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Rights lawyers face intimidation in Sri Lanka

03 Jul 2020 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

 At least three lawyers have faced reprisals in the days afterwards. Attorney-at-Law Mr. Roy Dilaksan’s house was reported to have been attacked by unknown persons. Another lawyer who had appeared for the same case, saw a suspicious person hovering around his law office. Yet another lawyer who had appeared for the case was stopped by the Army while traveling home and subjected to intense questioning and intimidation.
 Last year (2019), the Army requested service information from the University Grants Commission about Jaffna University academic and Attorney-at-Law, Mr. K. Guruparan, citing cases he represents families of disappeared where the Army is implicated. This had led to a process which resulted him being banned from practicing law while teaching. Guruparan is well known for representing interests of victims of rights violations, in matters such as memorialisation, land and enforced disappearances. Last year, he, along with another lawyer and their clients were intimidated by being photographed inside court premises by a person that was aligned with the Attorney General’s department.


This year, surveillance on Guruparan has intensified. A research centre he founded and leads has also been subjected to surveillance, including visits by intelligence officers.   
Over the last several years, another Northern lawyer had faced intimidation inside court premises, had intelligence personnel visiting her house to question her and had some persons crash into her car when she had left courts. She too had been appearing in courts on behalf of families of disappeared and involved in rights activism. A female activist assisting her in cases related to enforced disappearances in which Army officers are respondents, was also brutally assaulted and had to be hospitalised with injuries to the head and face.
 It was also last month (May 2020), that media reported that Attorney-at-Law, Ms. Achala Seneviratne had lodged a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police that her life is being threatened. She is also quoted as saying that a year ago, photographs of her were published and distributed over social media with what she perceived as intent to harm her professional and personal life. A year after the complaint, she had not been informed of any progress pertaining to the complaint she made to the CID. She is the lawyer representing the interests of families of disappeared in a case where 11 youth disappeared and high ranking Navy officers are implicated in the court case.   


 Earlier this month (June 2020), Attorney-at-Law Mr. Senaka Perera had traveled over 200km from Colombo to Polonnaruwa to obtain an affidavit from a prison inmate who is an eyewitness to a murder of a prison inmate within Mahara prison last month. Despite a long wait, prison officers did not allow Perera to obtain the affidavit.Perera is the lawyer representing the interests of the parents of the person who died within Mahara prison last month. Previously, Perera also received death threats after filing a writ petition which led to expediting investigations and subsequent prosecutions in a 2012 massacre of 27 prison inmates.  
Most recently, about 2 weeks ago, Attorney-at-Law, Ms. Swasthika Arulingam was arrested and detained for several hours in Colombo. Her crime was asking why persons on the roadside were being arrested by the police.


Also this year, another rights lawyer had been subjected to intense interrogation and threatened with arrest under Sri Lanka’s ICCPR Act[4]. The ICCCPR Act, like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), has become a repressive tool in the armory of the state intent on crushing dissent, especially due to vague and broad terminology, wide and unguided discretion offered to police to arrest and detain and powers to grant bail taken away from Magistrates.  
Last week, on 26th of June, Attorney-at-Law, Mr. Saliya Peiris, a President’s Counsel, tweeted that lawyers visiting clients in Boossa remand prison (Southern province) have been compelled to have consultations with their clients in the presence and hearing of prison officials. He also mentioned that the lawyers visiting this remand prison have been subjected to extensive searching by the Special Task Force (STF) of the police. A few days earlier, another lawyer was denied access to a detainee at a remand prison in Colombo, despite widespread use of crowded public transport, gatherings in places of religious worship, weddings, funerals etc.   

"Lawyers who have been targeted and cited in this article include Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, men and women, from around Colombo and Jaffna"


In April 2020, Attorney-at-law Mr. Hejaaz Hizbullah was arrested and detained. He has been denied meaningful access to lawyers, despite Sri Lankan law providing that every detainee is entitled to visits and confidential communication with his lawyers. More than two months after his arrest, Hizbullah has not been produced before a Magistrate and a recent media report quotes a CID officer telling on 17th June that they are still looking for sufficient evidence against Hizbullah. On 24th June, a Magistrate had canceled an identification parade after Hizbullah’s lawyers pointed out that Hizbullah’s photos had already been shown to children who were expected to identify him and thus the process would be unfair, unjust and unlawful. Junior lawyers working with Attorney Hizbullah have filed a separate fundamental rights petition, alleging that CID had searched their Law Chambers and taken two briefs into their possession, violating privileged communication between clients and lawyers. It is reported that to the best of their knowledge, there was no search warrant permitting the entry and search of the Chambers.  


Lawyers who have been targeted and cited in this article include Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, men and women, from around Colombo and Jaffna. At least seven are Tamil and at least five are women. Most, and possibly all of these are lawyers taking up cases linked to rights violations, representing the interests of survivors of violations, victim families and challenging majoritarianism, military, politicians and state officials through their activism inside and outside courts.   


There is a noticeable rise in such incidents against rights lawyers this year, but this has been a historical trend. In 2014, when I was arrested and detained, several of my lawyers came to visit me, but no one was allowed to speak to me. In 2008, a well known rights lawyer’s house was subjected to a grenade attack. In 2009, lawyers appearing for a newspaper which was consistently critical of the government and faced repeated attacks, were discredited as traitors in black cloaks. In 2013, threatening letters were sent to a group of lawyers defending the then Chief Justice who was removed from office. And back in late 1980s, lawyers faced death threats and at least two were killed. We need to act now to prevent these happening again.  
Lawyers are not above the law and they must be held accountable for any illegal activities. They, like all other professionals, must also be subjected to scrutiny and held accountable by their clients, professional bodies, media and the public. Lawyers, like anyone else, are also entitled to all human rights. Lawyers assist courts in the administration of justice by representing the rights and interests of various parties. They are duty bound to uphold the law and the constitution and are recognised as ‘essential agents of justice’. This is why unfair and unjust treatment, and publicly denying basic rights and due process to lawyers is both a breach of individual rights as well as an interference of the administration of justice. Breaching client – lawyer confidentiality and restricting access to lawyers will cause people lose confidence in lawyers and the system of administration of justice. Arrests of lawyers for asking reasons for arrest of others, threats, surveillance on lawyers and attacks on their houses and organisations have a chilling effect on rule of law and seeking justice.  


The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) calls itself the apex body of all lawyers in Sri Lanka and amongst it’s objectives are to promote and protect interests, welfare, rights and privileges (of it’s members) and to lobby and make representations to the legislature or other authority on behalf of the interests of the profession and the public. But as some of it’s most committed members are coming under fire for standing up for human rights, rule of law and social justice, or just simply trying to do their job, the BASL, including its Human Rights and Rule of Law Committees are maintaining a deafening silence and appear to have subjected themselves to a self-censorship.   
The lawyers under fire today have defended and supported people whose freedoms, rights and dignity was being trampled on. They contributed, more broadly, to the promotion of democracy, rule of law and social justice. Tomorrow, if our rights are violated and we are subjected to injustice, we may turn to them and others like them to defend us and protect us. Today, as they remain under fire, we all have to stand with them.   



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