By Ayesha Zuhair
On 3 May 2012, long before the Mannar mayhem, the Sri Lanka Police acknowledged a growing trend – that of people taking the law into their own hands.
In a media communiqué, Police Headquarters stated that certain groups were increasingly behaving in a violent manner, and noted that 105 individuals had been brought before the law for perpetrating multifarious acts of extrajudicial punishments.
Sri Lanka is certainly no stranger to ‘vigilante justice’ or ‘law of the jungle’, with numerous instances of citizens meting out ‘justice’ without proper recourse to law. These acts range from angry crowds setting buses on fire following fatal accidents to threats on public officials, judiciary and the media.
This is indeed a dangerous trend that. Such acts tend to be based on emotions rather than reason and disrupt social order. They can never be condoned.
The 13 July 2012 attack on a fishing ‘wadiya’ in Mannar allegedly by a group of fishermen seeking their resettlement deserves censure, even though for over three years since the end of the war, the authorities had failed to resettle the displaced fishermen by moving out the war-time squatters.
Even more disturbing was the manner in which some among the protestors allegedly attacked the Mannar Court Complex, attacked Police personnel and hurled abuse on the District Judge and Magistrate, who had reportedly found it compelling to order the Police to shoot if necessary at the demonstrators who had gone out of control. There was relief among the people of Mannar that the SP did not carry out the order to shoot the demonstrators, thereby avoiding the possible loss of lives.
The incident calls for a prompt and fair investigation by the Police and recourse to justice through the judicial process. Likewise, the allegations that Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen had threatened Judge Anthonipillai Judeson have to be expeditiously investigated and dealt with through the due process of law.
That being said, the growing number of instances in which people have taken the law into their own hands is symptomatic of a much deeper problem; that people are fast losing faith in the system. That the system is failing is a reflection of the growing disenchantment in the country.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) too has indirectly conceded to this reality without stopping at condemning the Mannar incidents but also by refraining from carrying out Court duties on 20 July. The very fact that the BASL called for an island-wide protest boycott similar to other protests is a public admission that the system is in failure. It is an unfortunate reflection not only on the government but also on the Bench and the Bar.
On November 18 last year, abusive remarks were directed at two of the three judges who sat on the Trial-at-Bar in the ‘White Flag’ case following a public disturbance to Court proceedings. This was an incident which amounted to a threat on the independence of the judiciary. Last year’s incidents took place in Colombo that included learned persons unlike the illiterate and frustrated Mannar fishermen!
When the system is under attack, how the system reacts is in itself critical. On an earlier occasion when a Minister was found to have been in Contempt of Court, the Courts’ reaction was widely perceived as an ‘over-reaction’.
The BASL is correct to condemn the Mannar Courts’ incidents and call for investigations but reacting in a manner akin to the protesting fisher folk of Uppukulam does not help. The BASL statement shows that its executive body had prejudged the allegations, and taken a particular side on issues which according to its own statement require further investigation.
They seem to have side-tracked the cardinal legal principal that a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and have jumped the gun. The BASL should have called for a fair, independent, robust and expeditious investigation into the inquiry and then allowed the law to take its own course.
The statement issued by the Bar Association reads thus:
“The Executive Committee of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka at an emergency meeting held on 19.07.2012 unanimously expressed its strong condemnation and abhorrence of the incident which took place in Mannar where the Court premises came under attack and the District Judge and Magistrate Hon. A Judeson was threatened and subjected to questioning by Minister Rishard Badiudeen, Minister of Rehabilitation. In the unanimous view of the Executive Committee, this conduct amounts to a serious and unwarranted interference with the Administration of Justice and the Judicial process and undoubtedly amounts to Contempt of Court… We unreservedly stand behind the judiciary and we will always endeavour to support it whenever any threat to it is perceived… We call upon the Honourable Attorney General and the other law enforcement authorities, including the Inspector General of Police to forthwith have the investigations commenced and to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Leave alone the fact that Bathiudeen is no longer the Minister of Rehabilitation but of Industry and Commerce, the BASL has also given its verdict on the matter! Defending a colleague is understandable, but who will judge the accused in such a scenario? Isn’t the BASL led by a UNP Parliamentarian in a matter involving an UPFA Minister, attempting to influence the course of justice, in adopting the judgemental resolution in the manner that it has?
It appears that the Bench and the Bar had been virtually unanimous in taking the complainant’s side that not only were the Court premises attacked and the judges threatened, but also the named, accused Minister Bathiudeen had committed the act of threatening a judge – a matter that wiser counsel would have left to the legal process to investigate, determine and deal with. This can stand in the way of a fair trial and may even provide an escape route to Minister Bathiudeen.
Moreover, why are these ordinary, impoverished fishermen daring to challenge the powerful authorities? That is a consideration which must not be altogether ignored. That too needs investigation and answer to the country at large.
The relevant authorities have a duty not only to investigate and take action against the perpetrators, but to also look at the bigger picture, and find solution to the roots causes that led to the problem in the first instance. The Muslims of Uppukulam want to be resettled in their native lands and have their livelihoods restored.
That is an imperative to prevent a downward spiral into anarchy, and the emergence of self-proclaimed ‘Dark Knights’. Even if there are parallels between Sri Lanka and Gotham city, we can certainly do without Dark Knights.
Therefore, while taking action against who take the law into their own hands, it is important to delve into the underlying problems that led to the Mannar mayhem and find an urgent solution.