The untimely death of former Attorney General and Chairman of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) C. R. de Silva last week robbed the country of a distinguished legal luminary at a time when the legal profession is at a crossroad.
Ironically, at the time de Silva passed away, human rights activists have descended on Sri Lanka because of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and many are demanding the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC which he chaired.
It is a measure of the man that these same activists rubbished the LLRC when it was first appointed several years ago, citing de Silva’s close personal friendship with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, believing that the Commission will merely rubber stamp the President’s agenda.
That did not happen. The LLRC delivered a report to the government two years ago that was admired for its impartiality and western governments which were calling for a war crimes probe against Sri Lanka moderated their demand: they now wanted the LLRC recommendations implemented.
Such integrity has been the hallmark of Chitta Ranjan de Silva who, before he distinguished himself as a lawyer, was better known in a different arena: as a rugby player at Royal College where he captained his school to many laurels including the coveted Bradby Shield in 1968.
That year, Royal College emerged as the champion schools rugby team. When a Ceylon Schools rugby team was announced, de Silva was an automatic choice to captain the team. Leaving school, de Silva entered the Sri Lanka Law College but his nickname at school, ‘Bulla’ stuck with him.
De Silva was probably destined to be in the legal profession: his father Justice K.D. De Silva was a Judge of the Supreme Court. His two elder brothers are active practitioners in the civil courts in the country. He once said his father was the “perfect judge” but that he wouldn’t be good at that job.
De Silva was called to the Bar in 1974. He worked in the chambers of the late Mr. A.C. ‘Bunty’ De Zoysa PC, and later worked in the chambers of Mr. Daya Perera PC. He had his own legal practice for two years before joining the Attorney General’s Department in 1976.
In 1984, he was promoted as a Senior State Counsel and was appointed Deputy Solicitor General in October 1992. He took silk as a President’s Counsel in February 1997, a few months after being appointed as an Additional Solicitor General in December 1996.
De Silva prosecuted many cases that attracted a great deal of public attention. Among them were the Customs Chief Amarapala murder case, the Tony Martin murder trial, the Rita Manoharan trial-at-bar, Father Singarayer’s trial on terrorism charges and the Justice Sarath Ambepitiya murder case.
As he rose through the ranks of the Attorney General’s Department, de Silva represented Sri Lanka in many international bilateral air traffic talks held in New Delhi, Australia, Greece and Sri Lanka, negotiating air traffic rights for the country. He has also been a member of Sri Lankan delegations to the Human Rights Committee of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
A versatile professional, de Silva also served as a lecturer and examiner at the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University and at the Sri Lanka Law College. He was a member of the Law Commission of Sri Lanka and also served the Child Protection Authority and the Drugs Control Board.
In the Attorney General’s Department, de Silva is best remembered for his work in the Criminal Division which he headed for ten years. It was a difficult time as terrorism related prosecutions and political pressures mounted but de Silva ensured that the Department rose to the challenge.
C. R. De Silva was appointed Attorney General by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was well known that they had a long and personal friendship dating back to their days at Law College, but no one claimed that the President was rewarding an old friend: De Silva was an obvious choice for the job.
De Silva retired as Attorney General in 2009 and when then Chief Justice Sarath N Silva also retired shortly afterwards, there was speculation that he would be offered the top job in the judiciary. He wasn’t and he reverted to the private bar where his services were eagerly sought as a criminal lawyer.
In 2010, President Rajapaksa appointed de Silva to head the LLRC. It was de Silva’s most challenging assignment yet as the international community, egged on by pro-Eelamist campaigners in western countries were demanding a war crimes probe against Sri Lanka and its leaders.
" De Silva prosecuted many cases that attracted a great deal of public attention. Among them were the Customs Chief Amarapala murder case, the Tony Martin murder trial, the Rita Manoharan trial-at-bar, Father Singarayer’s trial on terrorism charges and the Justice Sarath Ambepitiya murder case "
Pooh-poohed by the pundits, the LLRC set about its task diligently. Although some international agencies criticised its findings for what they claimed were its “failure to meet minimum international standards or offer protection to witnesses”, the LLRC’s recommendations were widely accepted.
Two years later, when the government chose to hastily impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, de Silva was enjoying a thriving legal practice. Faced with the prospect of replacing Chief Justice Bandaranayake, de Silva, much respected for his integrity, seemed the ideal choice.
It is known that President Rajapaksa personally visited his old friend unannounced at his private residence and made the request. That de Silva politely declined the offer and President Rajapaksa’s acceptance of that is a reflection of the respect that de Silva commanded.
Towards the latter stages of his life, de Silva was avidly engaging in social service activities, promoting causes close to his heart and also contributing much of his time to his alma mater, Royal College where he was a livewire in the Royal College Union.
C. R. “Bulla” de Silva will be remembered not only as an excellent lawyer but also as a man of character. His family, including his wife Kamalini who is the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, can take solace from the fact that his was a life that that was lived honestly and lived to the full.