SRI LANKA: There is nothing funny about lawyers being named as traitors for doing their jobs as lawyers; getting closer to cannibalism?

This week a website maintained by the Ministry of Defence published a report in which they referred to some lawyers as traitors as they appeared for alleged LTTE suspects by filing fundamental rights applications before the Supreme Court on their behalf. It is universally known that it is the job of lawyers to appear for anyone, even for the devil himself. Lawyers appear for murderers, rapists, corrupt politicians facing corruption charges, accused persons who may be charged for massacres or maintaining mass graves, for torturers and those who are charged with extrajudicial killings, mass murderers who are charged in international courts such as the International Criminal Court and many other international courts for such things as war crimes, crimes against humanity and the like.

When Adolf Hitler’s collaborators were charged at Nuremburg they had to right to legal representation. Some accused brought to trial in the United States for the 9/11 destruction of the twin towers were represented by American lawyers. Legal firms have come forward to defend the prisoners held in the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp. Both candidates for the US presidential election have promised to close down Guantánamo Bay and bring the prisoners to the United States, even amid objections of their opponents who argue that this will provide legal rights for these alleged terrorists in the same way that the other Americans living in the territory have their rights. The president elect, Barack Obama has indicated that this is going to be one of his top priorities which he wishes to achieve urgently. This list can be enlarged into many pages.

In Sri Lanka itself, the officers from the armed forces who plotted a coup in 1962 to overthrow the legitimately elected government were given all the legal rights from their arrest up to the appeals at the Privy Council. The JVP leaders who were tried for the 1971 rebellion did not have as many rights as the coup leaders as the JVP case was not tried before a court but before a special commission. However, even before the special commission their lawyers were allowed to appear and an eminent QC, Mr. Nadesan, a prominent lawyer, Mr. Bala Tanpoe, and many other lawyers appeared for the alleged insurgents. Until the 80s the LTTE and other Tamil militants who were brought to trial before High Courts, including Kuttimuni were represented by lawyers. Once again the listing of all such presentations can go into many pages.

When the United National Party charged the now president, Mahinda Rajapakse and many SLFPers, for allegedly trying to overthrow the government they were represented by lawyers. When Vijaya Kumaranatunge was charged by the government of J.R. Jayewardene, he too was represented by lawyers.

In fact, such narrations are not necessary except to expose the absurdity of trying to raise propaganda against lawyers for appearing for their clients, whoever they may be, as done by the Ministry of Defence report which was very similar to the letter by the Mahason Balakaya, threatening lawyers with death if they appear for terrorists. In fact, the defence ministry publication and the Mahason Balakaya letter are identical in their message and content.

To attack a lawyer for his professional work is to attack the legal profession as a whole. This profession need not exist if it does not do what this profession is expected to do. Expecting a lawyer not to appear for a terrorist is similar to asking a medical surgeon not to operate on a terrorist who needs medical care.

An attack on lawyers is an attack on the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. In a recent resolution following the throwing of two grenades into a lawyer’ house the Bar Association passed a lengthy resolution avowing that any further attacks will be met by serious retaliation by the association. Now this report against a number of lawyers is an attack that was envisaged in the resolution. How will the Bar Association retaliate? Some leaders of the Bar Association are known to be close to the regime. It would be natural for the lawyers to ask as to whether they will defend this uncivilized action of the regime or whether the association’s leadership will defend the lawyers concerned.

Such threats to lawyers are among the most uncivilized actions and when a website belonging to a government ministry publishes this then it becomes an uncivilized action of the government. Of course what is an official website, what is an official report and what is an official comment by the government is very difficult to judge these days, after all the defence ministry website is not a government gazette. If something is published in a government gazette the government can be taken to task, as was done recently when an attempt was made to extend the retiring age of some government officers which the Supreme Court threatened to annul. But things such as websites maintained by a government are used like private media channels where anybody who wants to play truant can publish whatever they like.

The problem is that such publications threaten the lives of individuals. When the former president, Chandrika Kumaratunge, in a television broadcast made a comment against a UNP member of parliament the United Nations Human Rights Committee held that by making such a statement she had threatened the life of a person and violated his human rights. This defence ministry publication threatens the lives of some persons and lawyers in general and it is therefore a criminal act to make such a publication.

The comparison with cannibalism

There is nothing to stop a government if it wants to be barbaric. There had been tribes which allowed the bodies of their enemies to be cannibalized. That is the way the enmity is extended into absolute terms. That is the similar type of psychology that the government is trying to push in the country. Obviously, the target is not just the terrorists. The target is society as a whole. Today, more than at any other time in Sri Lanka’s history, terrorizing the middle class has become a function that the state is pursuing through various publicity stunts.

This defence ministry publication and the Mahason Balakaya letter foreshadow more terrible things to come. Those who ignore such signals can do so only at their own peril.

For further information on the Ministry of Defence publication and further comments on the Mahason Balakaya please see:

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-297-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,