Social media has erupted with anger over disclosures this week that Sri Lanka’s University Grants Commission (UGC) had based its decision to ban a legal academic attached to the Department of Law, University of Jaffna from engaging in legal practice following questions raised by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) as to the fact that he was appearing for petitioners in habeas corpus applications in the North.
The letter sent by the SLA to the UGC seeking the details of Dr. Kumaravadivel Guruparan was sought to be obtained by him from the UGC through an information request filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The Colombo Telegraph wa informed that the UGC had released minutes of the board meetings at which the decision to impose the ban had been taken. However the letter sent to the UGC by the SLA which was an annexure to the minutes was withheld on the basis that it was confidential information and that when permission had been asked by the UGC from the SLA to release, that permission was refused.
Guruparan thereafter appealed to the Right to Information Commission which, on 21st January 2020, reversed the UGC decision, ordered the release of the letter, after calling for it and examining its contents. The Commission had pointed out that the letter sent by the SLA to the UGC had merely asked as to whether the academic was employed by the University, if he had been permitted to practice and if so, the basis on which that permission had been given. Such a document with a routine request cannot be considered as coming within the definition of confidential information whether it emanates from the Army or not in terms of the RTI Act, the Commission had said during the hearing, Colombo Telegraph learns.
Academics appearing in courts of law, particularly in urging the Court to intervene on public interest matters has been an established tradition in the region with notable cases in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In India, academic Upendra Baxi became a household name by appearing in courts for abused detainees and in other social justice challenges. In Sri Lanka, the giving of permission by the academic establishment allowing academics to appear in court varies from university to university but legal practitioners affirmed to CT that it has been common practice in fundamental rights litigation.
Activists have pointed out on social media that the wider issue here is not the ban in principle but the disclosure that the UGC had entered into the ban following questioning by the Army. ‘This is unacceptable’ they say.