Photo courtesy of UTV News

On human rights grounds, the US government has banned Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, the most senior officer in Sri Lanka’s navy from 2005 to 2009 and now a provincial governor, from entering the country. On April 26, on behalf of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, it was announced that he had been “designated” and hence forbidden entry, along with his wife, because of “his involvement in a gross violation of human rights during his tenure as a Naval Commander.”

A couple of years previously, he had been awaiting trial in a sensational case which shocked many, even against the backdrop of a brutal civil war, for alleged complicity in multiple kidnap, extortion and murder. Then, unexpectedly, charges were dropped. Unsurprisingly controversy continued, with demands that all suspected perpetrators be brought to justice.

The government expressed its unhappiness at the US entry ban and Admiral Karannagoda has threatened to take legal action. According to him, the US Ambassador Julie Chung’s announcement that he had been barred was defamatory and hence violated his own human rights. It is questionable however whether legal action on this issue would succeed and possible that this might further affect his reputation by reminding people of the details of the scandal.

The controversy will intensify debate about the extent to which those who are well connected can escape justice and the ways in which draconian laws and repressive practices can actually serve as a front for criminality. Perhaps afraid of the fallout, the authorities are distancing themselves from him. On May 7, it was reported that he was one of four governors fired following complaints by parliamentarians representing the provinces.

An entry ban and a robust response

Over the years, the US and some other countries have introduced certain restrictions on people committing serious offences abroad. Under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, renewed periodically, the Secretary of State can forbid entry to foreign officials and their immediate family members if there is credible evidence that they “have been involved in significant corruption, including corruption related to the extraction of natural resources, or a gross violation of human rights.”

The persons concerned need not have a pending US visa application. Records of who will be refused entry are not ordinarily confidential. Congress has oversight of how this is put into practice; periodic reports must be made to Committees on Appropriations and on the Judiciary, unclassified portions of which must be posted on the State Department website.

In a statement the US said, “The United States is designating Wasantha Karannagoda, Governor of North Western Province in Sri Lanka, pursuant to Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2023, due to his involvement in a gross violation of human rights during his tenure as a Naval Commander.  As a result of today’s action, Karannagoda and his wife, Srimathi Ashoka Karannagoda, are ineligible for entry into the United States.

“The allegation that Wasantha Karannagoda committed a gross human rights violation, documented by NGOs and independent investigations, is serious and credible. By designating Wasantha Karannagoda, the United States reaffirms its commitment to upholding human rights, ending impunity for human rights violators, acknowledging the suffering of victims and survivors, and promoting accountability for perpetrators in Sri Lanka.”

This went on to affirm a 75 year relationship between the US and Sri Lanka and express a commitment “to working with the Sri Lankan government on advancing justice, accountability, and reconciliation, including promoting security reform that maintains human rights at the forefront.”

The following day, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Ali Sabry expressed grave concerns to US Ambassador Julie Chung. According to a statement by the ministry, “such unilateral action by the U.S. without following due process is counter-productive to the holistic approach that Sri Lanka has taken on addressing national unity and reconciliation. It is also unfortunate that the announcement emanates against the backdrop of tangible progress made by the Government in strengthening the country’s democratic governance and reconciliation structures.”

Admiral Karannagoda then wrote an open letter to Julie Chung challenging the decision. According to him, after she informed Ali Sabry, on her instructions the media were notified, “intending thereby that these allegations will get wide publicity in Sri Lanka.”

He complained that the US “Secretary of State never notified me of any allegations made against me of which he is taking cognizance” and “has not sought my observations on any of these imputed allegations” and “the purported designation has been made in total violation of the Principles of Natural Justice recognized and respected by all civilized Nations and in total violation of the Due Process of the Law being the Constitutional safeguard which carries with it as the central promise an assurance that all levels of American government must operate within the law (legality) and provide fair procedures.”

Since he had not applied for a visa, he suggested that denying him entry was “without any cause or reason.” This was, according to him, a “serious attack on my honour and reputation” in violation of article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, according to which no-one can be subjected arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation; and everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. Hence her actions are “subject to the Common Law of Sri Lanka in terms of which any outrage upon a man’s honour and good name is actionable as defamation being species of injuria. Thus the Law of Sri Lanka is in accords with Article 17 cited above and I have a right…to seek redress in a Court of appropriate jurisdiction in Sri Lanka.” He declared that “The wrongful imputations made by you has seriously affected my honour and reputation earned over a period of over 45 years of unblemished Government service.”

A right to act

Undoubtedly Admiral Karannagoda is very capable in some regards and has won praise at times over the years for his work in various fields. It may also perhaps be argued that there should be a clearer process for querying designation. However, he has not demonstrated that the Section 7031(c) process (which is not dependent on a visa application) was not correctly applied; the US Ambassador should presumably be covered by diplomatic immunity for undertaking an aspect of her work; grave concerns had already been raised in Sri Lanka, the US and beyond about his conduct; and it could be argued that there is credible, even if contested, evidence of serious wrongdoing.

In the months and years after the brutally violent final phases of the civil war, it became apparent that the security forces, including the navy under his command, and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had both been guilty of major human rights violations. Information was assembled by non-governmental organisations in Sri Lanka and beyond and referred to by international bodies, for instance in a report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation into Sri Lanka, in September 2015.

In addition, a startling case found its way into news headlines, as evidence emerged that certain naval officers had taken advantage of the situation in 2008 to 2009 for their own ends. Eleven mainly young Tamil men were abducted in an attempt to extort money from their families and even when ransoms were paid, they have been supposedly murdered. Relatives had not heard from them since and continued to search for the truth about what had happened to their loved ones and gradually details emerged. One of those accused was Admiral Karannagoda. Despite heavy pressure, the CID and Attorney General’s Department believed the evidence against him was strong enough for the case to go to trial. Reportedly 667 indictments were filed against 14 naval officers for conspiracy, abduction with intent to secretly and wrongfully confine a person, wrongful confinement for the purpose of confinement, conspiracy to extort, extortion, giving false information and conspiracy to commit murder. But a commission set up by then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered that the investigation be halted. An Amnesty International report on “Sri Lanka’s Return to Fear” mentioned the case including threats against a lawyer representing families. In 2021, charges against the admiral were dropped. What is more, he was appointed as a governor.

Unsurprisingly this was widely regarded as a worrying example of lack of accountability among those close to the Rajapaksas and of a militarisation of society, as the rule of law was undermined and ordinary people could all too easily be victimised by those in power. In an oral update on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka in September 2021, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern at “developments in judicial proceedings in a number of emblematic human rights cases.  They include the Attorney General’s decision not to proceed with charges against former Navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda in the case of the enforced disappearances of 11 men in 2008 and 2009.”

Notably, the US State Department’s 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Sri Lanka drew attention to the worrying implications in a section on disappearances. So the US government has taken an ongoing interest in alleged human rights abuses by Admiral Karannagoda, and failure by the state to investigate these properly.

If investigation into allegations against the former naval commander and subsequent any legal proceedings had been allowed to go ahead unhindered, it is of course impossible to be sure of the outcome. However, in the circumstances, it is not surprising that the Secretary of State might have serious concerns.

By removing several governors, including Admiral Karannagoda, the government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe is seeking to detach itself from the controversy over the entry ban. Yet the issues arising are a stark reminder of a grim legacy, with many wounds left unhealed, and the ongoing risks of laws and practices which make it all too easy for people to be held in unsafe conditions while justice is out of reach for so many in the population.