SRI LANKA: Asian Human Rights Commission presents inaugural Human Rights Defenders Award to Michael Anthony Fernando

This 5 October 2003, the Board of Directors of the Asian Human Rights Commission decided to present its inaugural Human Rights Defenders Award to Mr Michael Anthony Fernando, in recognition of his struggle for basic freedoms. Mr Fernando is today being released from jail in Sri Lanka, where he has been kept since February serving a contempt of court sentence arising from a fundamental rights case that he himself submitted to the Supreme Court. Mr. Fernando has found himself in jail because of his determination to uphold principles of liberty with an uncommon sense of courage, seriousness and self-sacrifice.

Human rights and liberties are expanded most by persons willing to make a sacrifice in the defense of their principles. Society is obliged to recognise and honour such sacrifices. For these reasons the Asian Human Rights Commission has chosen to begin presenting awards to human rights defenders at opportune moments, and has selected Michael Anthony Fernando to receive its inaugural award.

The right of representation before court without fear and intimidation is a fundamental freedom. The defense of this freedom is an unavoidable duty of all citizens. Lawyers in particular have a duty to defend this right. In recent times, however, lawyers in many Asian countries have not demonstrated willingness or ability to protect this freedom upon which the very integrity and honour of their profession rests. In Sri Lanka too, lawyers have failed to uphold their responsibility, at the expense of their credibility. Instead it has fallen to individuals in the wider community to defend these fundamental rights.

The great sacrifice that Michael Anthony Fernando has made in the name of fundamental freedoms in Sri Lanka is a wake-up call for all lawyers, and indeed the entire society. The serious degeneration of Sri Lanka’s judiciary is now a matter of public record, both within the country and internationally. On Mr Fernando’s case in particular, D’ato Param Cumaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers commented that, “The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has done an act of injustice. A man who came to seek justice was served with injustice.”

While the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka is responding to calls for justice with injustice, to date no serious action has yet been taken to reverse the dangerous effects that it is having on the entire judicial system. The lives and liberty of all people in the country remain very much at risk. Mr Fernando’s example is therefore of supreme importance, and it is for this reason that the Asian Human Rights Commission today lauds him as an exemplary human rights defender worthy of recognition, honour and emulation.

– Asian Human Rights Commission

About Michael Anthony Fernando

Michael Anthony Fernando brought two fundamental rights petitions to the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka relating to a rejected worker’s compensation claim. The court consolidated the two into one petition for hearing, and rejected it. Mr Fernando then submitted a further petition, objecting on the grounds that the two should have been heard separately and that his constitutional right to a fair trial was violated. This petition named the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka and the two other judges, among other persons, who had decided against him, and so Mr Fernando sought that the new petition not be brought before these judges.

However, on 6 February 3003 the Chief Justice sat on the bench that heard Mr Fernando’s motion that he not be allowed to hear the petition. The court then summarily sentenced Mr Fernando to one-year rigorous imprisonment for contempt of court, without providing a reason or giving Mr Fernando an opportunity to put up a defence. He was sent to the jail immediately, and given no recourse to appeal against the sentence.

While in jail, Mr Fernando was subject to cruel and inhuman treatment. During his first days, he succumbed to serious illness that was not adequately addressed by the authorities, and his family was not informed of his whereabouts when he was transferred to hospital. On his discharge from hospital on 10 February 2003, during his removal to the prison, he was assaulted several times, causing damage to his spinal cord. Back in prison he was stripped naked and left near a putrid toilet for over a day, after which he began to urinate blood. He was finally returned to hospital with serious injuries.

D’ato Param Cumaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, visited Mr Fernando when he was in hospital and reported that he had been severely assaulted while in prison custody. It was in his press conference in Colombo on February 27 that Mr Cumaraswamy remarked that, “The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has done an act of injustice. A man who came to seek justice was served with injustice.”

Mr Fernando has since submitted an application for a remedy to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, with the assistance of the Asian Human Rights Commission, on the grounds that he has exhausted all avenues for remedies in Sri Lanka.

Michael Anthony Fernando was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1954 and is an English teacher by profession. He is married with children.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-37-2003
Countries : Sri Lanka,