By Rajan Hoole –
The Year 1988: The Red Moon Over Sri Lanka And The Dawn Of New Wisdom – Part 4
A particular context in which these accusations came up was the murder in police custody of the lawyer Wijedasa Liyannarachchi whose corpse was found to have more than 100 injuries. The SLFP was quick to play a leading role in protests highlighting for the first time in its 36 year history, gross violations by the state forces, which had though been long common in Tamil areas. For the elite, the Liyannarachchi affair gave them an occasion to give public expression to one side of their confused feelings. On the one hand the State, which had vocally and violently championed the Sinhalese cause in earlier years, was then killing Sinhalese youth in large numbers. On the other, while the elite were disconcerted by the JVP’s murderous violence, its apparent anti-Indian and subtly anti-Tamil rhetoric struck a responsive chord.
In this situation, the elite’s response was similar to that of the Tamil elite in the mid-80s. Although not absolutely safe, it felt safer for the elite to rain indignation against the Government’s violations – the violence of the known devil. Thus for them condemning the latter and being silent on the JVP’s violations, thereby giving them a certain legitimacy, became a fashionable way of feeling good. It was shallow and self-serving, having a useful purpose only when the JVP seemed like succeeding. This was the context behind the protest by an influential section of the intelligentsia when Liyannarachchi was killed. There were also those who had consistently protested against human rights violations over the years. They were a minority. Earlier, Human Rights had been an expression that had been spat upon as a pastime of Tamil lovers. But during the latter half of 1988, and only then, Human Rights became a very respectable term in the South of Sri Lanka.
Liyannarachchi had been working on habeas corpus cases in the South from the offices of the senior lawyer Ranjit Abeyasuriya, who was associated with the SLFP. He was abducted in Colombo upon leaving these offices on 25th August 1988 and taken by the Police to Tangalle, in DIG Udugampola’s area. A month earlier several members of Udugampola’s family had been murdered when the JVP attacked his ancestral home in the Deep South. Once the alarm was sounded over Liyannarachchi’s safety, it was decided to move him to Colombo. The Batalanda Commission has since found that Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was instrumental in giving the CSU unit at Kelaniya custody of Liyannarachchi and that this unit was responsible for the torture to which he finally succumbed.
The Bar Association took an unprecedented step. The Association resolved (Sunday Times 11.9.88) that “no member of the Association would appear for a police officer in any court until all police officers connected with the arrest and death of Mr. Liyannarachchi are interdicted and criminal proceedings are instituted against them forthwith”.
The resolution was evidently drafted in haste under the clamour of the moment. To be consistent, the Bar Association should have taken the position that none of its members would appear in a case where there is good reason to believe that the prospective client is guilty of the offence he has been charged with. For, there could have arisen a situation where the Attorney General charged in court the very man who was beyond reasonable doubt Liyannarachchi’s killer. The accused in turn may have retained a brilliant member of the Bar Association who found holes in the Attorney General’s case, and got the killer released.
Further ironies were brought out by Qadri Ismail (Sunday Times 11 Sept. 88), who confirmed that Liyannarachchi had long been a member of the JVP, but added that his rank was not known. He pointed out that the Bar Association had failed to condemn the JVP’s murder of the lady lawyer Amara Vellappili in Hambantota, who had been a United Socialist Alliance candidate in April’s provincial council elections. Nor had the Association condemned the murder in July 1983 of 53 detainees in Welikade Prison. Ismail further asked whether this selective protest meant that “the Association thinks it correct that those who support the Indo-Lanka-Accord be killed”. Lucien Rajakarunayake writing in the Sunday Times (25.9.88) captured the irony with the title “Rule of law or lawyers?”
H.W. Jayewardene QC who had been the pioneer president of the Bar Association wrote to H.L. de Silva, the then president, accusing the Association of ‘gross betrayal of obligations owed by a lawyer’ and said that he was resigning his membership. He further charged that the Association was in breach of Articles 6, 8 and 10 of the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and Article 14 of the ICCPR (International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights). Responding to criticism, H.L. de Silva said in a statement (CDN 22.9.88) that the Bar Association’s action is of an interim nature and “is performed in the larger interests of the community which must be protected at all costs from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment which is a far greater evil that needs to be eliminated”. From about 10th October the situation deteriorated rapidly and the Bar Association’s boycott was overtaken by events.
After the resumption of war with the LTTE in June 1990, all the evils of extra-judicial licence became the daily routine in the North-East, which in Colombo, and for the Bar Association, remained a reality out-of-sight and out-of-mind. H.L. de Silva’s subsequent analysis of the question of a federal arrangement for Sri Lanka in mid-1991, gave no weight to the bearing of gross violations on the question (see Sect.23.7.8).
To be continued..