By AHRC –
Romesh de Silva PC is one of the topmost lawyers in Sri Lanka, a former president of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. He led the legal team which represented Dr. Shirani Bandaranayaka (CJ) in all forums during the impeachment saga. Jayampathi Wickremaratne PC, who was formerly the senior consultant in the Constitutional Affairs Ministry is a well known constitutional lawyer and submitted a petition to the Court of Appeal opposing the impeachment, MA Sumanthiran is an MP from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and an active member of the legal team which represented the CJ. He spoke during the parliamentary debate on the impeachment, opposing the impeachment and voted against it. JC Weliamuna is a prominent lawyer, an active member of the Lawyer’s Collective and an internationally known human rights campaigner. He is also a former director of the Sri Lankan branch of Transparency International. This week they all received threatening letters from a secret agency which identified itself as the Patriotic Front. The letters named all of them as traitors and those who are opposing the enjoyment of the victory over the war against terror and declaring that drastic actions will be taken to silence them.
During the United National Party press briefing held yesterday (January 17) Mangala Samaraweera who was formerly a Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that a plot to cause accident to, or assassinate JC Weliamuna had come to their notice. He went on to name a criminal who had been recently released from prison as the person assigned to carry out the attack.
Yesterday in a statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission we gave details of the letters that are being sent by this secret agency to all those who have taken an active part in various legal actions relating to the attacks on lawyers, judges and in particular, the government’s move to impeach the CJ.
The extent of the gravity of the threatening letters is demonstrated by the kind of persons against whom the letters have been sent. Mr. Romesh de Silva PC is perhaps the topmost commercial lawyer in the country who is sought after by almost the entire commercial establishment. He has also been the leading lawyer in some of the most important political cases in recent years such as the case of General Sarath Fonseka and the case against the Chief Justice. While sending threatening letters has become a part of the repressive activities for several decades now there has hardly been any instance where persons as prominent as Mr. de Silva has received such threats. This is an indication that the machinery of repression now threatens even persons at the highest levels.
Thus, the impeachment of the CJ who is, of course, the topmost judicial officer in the country, has not been the last act of the government against the legal establishment of Sri Lanka. The list of persons mentioned in this statement shows that any person who will bring up a case before the courts against the government will become a target for extrajudicial attacks of the government’s repressive mechanism.
In the past journalists of the highest levels became the target of attacks. The cases of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Keith Noyar, Upali Tennekoon, Potala Jayantha, Sanath Balasuirya, Fredericka Jansz, Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, Mr. Gnalingam Kuganathan and Prageeth Eknaligoda are among those who faced such threats. While Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated and Prageeth Eknaligoda was made to disappear all others had to flee their country and become exiles elsewhere to frustrate the execution of these threats. A large number of other journalists had to follow suit and more names are being added to this list regularly. The practice of journalism as independent journalists exercising their critical faculties was thus severely curtailed.
Now the attacks are directed towards the legal fraternity. A rational legal administration is now regarded as a basic threat to the political regime in power. Lawyers who exercise their normal functions to utilise the law in order to assist their clients who are involved in various disputes and who are trying to protect their legal entitlements are now treated as being engaged in activities that threaten the peoples’ enjoyment of the victory against terrorism. This threat has now been extended to the topmost lawyers of the country.
The identity of the people who refer to themselves as the Patriotic Front which sends these letters is no secret either. All these letters emerge from the Ministry of Defense. Selected intelligence officers, police and military officers and paramilitary groups are mobilised by the Ministry to pursue those who are identified as targets for these attacks. Thus, these letters are not products of some loose elements but rather come through a process of selection by those who are assigned to carry out such actions. The Ministry of Defense also has all the capacity necessary to carry out these decisions.
This is one of the reasons why the complaints made to the police regarding these letters, or any other act which creates suspicion of an attack being planned, does not lead to a credible investigation. Investigations do not take place when the threats are made, nor do they take place when the threats are carried out.
All kinds of public statements will be made and various gestures such as invitations to meet with top level politicians but none of this will affect the carefully organised activities of the Ministry of Defense.
Thus there is no legal means by which any person who is threatened can take any meaningful action to seek or to obtain legal protection. This leaves room only to plea for political patronage from the government itself. Naturally the prerequisite for obtaining such patronage would be a promise not to engage in any kind of legal action on behalf of any client who has any cause to complain about the affairs of the government. The “affairs of government” is broadly interpreted to mean any kind of business engagement that those who are linked to the regime are engaged in. In short the price to be paid for political patronage to guarantee protection could be obtained only through an assurance that one will not exercise one’s professional rights to practice law according to the practices and principles governing the legal profession.
Every morning the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) both in Sinhala and English begin with a one hour long programme which, for the most part, is a vitriolic propaganda attack on those who are identified as ‘enemies of the people’ that are attempting to obstruct the peoples’ victory over terrorism. Names are mentioned and sarcastic comments are made without any regard to the norms of journalism. In fact, the two commentators behave not as journalists, but as interpreters of events on behalf of the government. In these programmes any kind of language can be used anything including the making of curses expressing the wish that lightning should fall on the particular characters mentioned. These propaganda attacks are a preparation for physical attacks. When someone is attacked it could be said that it is “the people who have attacked them”.
What all this points to is a government strategy to move away from law based social relationships to a situation where whatever the government does is considered permissible. This will affect not only violations from physical harm but also property rights. Anything can be taken away from anybody, whether it be a job or a title to a property without any recourse to law. If the more affluent classes think this could happen only to the poor and the socially weak they had better reconsider. Today there is no basis for such belief given the type of persons now being attacked; for example the Chief Justice and even the topmost lawyers.