By Ravi Perera –
It was with great sadness that I learnt of the death of CR De Silva President’s Counsel and former Attorney General.
From his days at Royal he was better known as “Bulla”, of Rugby fame. Bulla was then living down Park Road and although older occasionally joined us for a game of soft ball cricket at the Colts grounds which in the early 1970s was an open ground lined with lush rain trees, very unlike the walled-in, unfriendly monstrosity we have there now.
I lost touch with “Bulla” for some years and met him again only when I joined the Attorney Generals Department as a State Counsel in the early 1980’s. At the time he was an “Acting Senior State Counsel” supervising the Western Province. Then the Colombo High Courts were situated at the old Queens Club building down Buller’s Road .It was a very pleasant setting with a park like environment. During this period Bulla came for two special prosecutions to the Buller’s Road High Court. The first case was before High Court Judge Hon. Lakshman Weerasekera in which a senior officer of the Examinations Department was charged with having fudged examinations results of a student(s) with the intention of favouring him/ them in gaining entry to the university. The accused person was defended by senior lawyer Ranjith Abeysuriya, a much respected professional. As a novice I could not have asked for a better introduction to the hallowed traditions of the legal profession. All three, the Judge, prosecutor and the defense attorney, in their search for a just verdict, did not deviate in the slightest from the straight and narrow path set by an exacting profession. If I remember right the accused person was found guilty and sentenced to a jail term.
CR De Silva’s next special prosecution with me as a junior was the controversial case concerning Fr.Sinngaraya who was charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Again if my memory serves me right the charge was under the controversial Section of that Act which was known as “the failure to inform the authorities of terrorist activity…” The gravamen of the charge was that the accused person having become aware of what were defined as terrorists acts (of others) failed to inform the authorities of such. The Defense was led by the combative Bala Thampoe who was sometimes inclined to filibuster. Not only was Thampoe a very seasoned campaigner but was also very sharp. The judge, Hon H. W. Sennanayake, was one of the finest judges I had prosecuted before, stern but fair. It was a politically hot case and there were a lot of pressure to convict. The evidence was primarily a confession made to a senior Police officer and the case rested on satisfying the judge that it was made voluntarily. At the end of the trial the judge was not convinced and the man was acquitted. I recall an elated Bala Thampoe telling me that the Sri Lanka Judiciary was one institution that commands the respect of all those who came before it.
In the course of these long trials we associated closely and there were many occasions when we would retire to the SSC for a beer and lunch. On such occasions there were those like Denzil Gunaratne a firm buddy, late Raja Fernando and other friends of Bulla who often joined.
About this time I left the Department and we lost touch again. Much later when Bulla was appointed Attorney General there was general acceptance that it was a proper appointment, firstly in view of his long service in the Department but more so because of his innate sense of decency and independence of mind, qualities essential in the holder of that august office.
More recently it was speculated that the post of the Chief Justice was offered to him. Knowing Bulla’s long standing and affectionate friendship with the President, I have no reason to doubt that had he so desired, the post would have been his. But perhaps Bulla, thought otherwise. A person cannot canvass high judicial positions and then serve without fear or favour. There are greater principles involved in such appointments that transcend the spoils of office.
It is difficult to assess a man who spent a major part of his life serving the legal profession without reference to the larger picture of a professional and cultural life on a downward spiral. By the very nature of what it is called upon to perform , particularly in its judicial and quasi-judicial functions, the profession calls for independence, transparency, perfect integrity and of course legal acumen. The value of its service often lies in the intangibles, perception, reputation and acceptance. As somebody questioned once, should a judge who is said to stand for justice and fair play, jump a queue to buy a loaf of bread?
But for some time, and now with greater frequency we see the lowering of standards all around. On the whole the profession has not been able to resist the fatal attraction of political patronage. As a result the powers that be have arrogated to itself the role of benefactor, whether it be professionals honours, career promotions, vehicles, security, post-retirement benefits to jobs for the children solely on the basis of reliability and favour.
Given the prevailing realities and his long standing friendships with those that matter today Bulla could have asked for more. For some reason he did not. In these warped and twisted times that hesitancy surely speaks volumes.
If C R De Silva is to be remembered for one thing, it has to be his role in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which he chaired. In the parlance of the profession his brief was testing in the extreme. A bitter, convoluted and bloody civil conflict had ended and this Commission was given the task so clearly stated in its title. Most readers will agree that by that report the commissioners had proved their mettle.
With the passing of CR De Silva the legal profession has lost a man “who did not lose his head when all about him were losing theirs”