It would be a fair guess to say that not even the most perceptive amongst us could have predicted the extreme degeneration of the police service and most unfortunately, the country’s judicial institution, in post-war Sri Lanka.
Taking the road less traversed
This week, Ranjith Abeysuriya, a President’s Counsel well worth that honorific title quite unlike the politically compromised nitwits of the present day, passed away. An oft-heard joke in the legal profession is that a criminal lawyer could be identified with many of the traits possessed by criminals. This banter has some truth. It may be applied without hesitation to crooks practising as criminal lawyers not only in the original courts but also at the appellate level.
It would have been unthinkable however to class the late Ranjith Abeysuriya in this unsavory category. A counsel of the old school, he made a notable mark on the criminal law. However, in many respects, his involvements went beyond that, particularly when Sri Lanka’s judicial institution came under internal attack well over a decade ago in tumultuous controversy which has resounded and reverberated ever since.
Indeed and strikingly so, he demonstrated willingness to take on famously prickly matters when other seniors, more versed in constitutional protections, shied away. One such example was his leading the legal team challenging former President Chandrika Kumaratunge’s 1999 appointment of former Attorney General Sarath Silva as Chief Justice despite an ongoing inquiry by the Supreme Court itself in regard to charges of professional misconduct against Silva.
Patterns of self interest and sycophancy
The outcome of this legal challenge was predictable. The application was dismissed by a Bench of judges appointed by then Chief Justice Silva constituting hand-picked Supreme Court judges from the most junior upwards. It was an unprecedented breach of tradition. But the senior Bar turned the proverbial Nelsonian eye with some thinking more of their own pockets while others professed political allegiance to Kumaratunge.
The late Ranjith Abeysuriya was however the honorable exception to this trend of sycophancy and self-interest. This was despite the fact that he knew, as did many of us, that protests may ultimately be futile. He came forward, though it was against the grain and though his forte was more the criminal law rather than constitutional challenges. This speaks volumes for the man himself. Indeed, I remember most vividly his exclamation outside the appellate court complex when he said, pointing at the imposing structure of the Court that ‘this was a place which we once respected and was so much in awe of; what is it now?’ We can only echo that question now with greater force when the bad has yielded to the infinitely far worse.
And even as Sri Lanka’s judicial institution withered away and died with only a hollow shell remaining, political or personal agendas predominated. The legal fraternity’s short-lived outrage when a Chief Justice was dragged out of office and impeached in 2013 came therefore as too little, too late. As the Rajapaksa Presidency brushed away opinions of the Appeal Court and Supreme Court advising to withdraw from the witch-hunt impeachment as much as a pesky fly is swatted away, what else could be expected?
NPC a forerunner of an inevitable collapse
In other respects as well, recollections are timely. It was under the chairmanship of the late Ranjith Abeysuriya that the National Police Commission (NPC) exercised full powers in terms of the 17th Amendment. Police officers interdicted on charges of torture were indicted. Comprehensive Public Complaints Procedures were drafted with the voluntary assistance of a few of us, eager to see that this novel Commission would make an impact. But the uproar from the police establishment deepened and politicians realized that losing control of the police was disastrous. Collective societal resistance at that point might indeed have forced the political command to rethink and retreat. But this was not to be.
So far from showing the way to like bodies in India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s NPC became just another political casualty under the 18th Amendment. The Public Complaints Procedures were gazetted but lapsed into theoretical uselessness. Effectively, this was a forerunner to the decimation of the 17th Amendment itself with a brash political dispensation deliberately engineering the calamitous collapse of Sri Lanka’s institutions for raw political greed.
The death of institutional independence
Yet as distinguished as these qualities of stubbornness and fortitude were, he was also marked by more contested characteristic of the old school, namely a hesitance to accept that things can really be worse off than ever before.
In conversations around a proposed Organized Crimes Bill more than a decade ago, his reluctance to accept the dangers in allowing police detention longer than the conventional twenty four hours was pronounced. To be fair, this was an assessment at a time far less frightening than now. Today, we face a perilous reality as increased police torture is enabled by longer detention, police assault is commonplace and suspects are shot dead by policemen with rumors abounding that these killings are to prevent the exposure of higher political figures in nefarious activities.
In thoughtful retrospect as gentlemen and gentlewomen belonging to an era quite different than the crudities of the present take their farewell bow, it does not require a leap of the imagination to realize that before long, we would be hard put to retain even the institutional memory of a democratically functioning system. Unabashed political sycophancy on the one hand or shameless apathy on the other, has taken root. Instead of drawing back from the brink, Sri Lanka is now well and truly in the abyss.
Perhaps this is but a sign of the times. Perhaps this is inevitable, at least for the moment until a new enlightened generation, decades down the line, revitalizes this deadened nation.