By Janahan Dhanabalasingam & Kumaresan Purantharan –
Appathuray Vinayagamoorthy, a distinguished Tamil political leader, former Member of Parliament for Jaffna District, Leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress and well-known Human Rights Lawyer bade adieu to the world on 28 May 2017. In his long arduous political journey, spanning nearly six decades, he made a niche for himself in the Tamil political arena not by seeking to achieve fame but by serving the downtrodden. He was honest, straightforward and unswerving in his commitment to the Tamil nationalist struggle. This tribute is penned to mark the First Year Death Anniversary of this great human being.
Vinayagamoorthy made his political entry in the 1950s by enlisting himself with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress founded and headed by GG Ponnambalam QC. At the time, in Tamil politics two giant personalities were ruling the roost, GG Ponnambalam and SJV Chelvanayakam QC, though belonging to competing camps. Vinayagamoorthy, an Interpreter Mudaliyar at the time, was enamoured by Ponnambalam’s fiery argument and mesmerizing speeches. He committed himself to serve the people under the leadership of Ponnambalam. In no time, he became the trusted lieutenant of Ponnambalam running his political campaigns to magnificent victories.
With the demise of Ponnambalam, his son Kumar Ponnamabalam, a youth wing leader of the party, assumed his father’s mantle. Long-established rapport Vinayagamoorthy enjoyed with Kumar ensured smooth transition of mantle of leadership with both being able to move forward. The duo participated in the All Party meeting convened by the then President J R Jayawardene on 21 December 1983 in Colombo. Vinayagamoorthy contested the parliamentary general election for Jaffna district held in 1989. Due to the abnormal situation that prevailed in the peninsula at the time, he could not engage in campaign for the election. The All Ceylon Tamil Congress contested the parliamentary general election for Colombo held in 1989 as well. Kumar was the chief candidate with the list including distinguished people like Vinayagamoorthy, Dr Kumaraguruparan and Educationist Arunasalam. The ACTC failed to secure any seat as the Tamils in Colombo voted for either of the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, a worrying trend still lingering. Raising voice for the Tamils from the south was no easy task given the political climate in the country at the time. Yet, nothing deterred these fearless leaders.
Human Rights Attorney
In 1980, whilst in the government service, he enrolled with the University of Colombo as an external student to read Law. In 1983, he graduated and in the year 1985 he oath as an Attorney-at-Law of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. After devilling under Kumar, he established his own practice. Making money was never his motivation. Rather, he devoted his entire legal career to serving the innocent Tamil youths incarcerated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency regulations without payment. He appeared for thousands of innocent Tamil youths on pro bono basis expecting nothing in return. Vinyagamoorthy appeared for Periyasamy Chandrasekaran, former cabinet minister, when the latter was arrested and detained under the PTA and secured his release. He never failed to make it a point of visiting Tamil political prisoners in prisons and detention centres across the country despite his ill health.
Vinayagamoorthy’s contribution to the fundamental rights can be illustrated by two landmark judgments passed by the Supreme Court. A Tamil youth, Vijayan Vimalenthiran was arrested by army officers under the Emergency Regulations from a lodge in Colombo on suspicion of involvement with the assassination of the Late President Premadasa. He was detained at Panagoda army camp without being produced before a Magistrate, a flagrant violation of the law. Vinayagamoorthy lodged a fundamental rights application with the Supreme Court on behalf of Vimalenthiran against the unlawful arrest and detention. The Application came up before a three-member bench comprising Justices ARB Amarasinghe, Wijetunga and Anandacoomarasamy. The bench in a landmark judgement held that fundamental rights of the Applicant guaranteed under Article 13 (1 ) and (2 ) were infringed. The Supreme Court held that no arrest can be made in contravention to the requirements laid down by the regulation. This case, A Vinayagamoorthy Vs Army Commander and Others is reported in the Sri Lanka Law Report ( 1997 ( 1 ) SLR and incorporated in the syllabus of the Sri Lanka Law College.
Another Tamil youth from the north, Nagamany Theivendran was arrested in Colombo in 1996 by the Terrorist Investigation Department ( TID ) under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for undertaking armed training with the LTTE and being involved in activities for the movement. The Attorney General indicted him in the Colombo High Court. Vinayagamoorthy appeared for the accused. The only evidence relied by the prosecution was the confession purported to have been given by the accused voluntarily without duress in police custody. Vinayagamoorthy argued in the Voir Doire inquiry that the confession was extracted through torture and there was no corroborative evidence to implicate the accused and hence the confession can not be used against the accused. Though absent any corroborative evidence, the High Court after trial sentenced the accused to seven years rigorous imprisonment solely on the footing of the confession.
Unsuccessful in the appeal to the Court of Appeal, the accused appealed to the Supreme Court through Vinayagamoorthy. The appeal came up before a three-member bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices CV Wigneswaran, the incumbent Chief Minister of Northern Province, Mark Fenando and Ameer Ismail. Delivering a landmark judgement with other Judges concurring, Justice Wigneswaran held that “it is contrary to law to punish a person only on his confession without any corroborative evidence against him.” The bench set aside the conviction by a High Court and acquitted the accused. It became a watershed judgement in that it paved way for the release of hundreds of innocent Tamil youths.
He had appeared for the accused in many cases such as Premadasa murder case, Lashman Kadirgamar murder case, Central Bank explosion case, Jeyaraj Fenandopulle murder case, Katunayake airport attack case, attempted murder of Chandrika Bandaranayake and Sri Dala Maligava bomb blast.
He strived for the people displaced from Valigamam high security zone in order for them to be resettled in their original places. He filed fundamental rights applications on behalf of them in the Supreme Court and was actively perusing the cases until his departure. He drew great support from K Kanag-Iswaran PC in his pursuit of these cases who appeared for some of the petitioners.
Leadership of All Ceylon Tamil Congress and Parliamentary Entry
The enemy succeeded in his pursuit of silencing Tamil political leaders who fearlessly fought by cowardly killing Kumar Ponnambalam in broad day light in Colombo on 5 January 2000. This was a personal loss to Vinayagamoorthy as he regarded Kumar as a family member of his own. The party and its rank and file turned to Vinayagamoorthy to assume the leadership of the party following the killing of their beloved leader. Heeding the call he accepted the leadership of the party and became the President of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, a position held by the Late S R Kanaganayagam, former Senator and father of Sri Lanka’s leading legal luminary Kanag-Iswaran PC.
The party was revamped under the leadership of Vinayagamoorthy in preparation for contesting forthcoming elections. He was fielded as the chief candidate for the parliamentary elections for Jaffna district. He made a history securing a seat for the party in Jaffna after thirty long years. He used his parliamentary seat to highlight the sufferings of the people without bowing to anyone.
He vehemently opposed the extension of emergency regulation by Parliament. He would never fail to vote against the extension of the Emergency regulation in Parliament every month when the regulation came up for extension. He made speeches extremely critical of the government in seeking to extend the regulation in the name of national security. He was a valiant campaigner and was fighting until his last breath for the repeal of the draconian law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The PTA, used to arbitrarily detain suspects for months and often years without charge or trial, led to torture and other abuse by the security forces.
Lost her majority in Parliament, President Chandrika Kumaranatunge prorogued the Parliament at midnight on 10 October 2001 to ward off the no confidence motion the opposition parties were planning to move. The opposition parties decided to move an impeachment motion in the house against the President preventing her from dissolving the Parliament. He accepted the call from the UNP to join hands with them to safeguard the democracy and parliamentary supremacy. He was in the forefront alongside former foreign minister Tyron Fernando and other leaders of the political parties to bring about the motion. He was the first Tamil leader to sign the motion. However, before things materialized, Chandirka dissolved the parliament prematurely to ward off the impeachment motion. The Parliament was short-lived for little over a year and country faced another election within a short time.
Formation of Tamil National Alliance ( TNA )
Tamil intellectuals and academics from the north and the east mooted the idea of uniting all the Tamil parties under one umbrella in the hope that unity among the Tamil parties would put the Tamils in a better position to negotiate political settlement with the south. This idea received overwhelming endorsement from the people and the Tamil political parties. Initiatives were made and the leaders of the political parties agreed to work out a structure. Negotiations began at the residence of Kumar Ponnambalam down Queens Road, Colombo. Tamil Congress participated in the talks headed by Vinayagamoorthy. When the party stalwarts were reluctant to forgo their party symbol of Cycle, Vinayagamoorthy emphasized the unity of the Tamils and successfully persuaded them to accept the symbol of the Tamil United Liberation Front ( TULF). Negotiations bore fruit after many hurdles, hitherto seemed insurmountable and blossomed the Tamil National Alliance. Vinayagamoorthy was unanimously selected as the Deputy Leader of the TNA. People in Jaffna elected Vinayagamorrthy, this time with more votes, along with Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, grandson of Vinayagamoorthy’s political Guru.
His death was a great loss to the Tamil political prisoners languishing in jails for decades. Seen as their saviour, he continued to fight to free them. He would never fail to raise this issue with foreign diplomats and dignitaries. During the ceasefire agreement with the government headed by Ranil Wickramasinghe, the political adviser of the LTTE, the Late Anton Balasingam announced in a press conference that the issue of the Tamil political prisoners would be taken up with the government in consultation with Vinayagamoorthy, a fitting recognition for the service rendered by him. He played an important role in the exchange of prisoners at the request of the LTTE during peace time.
Quitting Tamil Congress
In the run up to the parliamentary elections in 2010, Tamil Congress decided to part company with the TNA owing to difference of opinion, a decision Vinayagamoorthy strongly disagreed with. He firmly believed that given the armed struggle silenced, the unity of the Tamils was of paramount importance to find a political solution to the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people. He placed the people before the party and endeavored to turn his party’s decision to leave the conglomeration without success. Determined not to rock the boat, he took a decision with a heavy heart to relinquish the leadership of the party. He stayed with the TNA and contested in Jaffna, not knowing this was his last election. The TNA secured a landslide victory with Vinayagamoorthy elected with a large number votes. Despite his deteriorating health, he served the people to his last breath. He commanded respect of all the political leaders. He will forever be remembered for the yeoman service he rendered to the people.
May His Soul Rest in Peace.