At 4PM on 14 April, Attorney-at-Law Hejaaz Hizbullah received a call at his home. The caller identified himself as an officer from the Ministry of Health. He inquired whether the lawyer had just withdrawn money from an ATM machine.
Hizbullah who had just returned from an ATM told the “MoH officer” that he had done so. The caller asked him to remain at home and await a visit from MoH officers. Hizbullah, his wife and her mother waited at home for the health officials to arrive, fretting that the ATM had been contaminated and they were now at risk of having contracted corona-virus. About an hour later, five persons including a woman arrived at the lawyer’s residence. They immediately handcuffed the attorney and began to question him about certain calls he had made on his telephone.
While the questioning was underway, one of the interrogators had received a telephone call. He left Hizbullah’s earshot to take the phone call. When he returned, he took off the lawyer’s handcuffs. Then they entered the lawyer’s chambers and demanded access to two case files relating to prominent Pettah spice trader Mohommed Yusuf Mohamed Ibrahim.
On April 21, 2019, Ibrahim’s sons had strapped on suicide vests and detonated themselves at two five star hotels in Colombo, two of six explosions that killed 269 people including foreigners. Over a decade ago, Hizbullah had represented the prominent Muslim trader in two cases in the District Court. The lawyer handed the files over, even though legal experts noted that this was unnecessary since Hizbullah was entirely covered by attorney-client privilege which is sacrosanct and no court of law let alone police officials, could compel the lawyer to hand over client files.
Having recorded a statement from Hizbullah, the persons then ordered his wife, an Egyptian national to place her signature on a statement written in Sinhala. She did so without protest. Hizbullah was ordered to be present at the CID on 15 April. But soon afterwards, the visitors received another call. When that telephone call ended Hizbullah and his wife were ordered to accompany their visitors to the CID. On the way to the CID, Hizbullah’s junior lawyer Chalana Perera was allowed to accompany him. After several hours of interrogation, Perera was informed that Hizbullah was being arrested on hitherto unspecified charges. It has been four days since the attorney Hejaaz Hizbullah was detained. He is yet to be given access to his legal counsel except once with a CID officer present.
These terrifying details about the arrest of a prominent Sri Lankan lawyer were included in a Habeas Corpus petition filed before the Court of Appeal last week as days went by and Hizbullah remained in detention.
Pro Government media channels tarred the lawyer with the label of terrorist within hours of his arrest. His connections to the Ibrahim family have been presented as illegal, even though it will be recalled that the influential Pettah trader was included in the National List of the JVP in the 2015 parliamentary election. Scores of politicians and businessmen associated the Ibrahim family prior to the Easter attacks. The senior Ibrahim is also well known to have launched the political careers of several currently serving MPs. Investigators have never fully disclosed whether Yusuf Ibrahim, the father of suicide bombers Inshaf and Ilham who detonated themselves at the Shangri La Hotel and the Cinnamon Grand on 21 April last year was aware of the radicalization of his sons and the terror plot they were hatching with the mastermind of the bombings and extremist preacher, Zaharan Hashim.
The arbitrary arrest and detention of a lawyer has elicited nary a whimper of protest from the Bar Association of Sri Lanka even though the facts make it clear that Hizbullah might be paying a heavy price for services rendered in his capacity as an attorney at law a decade before the Easter attacks. The clever manipulation of facts and the propaganda drive initiated soon after Hizbullah’s arrest has made civil society activists and fellow lawyers hesitant to unequivocally condemn the arrest and see it for the blatant attempt to stifle dissent that it appears to be.
Jaffna lawyer and academic K. Guruparan however called the arrest of Hizbullah and the way it came about “atrocious”.
“No reasons for arrest, entering residence of lawyer in the guise of public health officials during a pandemic to conduct a search, handcuffed at home when being searched, perusing/taking court files of an attorney from his chambers. This is atrocious,” he tweeted after the Hizbullah’s father filed the Habeas Corpus petition.
Former ICTA Chairman Dr Rohan Samarajiva also took to Twitter to note that the manner in which the CID had gone about the arrest of the prominent lawyer destroyed the credibility of the Government’s COVID19 contact tracing and surveillance. “This is how you destroy trust in contact tracing by Sri Lanka health authorities,” Dr Samarajiva said referring to details in the Habeas Corpus application.
Others pointed out that the impersonation of a public official is a crime under Sri Lankan law. Section 168 of the Penal Code states that the offence of impersonating a public official – such as a Ministry of Health officer – and carrying out acts as one holds a punishment of two years in prison or a fine or both.
Tweep Thyagi Ruwanpathirana questioned whether the illegal arrest of lawyer Hizbullah was turning into an “enforced disappearance”. “Is this illegal arrest turning into an enforced disappearance or are authorities willing to disclose information around Hejaz’s arrest? Authorities came under the guise of health officers for #COVID19 but arrested him after looking into his work!? #lka” she tweeted.
Concerns are also mounting about whether Hizbullah’s arrest was timed to prevent him from legally assisting Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole who might be mulling a Supreme Court challenge to efforts by the Government to force the Elections Commission to conduct a parliamentary election amid the corona virus pandemic, a situation that could endanger millions of voters and polling officials, Colombo Telegraph learns. Hejaaz Hizbullah shot to prominence after his famous 2018 representation of Commissioner Hoole in the Supreme Court case against the illegal dissolution of parliament by former President Maithripala Sirisena.
Over a decade ago (2009-2010) Hizbullah served represented Ibrahim in two district court cases. He also served as a trustee on a charity dedicated to orphan welfare. The Senior Ibrahim, the spice trade from Pettah ran this charity, Colombo Telegraph learns. Sources told Colombo Telegraph that Hizbullah had fully cooperated with the CID and the intelligence officials probing the Easter Sunday attacks, providing all the information the authorities sought about the Ibrahims.
According to the Habeas Corpus petition, the CID had already questioned the attorney about these cases and his involvement with the senior Ibrahim. The involvement of the prominent and enormously wealth Ibrahim family in the Easter Sunday attacks that claimed 258 lives sent shockwaves across Muslim society at the time.
The attorney’s father told the Court of Appeal that his son’s arrest and detention is mala fide and is calculated to penalise Hizbullah for his activities and obstruct him from engaging in his work as an attorney and a civil rights activist.
A writ of Habeas Corpus (‘you shall have the body’) is filed to require a person under arrest or being illegally detained to be brought before a judge or into a court of law, in order to secure the person’s freedom unless lawful grounds are shown for detention. If Hizbullah’s father’s writ is successful, the CID will be compelled to produce the lawyer in court and tell the judge the charges under which he is being held.
However, the Court of Appeal is currently led by Abdul Hameed Dileep Nawaz, a notoriously corrupt judge and staunch supporter of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (by Chamika Madiwake)