Blatant State-sponsored thuggery as politicised scarecrows in khaki look on in benign benevolence By Namini Wijedasa Police, including armed STF personnel, stood idly by on Thursday, as pro-government thugs with wooden poles beat up demonstrators who convened at Hulftsdorp, to decry the Chief Justice’s removal and the breakdown of the Rule of Law. The attackers [...]


Thugs, hooligans attack lawyers, police look on


Blatant State-sponsored thuggery as politicised scarecrows in khaki look on in benign benevolence

By Namini Wijedasa

Police, including armed STF personnel, stood idly by on Thursday, as pro-government thugs with wooden poles beat up demonstrators who convened at Hulftsdorp, to decry the Chief Justice’s removal and the breakdown of the Rule of Law.

Two protests of a different kind: Lawyers wearing black scarfs in protest of the impeachment of the CJ hoist a black flag in Hulftsdorp while (top right) government supporters distribute buns to participants of a pro-impeachment protest on Parliament Rd.

The attackers made no attempt to hide their weapons. They carried out the assaults even as television cameras and photographers recorded their actions. One man ordered the Sunday Times videographer to stop shooting, asking him threateningly, “Kanna oneyda?”

UNP Parliamentarian Karu Jayusuriya was also present. He lamented that Sri Lanka was fast becoming a failed State. The law of the jungle reigns supreme, while the power of goons has replaced discipline. There is injustice in place of justice, and dictatorship in place of democracy. 

“The right to dissent is being trampled upon,” he warned. The government has proved they would tolerate only their point of view.

Two groups of demonstrators defied rain to gather in front of the courts complex around 9 am. One comprised lawyers in black coats and saris. They were joined by some opposition party politicians, civil rights activists and trade union members. Many carried placards that read, among other things, “Stop tearing up the Constitution”, “Courts stoned, Judges threatened, Democracy stalled” and “Stop impeachment”. 

The other group was made up of pro-government supporters backed by some local politicians. They had been transported to the venue in State-owned buses that were parked on roadsides even up to Maradana. On Hulftsdorp Hill were stationed several yellow mini trucks emblazoned with the ‘Divineguma Viyaparaya’ insignia.

These demonstrators shouted slogans accusing the legal community of conspiring with NGOs, “Black Tigers” and other forces, to bring disrepute to the country and to the government. They said they supported the sovereignty of the people. They even hooted and jeered. 

After the assailants succeeded in chasing away a section of anti-impeachment agitators from the scene, members of the police anti-riot squad formed lines to separate the two groups. The lawyers then marched towards Fort, while the pro-government crowds glowered at them.

Asked what their final destination was, one lawyer laughed, “Good question. We don’t know where we are going, just like the Courts system!” Organisers said they had originally planned to march to Parliament, but were forced to convene near Lake House, after police barricaded the roads. They dispersed after holding a rally in pouring rain. 

In the afternoon, there was an altercation between lawyers and officers of the Keselwatte police. The lawyers had accompanied Environmental Conservation Trust Head, Thilak Kariyawasam to the police station. Mr. Kariyawasam is a petitioner in one of the cases that opposed the Parliamentary Select Committee set up to probe the charges against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.

Mr. Kariyawasam alleged that he was heavily assaulted and his phone stolen by pro-government demonstrators. He claimed the police had refused to record his complaint. As a result, he returned with lawyers. 

“It is the police officer’s job to protect us from thugs,” the lawyers shouted. “It is not your job to stand by while thugs beat up ordinary people.” As the argument heated up, a senior police official joined the fray. “This is the police station,” he boomed. “It’s not a place for you to come and yell.”

Pro - impeachment protestors armed with crackers and a truckful of pro-impeachment posters and crackers. Pix by Ranjith Perera, Amila Gamage, Indika Handuwala and Mangala Weerasekera

When he accused Mr. Kariyawasam of having lied about the police rejecting his complaint, the atmosphere in the police station grew explosive. “Get out of this station!” the senior official ordered, his body quivering with anger. “Everyone leave except the complainant!”

But the lawyers refused to leave. “You have no right to tell us that,” one of them shouted back. “The police and police stations are maintained with public funds.” The argument was eventually resolved and Mr. Kariyawasam lodged his complaint.

The organisers of the anti-impeachment protest had advertised in private media inviting people to participate. However, attendance by the general public was low. Those that did come were brought by organisations, trade unions or political parties. Many dispersed while marching towards Fort, perhaps discouraged by the relentless downpour. But there were many bystanders. “We came to watch,” said one man who stood with a band of friends, “In case something happens.” 

R.P. Nirosha and her one-year-old child, however, were not there to ogle. The wife of a policeman, Mrs. Nirosha has a long-running land case in District Court 7. She and her father, R.P. Navaratne, came from Kiribathgoda.

“We were here at 8 am, because our lawyer asked us to come,” she said, struggling to calm the child. “We have not eaten. Even my son has not had food. We got drenched in the rain. When we went to court, there were three old lawyers seated inside by themselves. They said the judge will come, but the judge didn’t come. We didn’t even get dates for the next sitting.”Did she care about the impeachment and democracy? “I just want our case to end,” she said, tiredly. 

Her 70-year-old father differed. “I think the lawyers have a fair case,” he said, admitting that he had followed the impeachment and related matters through the media. “There’s no point penalising the Chief Justice for something her husband did. The Supreme Court is a hallowed institution. We need to protect it.” But he had no intention of marching with the lawyers.

“I have nothing to do with the Courts and lawyers,” said W. Wickremeratne, a 34-year-old mobile phone seller in Pettah. “So I didn’t go for the protest.”

Revan Weerasinghe, a lawyer who practices in the Commercial High Court, put it down to public ignorance. “Maybe there is a lack of understanding where the public is concerned about what is going on,” he said, from under his black umbrella.

“What’s happening today is so much more important than the removal of the Chief Justice,” he emphasised. “What’s happening today is a blow that will reduce the protection that the courts of Sri Lanka will afford the public.”

Who should educate the public about this? “I would say the opposition,” he said, with a scornful smile. “Cheers!” And he walked away.

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