Desmond: 50 long years at the Bar

At the felicitation ceremony to mark Desmond Fernando’s 50 years at the Bar, Chief Justice Asoka De Silva said, in an era when public spiritedness is waning, the frontline civil rights activist’s illustrious career was in line with the finest traditions of the noble legal profession. He called Mr. Fernando a “true servant of mankind”.

Mr. Fernando at the ceremony on Wednesday: “Do not fear to fight. The only thing to fear is fear itself”. Pic by Gemunu Wellage

He said, all lawyers know of the trials and tribulations inherent to the profession, and it was with a deep sense of gratitude that they were felicitating Mr. Fernando, the first Secretary of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), twice President of the BASL, and the only Sri Lankan and second Asian to be the President of the International Bar Association. (IBA).

The gala dinner was held at the Hotel Galadari last Wednesday attended by over 500 colleagues and friends of Mr. Fernando. Chief Justice De Silva said that an unfortunate consequence of his taking office was to find himself invited for various functions. Time did not permit him to accept all invitations, but he simply could not say “No”, to this felicitation.

He said, Mr. Fernando’s role in the troubled period of 1989-90 when he carried the burden of the BASL with “unbounded courage and determination”, and his immense services to ensure that Fundamental Rights were now Constitutionally guaranteed and examined daily by the apex court of Sri Lanka, by itself, deserved felicitation.

Solicitor General Priyasath Dep referred to Mr. Fernando’s contribution to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka as its first Secretary in 1974, and to him being the first and only Sri Lankan to hold the prestigious post of President of the International Bar Association.

Wishing Mr. Fernando on behalf of the Official Bar, Mr. Dep spoke of his untiring role on strengthening the Rule of Law, his role in the Civil Rights Movement and in the Continuing Legal Education Programme.

Upul Jayasuriya, Chairman of the Organising Committee said: “You did not earn money but you earned friends, you did not fight for yourself but for the rights of the others. You did not care for fame when others were in a rat race behind a mirage. When lawyers were in tears you were a tower of strength. That is how you brought Sir Francis Neat the then President of the International Bar Association (IBA) and drove around with me to help the tsunami affected lawyers. When lawyers were to be torn apart you were behind them as a warrior. We don’t wish you wealth because you were born with it. We wish you health and happiness to serve the legal fraternity during the rest of your life as you have done for fifty years”.

Attorney Ronald Perera said, at crucial times Mr. Fernando was the anchor that held the ship against many storms. He led the protests of the Bar Association against the murders of lawyers. When the then all powerful Deputy Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne insulted the Bar Association by calling it a group of terrorists, Desmond contacted President Premadasa and got Mr. Wijeratne to tender a public apology. “I remember this apology was carried on the front page of the Daily News. It was this sense of courage and dedication to duty that prompted the members of the Bar Association to elect Desmond for an unprecedented third term of office in 2005.

The main issue in that election was the independence of the bar and was not any issue concerning the then President. Desmond received the support of all political parties as it was purely an issue concerning the Bar. That election campaign was unique in that President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was then the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe both actively campaigned for Desmond. Once again Desmond delivered. There were serious issues relating to the appointment and disciplinary control of judges which resulted in the resignation of senior Judges from the Judicial Services Commission. Desmond as usual was in the forefront of the fray.

Desmond Fernando, PC said “this country has for decades adhered to democratic principles and also adhered to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as two covenants. These values are also embedded in our Constitution. Amongst others, they include the right not to be tortured, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. However, these rights, in particular the right not to be tortured, have been deprived to many of our fellow men in this country. However, my friends, let me tell you, do not fear to fight. The only thing to fear is fear itself”.

He went on to say that the duty to see that fellow men enjoy the right to a fair trial and the duty of lawyers to offer their services without fear was under threat today. He recalled a judgment given last year by the Chief Justice (Attorney General vs. Aponso) where the failure to inform an accused of his right to a trial by jury was a fatal flaw which vitiated the conviction.

The judgment proceeded to set out a comprehensive account of the various elements that go into the concept of a free trial, including the right to counsel, the right not to be compelled to confess guilt, and the presumption of innocence. “All these have come under threat in Sri Lanka by one means or another,” he added.

Mr. Fernando paid tribute to his own seniors, Sam Kadirgamar QC, C. Renganathan QC and R.A. Kannangara and his lawyer friends Justice P. Ramanathan and Suren Peiris, who are all no more, and the organizers of the felicitation dinner for giving him a “rollicking good time in the very best of company”.

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Desmond: 50 long years at the Bar


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