Death threats and Justice

The death threats made against two well-known pro-democracy activists who challenged the Sri Lankan citizenship of Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, if true, should be deplored by all right thinking citizens of this country. According to news reports, soon after the Appeal Court verdict that dismissed their petition against Rajapaksa, petitioners Gamini Viyangoda and Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara complained that they had received threatening phone calls as well as abusive social media posts for taking up Gotabaya’s citizenship issue in court.

Acting Inspector General of Police C. D. Wickramaratne has expressed readiness to provide police protection to both individuals and their legal counsel if requested. In one social media post Viyangoda had been threatened with torture before being put to death. He had also been at the receiving end of abuse while walking on the road.

The move to call into question the former Defence Ministry Secretary’s Lankan citizenship before a court of law may or may not have had political motives behind it. But the right of any citizen to seek legal redress for any real or perceived infringement cannot be questioned. After all, the Appeal Court, which heard the matter, had clearly seen some merit in entertaining the case in the first place. If not, as the Supreme Court subsequently did with the case where the former Mayor of Galle sought a ruling on the President’s tenure of office, it could have thrown out the case at the very outset with strictures delivered against the petitioner.

It looks as if the political heat generated in the Presidential Election campaign has spilled over to other areas encroaching on individual rights and liberties.

Unwittingly, however, the actions of those who made the threats against the two petitioners have brought into sharp focus the independence of the judiciary under the present Government. This was even alluded to by Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and other Pohottuwa bigwigs soon after the verdict was announced over the electronic media.

Paradoxical though these plaudits may sound, coming from the Rajapaksas, it is a clear acknowledgment that the judiciary is, today, independent and free of political interference.

It is not only that. Firecrackers were lit by Rajapaksa supporters all over the country in acknowledgement of the judgement and, by extension, the independence and transparency of the judicial system under the current dispensation. And, not just in this instance, either.

Our judiciary has demonstrated its neutrality and impartiality by giving a hard time even to some Government ministers who were brought before the various commissions presided over by retired and serving judges. The Prime Minister, no less, appeared before such Commissions on two occasions.
So no stone should be left unturned in the hunt for the culprits who issued death threats on the petitioners. This is not the first time that litigants have experienced death threats and other forms of intimidation. Sandhya Ekneligoda, wife of popular cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda who has gone missing and is now an internationally known case of ‘enforced disappearance’, has been routinely subjected to harassment and intimidation for steadfastly pursuing the case of her husband’s disappearance. If such implicitly violent behaviour is not firmly and swiftly dealt with, similar intimidatory tactics against litigants is bound to occur and those seeking justice would think twice before taking the plunge. This amounts to not only a threat against the rule of law but also the willful denial of the right of any citizen to go before the law seeking remedies for grievances.
Such intimidation of litigants must also be seen as a threat against the processes of justice. It is, therefore, striking at the heart of the system.

 

The conduct of some of the lawyers who broke into wild cheers when the verdict was being read out should also be deplored. The President of the Court of Appeal who delivered the judgement has reportedly decided to take disciplinary action against those responsible. We are yet to hear from the Bar Association on the course of action it will pursue.

Today the dignity and sanctity of courts and court premises are being violated with much impunity. The practice of politicians bringing unruly supporters into court premises ought to be stopped. Such an eventuality, certainly, would have been unthinkable in the past when dignity and decorum of the courts were upheld in the strictest terms and any infringement dealt with, with the utmost severity.

It is time that due respect and regard is shown towards the temple of justice by all concerned if for no other reason than it is the judiciary which still commands the trust of the public at large.