Page last updated at 13:34 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 14:34 UK

Lawyers put Sri Lanka in the dock

By Saroj Pathirana
BBC Sinhala service

Lawyers demonstrate in Sri Lanka
Lawyers demonstrated last year against threats against them

The Sri Lankan government and its legal profession must do more to strengthen the rule of law, according to a panel of international lawyers.

After a fact finding mission earlier this year, the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) expressed serious concern over the threats to the justice system, legal profession and the state of media in Sri Lanka.

It concluded that "attacks against human rights lawyers form part of a pattern of intimidation routinely directed against members of civil society, NGOs and journalists who are perceived to be critical of the government or its policies".

"The threats were both internal and external," human rights lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner JC Weliamuna told a gathering in London at the launch of the IBAHRI report.

Arson attack

A grenade was thrown at his house late last year, but he says the police have made little progress in tracking down those guilty of the attack.

Lord Goodhart
Naming individual lawyers representing terrorist suspects is wholly irresponsible and leaves them open to an increased risk of attack
Lord Goodhart

Apart from the attack on his house, Mr Weliamuna said, the chambers of one senior lawyer were set on fire.

He says none of the cases is properly investigated due to political interference.

The Sri Lankan Media Minister Laxman Yapa Abeywardene denied the allegation.

"There are reasons for delays. For example it is difficult to trace mobile telephone records of the attackers," he told the BBC Sinhala service.

"The government has no intention of deliberately delaying these investigations. And I deny that the government interferes with investigations into attacks on journalists and lawyers."

The IBAHRI delegation was headed by Lord Goodhart a leading British lawyer and former vice president of the International Commission of Jurists.

The report is highly critical of some publications by the Ministry of Defence in Sri Lanka and calls for the removal of an article entitled "Who are The Human Rights Violators?" which names many lawyers who have filed Fundamental Rights (FR) petitions on behalf of Tamil Tiger suspects.

"It is imperative that lawyers in Sri Lanka be allowed to conduct their professional duties without fear of being attacked. Naming individual lawyers representing terrorist suspects is wholly irresponsible and leaves them open to an increased risk of attack," Lord Goodhart said.

He said that by any standards what the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had done was entirely wrong.

"The people they were talking about were not the members of the Tamil Tigers or intended to encourage the Tamil Tigers," he said.

Lord Goodhart said government officials in Colombo had given them "reassuring statements", but they had failed to secure a meeting with any MoD official so they could press them to withdraw the article.

The report also says the Sri Lanka Bar Association must be more vocal in standing up for legal rights.

Rohan Edirisinghe, a law lecturer at Colombo University says there is a dangerous lack of confidence and respect for democratic institutions in Sri Lanka.

"The slide started with the 1972 constitution," said Mr Edirisinghe. He argues that the judiciary has become closer and closer to the executive ever since.

He argues that President Rajapaksa is guilty of violating the existing constitution by unilaterally appointing senior public officials.

Video conferencing

The government has also been criticised for failing to establish victim and witness protection schemes.

The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) has suggested that interviews with witnesses who have fled the country could be done by video conference.

However a former member of the IIGEP, Sir Nigel Rodley, told the London meeting that the idea had to be abandoned when the authorities wanted to use the system to find out where witnesses were living.

The international legal experts expressed the hope that the new chief justice would take steps to de-politicise the judiciary.

Calling on the government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) because some parts of it "go beyond international norms", they also called for the gradual removal of the emergency regulations.

Lord Goodhart said it was time for reconciliation among the communities and urged the government to consider appointing a truth commission.

"If there is a commission in charge of reconciliation I think it is important that it should primarily be a Sri Lankan one.

"Understandably countries are reluctant to accept advice from overseas. But I think it is important that they should consult and ask for evidence from international groups as well," Lord Goodhart said.

However, the Sri Lankan members of the panel were not optimistic.

JC Weliamuna said that he did not foresee the Sri Lankan authorities appointing a commission to look into reconciliation.

"It is a big challenge for Sri Lanka but I don't see any commitment - for the moment - from the political leadership to implement such a move," he told the BBC.

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