Abeysekera where many cases of political significance are discussed. Abeysekera, who had already been relieved of his duties at the CID, has now been interdicted pending further investigations.

The opposition and indeed Ramanayake himself has raised issue with the recordings being ‘leaked’ to social media, inquiring how audio tapes that were taken in to police custody are being selectively released to the media and how some media outlets appear to have ready access to them.

The Police have denied their involvement in the release of the tapes. Issuing a statement, the Police said that “Certain parties are attempting to sabotage the police investigations by making baseless allegations. Sri Lanka Police dismisses those charges and asserts that those who possessed the recordings are responsible for releasing them to the media”. While this is an issue of concern, it appears to have been overshadowed by what the contents of the tapes reveal.

Ramanayake’s actions in recording his telephone conversations, obviously without the consent of the other party, as well as his apparent interference in the duties of police officers and judicial officers have drawn widespread condemnation. Needless to say, it has significantly undermined the confidence the public had in the Police and the judiciary.

Independence of the judiciary

Asked about the events leading to the release of the audio tapes, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said that the judiciary, the Attorney General’s department and the previous government’s political establishment all appear implicated in this issue. “It is an attack on the judiciary. This could damage the confidence that the public has in the judiciary. People can raise questions about judgements,” Rajapaksa said and suggested that the Chief Justice should initiate action regarding this issue.

In fact, the High Court Judges Association (HCJA) has already written to the Chief Justice urging action in this regard. Following a meeting, the HCJA wrote to Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya and the Judicial Services Commission urging them to initiate an immediate investigation and take action to safeguard the independence of the judiciary.

The HCJA noted that the alleged electronic recordings of the conversations being circulated have serious consequences on the public trust and the independence of the judiciary, and had gravely tarnished the image of the judiciary. They added the alleged conduct of the judges concerned could even amount to contempt of court.

Former President Maithripala Sirisena too condemned the recording of conversations, describing the action as “illegal and utterly disgraceful”. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has echoed these sentiments, stating that the recordings indicate a “moral decline and an abuse of technology”.

It has been reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seeking legal advice on the best course of action to follow in this regard because of the unprecedented nature of the scandal and because of the broad implications any process would have on the integrity of the police, the judiciary, the Attorney General’s Department and the entire law enforcement apparatus in the country.

Ramanayake’s own party is also distancing itself from his actions. Although initially some UNP parliamentarians such as Hirunika Premachandra and Mujibur Rahaman spoke in support of Ramanayake, the party is now taking a different stance as the full impact of the audio tapes become apparent.

In what was a first response, UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said that his party would be asking for a parliamentary select committee to inquire in to the audio tapes. However, on Tuesday the UNP announced that it was suspending Ramanayake’s membership of the party.

Meanwhile, the man at the centre of the controversy has remained defiant. In statements made to the media prior to being arrested for a second time on Tuesday, Ramanayake acknowledges that his methods he engaged in may have been unethical but that his intentions were to seek justice and fair play. He says he sees himself as a kind of local Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks.

Ramanayake, of course, is no stranger to controversy. Having made a name for himself as a celluloid hero, he entered politics becoming the electoral organiser for the UNP initially in Katana and then in Balangoda. He ran as the chief ministerial candidate at the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council elections in 2008 and was Opposition Leader in that Council.

Ramanayake entered Parliament in 2010 from the Gampaha district. In 2015, he reverted to his ‘home base’ of the Gampaha district and was returned to Parliament with the highest number of preference votes in the UNP- over 200,000- well ahead of established stalwarts such as Arjuna Ranatunga and John Amaratunga.

He has been embroiled in previous public disputes- such as one with a television host on a popular network- but the impact of the current controversy by far eclipses anything he has done before, either in politics or in the celluloid world.

Leadership crisis

Ramanayake’s antics could not have come at a more inopportune moment for the UNP. The party is in the throes of a leadership crisis. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is making it difficult for his deputy, Sajith Premadasa to take over the reins, just as he did with the nomination for the presidential election and with the post of Leader of the Opposition.

Whether he will eventually yield- as he did with those two positions- regarding the party leadership is yet to be seen. A meeting of the party’s hierarchy last week ended in heated discussions that dragged on for several hours without producing a result. Another meeting of the party’s parliamentary group has been scheduled for today (Thursday), with several parliamentarians saying all conflicts will be resolved to a conclusion at this meeting.

Given the ways of the UNP in recent times that is easier said than done. Even if that does occur, the UNP will have a difficult task on its hands, laying to rest the allegations that arise from the Ranjan Ramanayake audio tapes.

 



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