Convicted actor-politician Ranjan Ramanayake’s lawyers have filed a historic appeal in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka using provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)that guarantee every person convicted of a crime, the right to appeal.
The appeal filed on Monday (1) cites the petitioner in Ramanayake’s contempt case Ranawaka Sunil Perera as ‘petitioner respondent’ and makes the Attorney General a respondent.
Ramanayake’s appeal before the Supreme Court hinges on a provision in the ICCPR Act No. 56 enacted by Parliament in 2007, which stipulates that every person convicted of a criminal offence is entitled to an appeal against his conviction in a higher court.
The appeal has also been filed under Articles 118 and 127 providing for the general jurisdiction and the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
Lawyers said it was the first time in its history that the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka had been called upon to exercise appellate jurisdiction in a case decided by a three-judge bench of the same court in the first instance.
Previously the Supreme Court had only rarely been petitioned to review its own judgements by a larger divisional bench.
Ramanayake was convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to an unprecedented four years of rigorous imprisonment. Punishment for contempt of court is not set out in the Sri Lankan statute books, leaving the penalty entirely up to the discretion of judges.
Contempt of court, in terms of statements made that ‘scandalise the courts’ is an archaic concept, no longer punished with imprisonment in civilised democracies. In rationalising its harsh sentence, the Supreme Court said the former Deputy Minister had refused to apologise for his comments. The severity of the punishment for Ramanayake’s crime was a marked departure from how courts around the world address the issue of contempt.
In August 2020, the Indian Supreme Court found lawyer Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court and when he refused to retract his remarks and tender an apology, made him pay a symbolic fine of a single Indian rupee. “If I retract a statement before this court that I otherwise believe to be true….that in my eyes would amount to the contempt of my conscience,” Bhushan, who like Ramanayake refused to apologise told the Court during his trial.
The petition filed on behalf of Ramanayake argued that the Supreme Court had declined to consider crucial evidence in the politician’s defence and that the sentence meted out to the popular politician was excessive.
“The sentence is excessive, disproportionate and inappropriate having regard to inter alia the fact that the statement had been made bona fide in the appellant’s capacity as a Member of Parliament, social activist, corruption-buster and with the primary intention of ensuring rectitude in the justice system,” the appeal filed on Monday said.
Ramanayake’s petition of appeal said that the former Deputy Minister could not have been charged for contempt for his statement in the absence of an Act of Parliament prescribing such an offence. No law exists prohibiting contempt of court apart from a reference to it in Sri Lanka’s constitution.
The appeal makes the argument that the statement for which Ramanayake was held in contempt and sentenced to a prison term had been made in the exercise of the politician’s constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Ramanayake’s appeal petition argues that their client was also prevented from summoning the then President who had consented to attend and had therefore been listed as a witness. The petition of Appeal also noted that the politician’s counsel had not been permitted to pose ‘certain questions to certain witnesses’ during the trial. In making its determination the Supreme Court had failed to consider the fact that the statement by Ramanayake had been broadcast on television even after the contempt charges had been framed and no action had been taken by the highest court against those TV stations suggesting that the broadcast was not contemptuous.
The Supreme Court had also failed to consider the fact that there was no evidence to suggest that the public perceived Ramanayake’s remarks to be contemptuous and that there had been no evidence to suggest that the administration of justice had suffered because of the politician’s remarks.