Image: Hijaaz Hizbulla, November 2018 at a protest against President Sirisena’s constitutional coup.
On 16 April, I heard that my former classmate Hejaaz Hisbullah had been arrested by the CID. As I learnt more about the questionable circumstances of his arrest, I have been struck by how little these questions seem to matter in various media and social-media circles. It appears that by virtue of his arrest and identity alone, Hejaaz is being pre-judged.
Hejaaz and I first met as five-year-olds. As the saying goes, we know each other ‘warts and all’. Small in stature, Hejaaz is a natural leader who cares deeply about people, community and principle. He was a fantastic sportsman, an articulate and sharp debater, a hard-working and diligent student, the co-editor of the college magazine and a much-respected school prefect. He had an impish smile and a healthy disregard for overbearing authority. He spoke his mind fearlessly, even to prefects and teachers.
Looking back at our childhood together, I recall many moments where Hejaaz displayed effortless courage, humour, solidarity and brilliance. Whether it was jumping into the fray as a classmate was about to be beaten up, carrying out an elaborate prank against an unsuspecting friend or having a quiet word with another for bullying younger students, Hejaaz was an influential and integral part of my childhood. We didn’t have the vocabulary for it then, but Hejaaz from a very young age, showed signs of growing up to be a man of principle, conviction and integrity.
Both Hejaaz and I found our calling in the law. As a young attorney, he rose through the ranks of the Attorney General’s Department, quickly gaining a reputation as one of its brightest young advocates. As Chevening scholars, Hejaaz and I became batch mates again, this time as we pursued our LLMs at University College London. Here, the two of us were among the co-founders of UCL’s Student Human Rights Programme. After his return to Sri Lanka, Hejaaz moved onto his own private practice. Driven by a strong sense of social justice and guided by an equally strong spirituality, he has taken on difficult – at times unpopular – cases.
The qualities of a true all-rounder that Hejaaz demonstrated at school, continue to be on display in other guises as an adult. Unapologetically loyal, full of revelry and intolerant of injustice, Hejaaz is equally at home in the court room, the big match and the UCL library.
It is this Hejaaz whose many qualities I admire, that I now see being presented in a one-dimensional, negative light. The less that is known about someone, the easier it is to caricature them, by piecing together fragments of information, colouring them with stereotypes and moulding them to validate preordained narratives. Once these characterisations take a life of their own, they embolden the prejudiced and can implant a kernel of doubt among the more discerning. Such portrayals ultimately undermine our search for truth, fairness and justice.
One year after the senseless and brutal Easter Sunday attacks, our country is still struggling to come to terms with what happened and to find unity and trust amidst the grief, fear and anger. The families of the victims are yet to see justice, which can only be premised on fairness and truth.
When the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks happened, Hejaaz was devastated. Like me, his childhood and education were inseparably entwined with the church. Our privilege was that we had attended a multi-cultural school, which didn’t just teach us the importance of ethnic harmony, but showed us that this was the most life-affirming way to live. Such ruthless attacks on churchgoing worshippers were also attacks on our childhood identity and ethos.
In the aftermath of the attacks, fear and division plagued our country and threatened our school batch-group. As some made comments which others rightly took offence at, Hejaaz’s response was to find a way to pull people together.
In the month of Ramadan, he took a lead in organising an Iftar meal for the group and some guests – leaders of the four religions. The event was an important and heart-warming act of solidarity, tolerance and defiance. Speaking at the ceremony, Hejaaz reminded those present that they were gathered to “celebrate our heritage and culture, which is, that we are after all, a diverse and pluralistic community with a lot of reasons to bring us together and make us one”.
One year on, Hejaaz is spending Ramadan in a cell, cut off from his friends and family. I believe his resilience, courage and belief will pull him through. I hope his faith in humanity will not be too dented. I pray he will be treated fairly, by the justice system he has served so well and our society that he values so dearly.