Sri Lanka: IBAHRI calls for protection of lawyers following death threats

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) calls on the Sri Lankan government to take immediate measures to protect the independence of the legal profession in Sri Lanka, following concerns at an escalation of intimidation against lawyers and civil society members working on human rights and rule of law issues. In particular, the IBAHRI calls on the relevant authorities to undertake swift and transparent investigations into the reported death threats against Sri Lankan lawyers, Namal Rajapakshe and Manjula Pathiraja. 

According to reports received by the IBAHRI, on 13 September 2014, two unidentified masked men entered the offices of Mr Rajapakshe and Mr Pathiraja. One of the men was armed and both lawyers were warned not to appear in ‘unnecessary cases’, or they would be killed. The lawyers reported the incident at the Peliyagoda Police Station, in Gampaha District, Sri Lanka.

IBAHRI Co-Chair Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, said, ‘The IBAHRI is deeply concerned by the reported death threats against Mr Rajapakshe and Mr Pathiraja.  The threats follow reports of intimidation and surveillance against the President of the Sri Lankan Bar Association last month, and together, these incidents paint a worrying picture of an escalation in increasingly overt threats against lawyers representing clients in politically sensitive cases, or who speak out on human rights and rule of law issues.’ She added, ‘For Sri Lanka’s citizens to have public confidence in the justice system, lawyers must be protected and the Sri Lankan authorities should ensure that there are effective and transparent investigations into reported cases of intimidation or threats.’

The IBAHRI’s 2013 fact-finding report on Sri Lanka highlighted a ‘longstanding official hostility’ towards outspoken members of the legal profession. More recently, the IBAHRI has spoken with lawyers in Sri Lanka who have confirmed that regular acts of intimidation, including surveillance and phone tapping, persist for the small number of lawyers still willing to take on politically sensitive or human rights cases. 

Recently reported threats to lawyers include:

  • On 4 August 2014, Mr Lakshan Dias, Mr Rajapakshe and Mr Pathiraja, were intimidated by a group of men at the Maradana Police Station while making representations on behalf of their clients. Despite the incident reportedly taking place in front of the Head Quarters Inspector, no action was taken, or has subsequently been taken, by the police.
  • On 15 and 17 July 2014, Mr Upul Jayasuriya, President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), filed official police complaints regarding two incidents of surveillance which occurred shortly after the BASL issued a public statement criticising a Sri Lankan National Secretariat for Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) communiqué that prohibits NGOs from conducting press conferences, workshops and journalism training, and from disseminating press releases.

The United Nations Principles on the Role of Lawyers clearly state that governments must ensure that lawyers are able to practice without fear of external interference or harassment and that lawyers are not associated with the causes of the their clients’, said Sternford Moyo IBAHRI Co-Chair, ‘The IBAHRI urges the Government of Sri Lanka to guarantee these principles and to ensure that they are not rendered illusory by the inaction of the relevant authorities in their response to this extremely worrying situation.’

Notes to the Editor

  1. In March 2013, an IBAHRI delegation undertook a remote rapid-response fact-finding mission to investigate the impeachment proceedings of Chief Justice Bandaranayake, the independence of the legal profession and the rule of law in Sri Lanka.

    The report, entitled A Crisis of Legitimacy: The Impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayake and the Erosion of the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka, concluded that the removal from office in Sri Lanka of Chief Justice Bandaranayake was unlawful, is undermining public confidence in the rule of law, and threatening to eviscerate the country’s judiciary as an independent guarantor of constitutional rights. The delegation found there to be a systematic effort to intimidate and discredit lawyers and others who advocate and promote respect for fundamental rights in Sri Lanka. The report made ten recommendations, addressed to the Sri Lankan authorities and to the UN, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and Member Countries of the Commonwealth the delegation.
  2. The International Bar Association (IBA), established in 1947, is the world’s leading organisation of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Through its global membership of individual lawyers, law firms, bar associations and law societies it influences the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession throughout the world.

    The IBA’s administrative office is in London. Regional offices are located in: São Paulo, Brazil; Seoul, South Korea; and Washington DC, US, while the International Bar Association’s International Criminal Court Programme (IBA ICC) is managed from an office in The Hague.

    The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) works to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.

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