Minister of Justice M.M. Ali Sabry failed in efforts to incorporate progressive amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure Act (CCPA) of Sri Lanka which would have allowed magistrates to visit suspects held in detention under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) as a measure to prevent torture and other cruel and degrading treatment.
The Justice Minister backed the proposal in his speech in Parliament as he presented changes to the Criminal Procedure Code. The amendment was subsequently officially proposed by the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya’s Colombo District MP Mujibur Rahuman. Rahuman’s amendment to the bill suggested including the phrase “detention centres” as places a magistrate could visit monthly to make a determination about whether suspects were being subjected to torture or other cruel punishment at the hands of their captors.
In his speech on July 6, Justice Minister Ali Sabry told Parliament that the Government wanted to give magistrates extended powers to see and observe suspects in held in places outside formal prisons and police stations.
This statement was remarked upon by TNA legislator M.A. Sumanthiran, who also spoke at the debate on the Government’s proposed amendments to the CCPA and the Convention Against Torture Act.
“What we see in the amending Act, in both the amending Bills, we welcome, because it seeks to make it obligatory on magistrates to visit Police stations and if I heard the Hon. Minister right, not just the Police stations but also other detention centers and examine and see whether the detainees are properly treated, particularly with the view to ensuring that there is no torture or other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment meted out to them,” Sumanthiran said.
But in the end, the final draft of the bill to amend the Code of Criminal Procedure did not reflect the views of the Justice Minister.
Minister Ali Sabry said he had taken the proposal to the Government parliamentary group and the amendment proposed by MP Rahuman had been rejected.
In Parliament on Thursday (8) Rahuman complained bitterly about the ruling party’s failure to include his amendment. “The amendment I was proposing was to allow magistrates to visit suspects detained by the Terrorist Investigation Division and the CID,” the SJB MP said.
“The Justice Minister has rejected this amendment,” he complained.
Also raising the issue, SJB Parliamentarian Lakshman Kiriella pointed to the Justice Minister’s speech, in which he alluded to the fact that magistrates should be allowed to visit detainees even outside formal prison complexes. “Why is the Justice Minister misleading Parliament in this way,” Kiriella demanded. “MP Rahuman’s proposed amendment would have permitted judges to visit even those who are being held under detention orders,” he charged.
Responding to the opposition complaints, the Justice Minister said: “I presented a bill. The opposition brought some amendments. I discussed them with the government members and a decision was made to reject that. If you want to go for an interpretation whether that includes a place of detention, let the court decide on that,” Minister Ali Sabry hinted.
When the opposition members continued to raise the issue, the Minister of Justice made a revealing statement about his position on the issue:
“My speech would be a persuasive thing for the court to make a decision. We have not accepted their amendments proposed but I stand by my speech. I stand by the statute Let the court decide what I meant. That’s how the law works,” Minister Ali Sabry insisted.
Responding to the remarks, TNA MP Sumanthiran said the opposition was grateful to the Justice Minister for standing by his speech, in which he claimed magistrates should be allowed to visit detainees even if they were being held outside formal prison centres. However, Sumanthiran pointed out that in interpretations before the courts, debates in parliament and speeches made during those debates were only relevant when the constitution is being interpreted. Parliamentary speeches would not be relevant in interpreting ordinary law like the Criminal Procedure Code, the TNA lawmaker explained. “That is why we wanted the clarification. You must clarify in the act itself. Your speech won’t be relevant,” he explained.
The Justice Minister’s remarks made it clear that he favoured the amendments proposed by the opposition, but that he had been overruled by his parliamentary group. Changes to the Criminal Procedure Code that would have included Rahuman’s proposal would have made it possible for magistrates to visit political prisoners like Hejaaz Hizbullah and Ahnaf Jazeem who are being held in detention centres under the PTA.
The issue of allowing magistrates to visit suspects being held under dubious PTA Detention Orders arises in the backdrop of the Justice Minister strongly opposing the continued incarceration of attorney Hejaaz Hizbullah under the PTA on largely fabricated charges. Minister Sabry has earned the ire of more hawkish sections of the ruling party for his position on the injustice meted out to Hizbullah.
Ironically, Hejaaz Hizbullah has been detained under anti-terror laws for over a year, on the basis that he once appeared in a District Court matter for Pettah spice trader Ibrahim whose two sons strapped themselves with explosives and detonated themselves at the Shangri-La Hotel and Cinnamon Grand in the capital Colombo on April 21, 2019. Colombo Telegraph learns that in a devastating irony, the spice merchant’s case had been handed over to Hizbullah by none other than Ali Sabry himself, a senior lawyer who once represented Ibrahim in his business matters.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s personal lawyer and Justice Minister has been under fire from hawkishly nationalistic sections of the ruling party who have viewed his positions as “too friendly” towards the country’s Muslim population. His position on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s forced cremation policy and the witch-hunts against Hejaaz Hizbullah and Ahnaf Jazeem has made him vulnerable to attacks from sections of the Buddhist clergy that back the SLPP.