By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka –
This article is about an extraordinary piece of history in academia far back in 2005. It concerns a group of academics from the University of Peradeniya who in a completely dispassionate gesture, and purely on a matter of principle rallied to the cause of an imprisoned politician whom most of them neither knew nor had much regard for. It is an interesting story that goes back to 2005 but is worth recounting owing to its considerable contemporary relevance.
The draconian sentencing of a basically good and decent man Ranjan Ramanayake to four long years of rigorous imprisonment on a mere charge of contempt of court, has rightly shocked and outraged many balanced and fair minded people in this country. However, it is natural that those who are most revolted by any hint of a miscarriage of justice should be precisely those who have the greatest reverence for the hallowed institution of the judiciary. Consequently it is not surprising that the anguish at the imposition of such cruel and excessive punishment should be felt most by those of an older generation like myself aged 77, who from our childhood were brought up to have the highest respect and esteem for the judiciary.
Even now looking back down the years in the evening of life names like Basnayake, Gratiaen, Weerasooriya, Sansoni, HNG Fernando, Victor Tennekoon, Weeramantri, Colin Thome, Mark Fernando, and Neville Samarakoon amongst other greats, linger in the memory as larger than life figures who adorned the bench with their fairness and fierce independence. It is such men who have set the highest standards by which those of my generation feel free to make respectful critical judgments about the administration of justice in this day and age. That I do so with profound respect for the institution of the judiciary and not presumptuously should be further evident from my antecedents. My grand-uncle the Late HJVI Ekanayaka who was called to the Bar in 1900 had distinguished himself as a magistrate during the infamous “Ambalangoda riots”, and promoted as a District Judge in 1906 it is said that his judgments earned him the sobriquet “Daniel of the Bench” !
Consequently as a matter of public interest it is relevant at this time to reproduce the courageous statement that was issued by 30 academic staff connected to the University of Peradeniya including several distinguished senior professors during a parallel incident 16 years ago when Mr. SB Dissanayake was similarly condemned to 2 years RI for contempt of court. I should think that most of the academics who signed that statement neither knew this MP nor had much regard for him. I myself who drafted that statement and was a leading signatory had little respect for him then and still less now.
But the principle was more important than the personality. That justice should be done mattered more than to whom it might apply. It was in that spirit of unselfish idealism that 30 academic staff had the temerity to stick their necks out in 2005 and make such a public statement on behalf of a relative stranger. That statement is worth reproducing here not only as a tribute to a bold gesture in the highest traditions of commitment to justice in academia, but more important because the sentiments therein, the argument and the logic are perfectly applicable to any critical analysis of the condemnation of Ranjan Ramanayake 16 years later. I have before me the original signatures of the 30 academics who signed the statement though obviously one is not at liberty to attach them here since they were obtained over an issue that is now history, albeit history that has ironically repeated itself with greater cruelty in our own day!
One preliminary point of interest. As I painstakingly struggled over the draft statement on my computer all those years ago, I did so with trepidation wondering whether publicly criticizing a judgment might get me and other academic signatories into trouble. In seeking expert legal assurance that we were not doing anything improper I recall contacting a distinguished Professor of Law (an influential member of the present government), who generously agreed to peruse the draft. He may have been pleasantly surprised that there were selfless academics who on a matter of principle were prepared to take a stand in support of a controversial politician whom most of them had not even met – for I have pleasant memories of this legal luminary coming all the way to my home in the campus to confirm that the draft was okay.
In the event a dedicated academic colleague (who was later to become Vice Chancellor) did the hard leg work of going round the campus collecting signatures, following which I personally posted the statement under registered cover to several national newspapers. That evening I recall handing the final draft as dispatched to the distinguished Law Professor at a Hotel in Kandy. It was the start of a cordial association, which alas ended abruptly on my side after his political cross over in 2005! Curiously only one newspaper published the outstanding statement by the 30 academics and even so omitting the names of the signatories. The rest is history.
The statement from 2005 is reproduced here sans names, and anyone can see that the contents have direct application to the Ramanayake case. Sadly, the cold indifference of the original victim and the Law Professor who rallied to his cause in 2005, towards Ramanayake’s far worse predicament in 2020, is testimony to the ultimate selfishness ingratitude and heartless insensitivity of the fallen human species.
The bold statement by 30 University academics in 2005 is reproduced herewith. Its application to contemporary events is obvious:
“As academics connected with the University of Peradeniya we consider it a public duty to express our indignation and moral outrage at the draconian sentence of … years rigorous imprisonment recently imposed on ….., on a mere charge of contempt of court. While we sympathise with ……. who in our view is the victim of a grievous injustice at the hands of the very institution whose sacred prerogative it is to dispense justice, our underlying concern is more about principles than about personalities.
Many of the signatories to this protest do not know …… personally and have never met him. Moreover how people might esteem him as an individual, whether he is admired or disliked is of no interest to us. Neither are his political views or public reputation of any concern to us here. It is sufficient that a fellow citizen languishes in jail, having received a vicious and unrealistic sentence that might have been (and might yet be) the unhappy fate of any free citizen of this country including any one of us.
We live in an era of unprecedented public doubt and anxiety about the credibility, integrity, and political independence of the judiciary in Sri Lanka. In such a climate not only is it both natural and cathartic for there to be rising public criticism of the judiciary, but it is to be expected that some might have the temerity to do so in a blunt pugnacious style native to a volatile temperament. To punish such individuals as one might someone who is guilty of some vile and violent criminal misdemeanor, represents an eccentric and hypersensitive interpretation of the concept of contempt of court, a contradiction of natural justice, a violation of the spirit of democracy, and the gratuitous erosion of the right to free speech.
The judgment of the divisional bench which passed this sentence runs contrary to modern enlightened and liberal judicial attitudes that underlie very great restraint and tolerance in the interpretation and application of offences involving ‘contempt of court’ in many countries in this day and age. They include the celebrated Granada case in England where leading politicians and newspaper editors who denounced Lord Denning as “an ass” over a controversial judgment, received no punishment whatsoever, and other cases where the presumed insult to the judiciary was far more telling than that which committed …… to do hard labour in jail for … years.
The enlightened principles underlying such tolerance were well stated in the Manesar Declaration of December 2004 in Haryana India to which Sri Lanka had subscribed, according to which “ judges should exercise extreme caution in the grant of restraint orders in contempt cases where this would have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression”.
By contrast the ferocious penal retribution to which the divisional bench has resorted in the Sri Lankan case is in our view a gross travesty of justice which brings an already beleaguered judiciary into even greater disrepute. Accordingly we firmly endorse the eight points with which a distinguished law Professor has lucidly summarised the shortcomings of the judgment of the Supreme Court in the …… case from a legal perspective, namely that it is :
- Misconceived in terms of the application of legal principle suitable for a modern democratic society
- Indicative of a profound distortion of policy perspectives and priorities
- Inconsistent with trends reflected in contemporary legislation
- In direct conflict with major currents of judicial authority throughout the democratic world
- Out of line with modern literature on the subject
- Directly contradictory to intuitive perceptions of justice and equity
- Incompatible with core values which underpin the administration of criminal justice
- Deeply flawed in respect of disproportionality of the sentence imposed, even on the (erroneous) assumption that liability has been established
However in the final analysis our intention is not to take a legal perspective so much as that of University teachers from a wide range of academic disciplines whose experience of campus life interacting with successive generations of exuberant young people over the years has helped to shape their sense of what is reasonable, proportionate, and humane in responding to personal attack and public criticism, however harsh and unpalatable this might be at times.
Accordingly we wish to assert that the imprisonment of …… has offended our intrinsic sense of humanity, natural justice, and intellectual authenticity, and constitutes a tragic violation of democratic values and human rights in the country. Sadly, recent disturbing trends in several other spheres of governance and law enforcement lead us to view this particular outrage with even greater disquiet, as being part of a depressing downward spiral characterised by the callous disregard of individual freedom, the intimidation of democratic institutions, and the progressive descent into tyranny”