The Sri Lankan government must immediately provide justice for the physical assault on Manjula Tillekaratne, Secretary of the Judicial Services Commission in Sri Lanka, and cease public efforts to undermine the independence of the country’s judiciary, the International Commission of Jurists said today.
Unidentified persons assaulted the Secretary of the Judicial Services Commission on the morning of 7 October 2012. Lawyers and judges held a strike on Monday to protest recent and escalating threats to judicial independence in Sri Lanka.
“This physical assault is another terrible step downward in the ongoing effort to undermine the judiciary and the rule of law in Sri Lanka,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Asia Director. “The Sri Lankan government has to investigate this event and bring the perpetrators to justice, and ensure that the country’s judges are secure from assault and intimidation.”
Earlier in September, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapksa had demanded a meeting with the Chief Justice and two members of the JSC. The JSC refused the request, citing the implications of such a meeting on the independence of the judiciary. The request came in the wake of the Supreme Court striking down a pending bill before the parliament — the “Divi Neguma Department Bill,” which proposed to establish a new department by amalgamating the Samurdhi Authority, Southern Development Authority and the Udarata Development Authority. If passed, the bill would confer wide powers to the Economic Development Minister as well as access to funds.
State-controlled print and electronic media then engaged in a public campaign of vilifying the Chief Justice and other members of the JSC who are also sitting Supreme Court Justices. On 18 September 2012, the JSC directed its Secretary to issue a public statement citing the baseless criticism of its members in the state electronic and print media. The JSC indicated that it had been subjected to threats and intimidation. Notably, the JSC said it was subjected “to various influences after the Commission initiated disciplinary action against a judge.”
On 28 September 2012, JSC Secretary Manjula Tillekaratne expressed concern for “the security of all of us and our families beginning from the person holding the highest position in the judicial system.”
“The effort to use State-controlled media to browbeat and intimidate judges is an egregious assault on the independence and impartiality of Sri Lanka’s judiciary. An independent judiciary is a necessary precondition to safeguard human rights,” said Zarifi. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary makes clear that it is the responsibility of the State to respect and observe the independence of the judiciary, protecting judges from any improper influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interference.
In recent months, the independence of the judiciary has come under attack in Sri Lanka. In July 2012, Government Minister Rishad Bathiudeen threatened a Magistrate in Mannar and then orchestrated a mob to pelt stones and set fire to part of the Mannar courthouse. Lawyers and judges held a nation-wide strike to protest the incident. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka as well as the Judges Association of Sri Lanka issued public statements condemning the attacks.
Sam Zarifi, ICJ Asia-Pacific Regional Director, (Geneva)