By Ranga Jayasuriya
The government’s strongman in Mannar, Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Earlier, he was blamed for spearheading a policy that overtly favours his supporters while discriminating against local Tamils, in land allocation and doling out resettlement assistance.
This time around, he had allegedly threatened the Mananar District Court Judge and Magistrate Anthony Pillai Judeson after the judge ordered the arrest of a group of men, alleged to be supporters of the minister over an arson attack of fisheries houses belonging to local Tamil fishermen.
The minister had telephoned the judge to demand that he change the ruling, and warned him that unless the judge revokes the Court order ‘the Mannar court would be torched.’
When the judge did not comply with the ministers wish, a group of Muslims, believed to be acting under the political patronage, stormed the Mannar Court, pelted stones and set fire to a section of the Court on July 18.
After the attack on the Court, there had been two days of inaction on the part of the authorities. Judges and lawyers enraged by the official apathy boycotted courts on Friday. On the same day, President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the IGP to instruct the Criminal Investigation Department to launch an investigation into the incident.
The run-up to the attack on the Court began with an arson attack on a group of fisher folks’ houses known as Madalwadiya belonging to Tamil fishermen on the night of July 13.
‘Contempt of Court’
On July 16, Police produced a B report before Magistrate Anthony Pillai Judeson, stating that the arson attack had caused Rs.1.4 million damage.
The judge ordered the arrest of the suspects. In the same hearing, the judge was told that the Tamil fishermen, whose houses were burnt in the arson attack had also been prevented from going to sea since late June by the thugs who enjoyed the patronage of a local Muslim politician.
The judge ordered the Superintendent of Police to provide security for the aggrieved fishermen to go to sea.
On the morning of July 17, about 100 people gathered around the Court, holding protest placards against the judge. As the judge passed through the posse of protesters in his vehicle, he received a phone call from Minister Bathiudeen, who allegedly told the judge to revoke his order for arresting the arsonists in the July 13 attack.
The judge responded, that the request amounted to Contempt of Court on the part of the minister, and that the minister should go to the Judicial Services Commission, should he be unhappy with the Court order.
The angry minister reportedly retorted, calling the judge an LTTE supporter, and warning him of consequences for not complying with his order. He allegedly warned that the Court house would be burnt down by the mobs.
The judge complained to the Judiciary Service Commission (JSC) and later made a written complaint to the JSC, after being instructed by JSC officials.
On the morning of July 18, the police sought a restraining order from the judge, banning an anticipated protest. The judge however declined to issue the order as the police could not provide information as to whether the protest could turn violent.
Meanwhile, crowds alleged to be instigated by Minister Bathiudeen gathered around the Court, carrying placards. The proceedings of the Court were disrupted by the chanting of the protesters. Police tried to disperse the crowd, but in vain.
Within a matter of minutes, crowds turned violent, pelting stones at the Court. A chamber of the High Court judge came under the attack and the judge crept under a table to evade the rain of falling missiles.
Crowds attempted to set fire to the stores of the Court, where Court productions were kept. Court staff fought the fire.
Meanwhile, the judge contacted the Mannar town commander and area commander of the army and instructed them to disperse the crowd. The army was mobilized and the crowd left the scene by 1 pm.
While the Court house was under attack, the judge received a call from a private number. The caller identified himself as Minister Bathiudeen and reminded the judge that he warned him on the previous day that the Court would be torched if he did not comply with the minister’s instructions.
Meanwhile on the same day, the minister allegedly walked into a meeting of the Judicial Service Commission to demand that judge Anthony Pillai Judeson be transferred out of Mannar.
The flagrant interference by the cabinet minister in the affairs of courts shocked judicial circles. But the official apathy continued for two more days before the president ordered a CID investigation