SRI LANKA: Judge’s murder is the price for neglect of the Sri Lankan judiciary

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) today extends its deepest sympathies to the families of Colombo High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya and his bodyguard Inspector Upali Bandara, as well as the people of Sri Lanka. The judge and police officer were murdered yesterday, November 19, outside the judge’s house.

The killing was as shocking as it was predictable. In July, the AHRC wrote on the attempted rape of a high court judge in her house. The authorities promised greater protection for judges, but what came of it? Justice Ambepitya’s wife has complained that despite death threats against her husband, security was lax.

Assassinations and threats of assassinations have been going on in Sri Lanka for decades. There has been no serious effort to stem the practice. Like all other problems, it has been met with rhetoric and promises, devoid of strategies and action. There has been no attempt to break the culture of murder that has slowly strangled the country since the mass disappearances of the 1980s. Everybody goes about his own business expecting that somebody else will be the target, as did Reverend Martin Niemoeller, who was arrested by the German Gestapo in 1938. Reverend Niemoeller later famously wrote that, “In Germany, the Nazis first came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for Catholics, but I didn’t speak up because I was a protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me.”

In Sri Lanka too a collective unwillingness to take responsibility for the failure to uphold the rule of law has made the entire society a target. The legacy of distorted laws twisted to facilitate mass murder lives on; it has now made itself felt at the heart of the administration of justice.

The judiciary in particular has done very little to stop this exceptional collapse of the rule of law. In recent years it has been embroiled in petty quarrels and has diminished itself in the eyes and minds of most people. Today it lacks the leadership to protect itself from outside attacks, whether physical or otherwise. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, which represents the legal profession, has never been weaker than it is now. It has failed to protect not only its members, but also the integrity of the legal profession and independence of the judiciary.

The country has also too long neglected the overwhelming crisis in its policing system. The misuse of police institutions for political purposes, including the causing of disappearances and other acts of violence, has deprived the country of a reliable means for public protection. It is openly acknowledged that the criminal investigation system is totally defective and lacking in virtually everything: qualified investigators, fingerprint analysis and forensic science equipment, even basic facilities for communication like mobile phones and fax machines.

For the political leadership in Sri Lanka, crime is just a device for demagogy: a means to obtain greater powers for social repression. No strategy yet exists for qualitative improvement to policing; no funds have been allocated for this purpose. There is no evidence that without intense public pressure either will be forthcoming soon.

Now is the time for all concerned citizens to rise up and challenge the political leadership to make resources available for radical reforms to the police, so that the public can at last get the protection it deserves. Above all, this means allocation of funds for a proper criminal investigation system. People must also demand accountability from the higher judiciary. It is a moment to establish the principle that if the independence of judiciary is betrayed from the top, nothing can save it. The judiciary must finally resolve its longstanding problems, so that its judges can work securely.

Only complete investigation of yesterday’s murders, and intense scrutiny of the exceptional collapse of the rule of law in Sri Lanka, will make it possible to avoid further killings.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-48-2004
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Judicial system,