SRI LANKA: Judicial independence in a coffin 

AHRC-STM-194-2012.jpgThe Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) condemns the attack upon the Secretary of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) of Sri Lanka, Mr. Manjula Thilakarathne. It is reported that Thilakarathne, a senior High Court judge who was openly critical about the executive’s unwarranted control over the country’s judiciary. Unidentified persons have reportedly attacked Thilakarathne, stabbing him three times and seriously injuring the judge. A section of the country’s judiciary, under the banner of the Judicial Services Association of Sri Lanka, has called for a strike by the judges of the country marking protest against the attack upon the judge. The Association will also convene a special general meeting tomorrow to decide its future course of action. Lawyers in the country have joined the protest.

The AHRC is not surprised by the attack upon Thilakarathne, this time physical, causing serious injuries to the judge. The executive of Sri Lanka has been, for the past several years, assaulting upon judicial independence. The President’s Office is suspected to be behind such interferences. On more than one occasion the President’s Office has reportedly intervened in judicial acts for which the President of Sri Lanka, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa has faced criticism both within and outside the country. Thilakarathne, in his capacity as Secretary of the JSC was openly critical of this interference, against which the President’s Office had once ordered him to meet the President at his office which Thilakarathne refused forthwith.

Yesterday’s physical attack upon the Secretary of the JSC is emblematic of the threats faced by judges in Sri Lanka ever since the 1978 Constitution came into operation. The attack showcases the impunity enjoyed by the assailants upon the country’s judiciary and its independence. All governments that have held fort in Colombo since 1978 have prevented every attempt to make the country’s judiciary independent. The judges in Sri Lanka since then have been trying to undertake their constitutional mandate facing threats from the executive and today this threat has taken a dirty turn.

While it is yet to be investigated as to who assaulted Thilakarathne, from past experiences none will be surprised should it reveal that the ruling political party in Sri Lanka is directly involved in the attack. Past crimes committed with impunity by none other than cabinet ministers of the present regime strongly suggests such a possibility.

It is however to be seen whether an independent investigation could be undertaken in this case. If experience from the past is of any value, such an investigation will not happen.

One of the pivotal institutions required to run a constitutional architecture that protects and promotes the rule of law in a country, the judiciary, in Sri Lanka has been publicly assaulted. In a country like Sri Lanka where the public’s perception of their justice institutions is at all time low, an incident like the physical attack upon the representative of the country’s independent body like the JSC will go down as one of the lowest moments in the country’s judicial, constitutional and political history.

This incident is of such magnitude that it challenges the very notion of professionalism and independency, not only that of the judiciary but also of other institutions related to the judiciary, like that of the profession of lawyers and the police in Sri Lanka. Sandwiched in between is the Attorney General’s Department, an office that function as a bridge between the government, its policies, the judiciary and the police. The AG having absolute prosecutorial powers, as it is in Sri Lanka, must be facing the moral dilemma to function any more in the given context as a legal advisor for a government that is unable to protect the body and person of an equally important constitutional office such as that of the Secretary of the JSC.

It is in this overall context of threat, intimidation and fear that the judges and lawyers of Sri Lanka have chosen to protest today. This protest directly confronts the inability of the government to protect its constitutional institutions. Needless to say such a government would be unable to protect and safeguard the legitimate rights and property of the people of Sri Lanka. Such a government has no legitimate right of morale to continue in office.

It is widely rumoured and perhaps it is true that the life of the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka is also at risk. It is reported that Thilakarathne was attacked because he had said in public that his CJ is under threat. Now that Thilakarathne himself is in hospital the message is clear that anyone who criticises the government, regardless of his or her standing puts their lives at risk. If this is the security that an officer of the court can expect in Sri Lanka the safety of the person and property of ordinary Sri Lankans having far less standing is imaginable. If this situation continues in Sri Lanka, it is just a matter of time before Sri Lanka also falling down into the abysmal pit of no return, of absolute judicial servitude to the executive, as it is today in countries like Cambodia and Burma.

The AHRC supports the call for the strike by the lawyers and judicial officers in protest against the attack upon the judiciary and its officers in Sri Lanka. It is the responsibility not only of all Sri Lankans who wish for the return of the rule of law in the country but also that of the international community that believes in the independence of the judiciary as a sine qua non for the establishment of the rule of law and democracy in Sri Lanka.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-194-2012
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Judicial system, Rule of law,