Kind and courageous, he defended the man who killed a prime minister
The passing away of Attorney-at-Law Lucien Gregory Weeramantry on August 17, 2007 has cast a gloom amongst the legal fraternity at Hulftsdorp and his wide circle of friends both in Sri Lanka and abroad.
It is not my intention to write about his unmatched international achievements which I am certain many others more knowledgeable would record for posterity.
I write this appreciation to speak of Lucien Weeramantry the lawyer I knew at the Bar and nothing more. After I was called to the Bar in May 1959 I had the good fortune of instructing Lucien Weeramantry in my very first case which was the trial of the then National football coach in a cheque fraud case. Lucien, who was many years my senior, in all humility insisted that I refer to him simply by his first name and never add the prefix 'Mr' or 'Sir' when addressing him which is usually the legal tradition adopted by juniors at the Bar when addressing their seniors. This instantly endeared him as a lifelong true friend for many decades to follow.
Lucien was blessed with a pleasant face with an enigmatic smile which he used to the maximum in his court craft. He was courteous almost to a fault and his charming manners would encircle many a stoic judge who often had no option but to succumb to his pleadings on behalf of his clients.
His philosophy was ‘study the judge first, and then the brief’. I witnessed in amazement how this theory worked in my very first case with him. The judge in that case was an ardent lover of classical music. The accused in the case apart from being the national fooball coach was the leader of a famous orchestra in the country.
Lucien used this to good measure and during the course of his address in court repeatedly, almost ad nauseam, described the accused as “a musician of no mean repute” till he was certain that he had struck the correct chord in the judge’s heart. Then, and only then, did Lucien rest his case and his client was discharged.
A couple of years later, 1961 to be exact, fate decreed that Lucien and I should appear for the defence of three of the main accused in the country’s most sensational murder case, that of the assassination of then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Lucien appeared for the assassin Talduwe Somarama Thera and my clients were Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera and H.P. Jayawardena, the 1st and 2nd accused respectively.
Being in almost general control of the defence it fell on me to retain a counsel for Somarama Thera, which was no easy task due to the political climate at the time. However, Lucien when approached by me had no hesitation in accepting the challenge and the dedication he exhibited thereafter in the course of the Supreme Court trial towards his client in the face of tremendous odds earned the admiration of all including the trial judge, T.S. Fernando, Q.C., who when addressing Somarama Thera before sentence of death was passed on him remarked, inter alia, “You have been defended by counsel, who has throughout these long and arduous proceedings exhibited towards your case a devotion which has been the admiration of everyone in this court. But having regard to the strength of the evidence against you, there has been, in my view, no counsel yet born who could have saved you.”
I do not think any court in this country, least of all the Supreme Court, has ever paid such a glowing tribute to counsel in a case. Lucien full deserved it.
In the ensuing appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal, Lucien filed a petition setting out 60 grounds and argued it for full five days before a bench of five judges presided over by Chief Justice Hema Basnayake Q.C. which again had little success. But Lucien was a great fighter and a further appeal was presented to the Privy Council against the Appeal Court verdict.
Having obtained the services of eminent English Counsel D.N. Pritt, Q.C., Lucien and I prepared the necessary brief to be sent over to London. In doing so, I had referred to Somarama as the 'assassin'. When Lucien spotted this he was visibly upset and asked me to correct it to read “the alleged assassin”. Such was the devotion of the man to his client whose interest Lucien always held to be paramount. By this he also exhibited his control of legal phraseology.
Weeramantry’s book “Assassination of a Prime Minister” published in Geneva, Switzerland in 1969 is sufficient proof of the sterling qualities of Lucien wherein he details the reasons which prompted him to appear for Somarama at the trial. In his preface to the book he says, “The monk’s case was a very difficult one, but I felt that a lawyer should not refuse a brief because the case was hard, because the cause was unpopular or because the person killed was a prime minister. Every individual was entitled to the service of counsel and to a full and fair trial. I therefore agreed to accept the brief, subject to my being able to make suitable arrangements in regard to my other professional commitments.”
His sacrifice receives emphasis by the fact that the trial lasted nearly three months on a day-to-day sitting, 97 witnesses were heard and the proceedings ran into more than 3,500 pages of typescript.
Another moving moment which should not go unrecorded was when the day of Somarama’s execution drew near. Lucien telephoned me the day before the execution and wanted me to accompany him to the death row at the Welikada Prison to see Somarama for the last time. We went there the evening before the execution but our mission did not succeed as the authorities refused to grant us permission. Lucian, however, managed to convince the prison guards to at least inform Somarama that we had come to see him but was not granted access.
The sight of the hangman hurriedly going about the last minute preparations for the next morning's execution was too much for Lucien’s heart to bear and we left the prison in stunned silence.
Lucien Weeramantry was a gentleman to his fingertips. He was always well groomed and immaculately dressed and enjoyed the fruits of life to its full. He thoroughly enjoyed the life in court in the mornings as much as he did the evenings. He was one of Hulftsdorp’s most glamorous lawyers at the time I joined the profession. Nothing could worry him because he was always strongly in control of any situation. He will be sadly missed by all who knew him.