We salute the Judiciary

In Sri Lanka’s recent barricaded history, there have been two occasions when checkpoints were checkmated.
With the signing of the February 22, 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), the people breathed a collective sigh of relief as the parties were required to review security measures and introduce systems to prevent harassment of civilians.

Long before the 60-day deadline, barricades were dismantled. This action, however, was undertaken in a clime of peace.
With an ongoing raging war, with bombs exploding everywhere, last week’s prompt dismantling of security checkpoints and barricades by Executive order deserves commendation.

On Wednesday, a three-bench Supreme Court, presided over by Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, in a landmark judgment, stated that roadside checkpoints were illegal.
Noting that waging war against the State was punishable with death, the Chief Justice justified the role of the armed forces in maintaining public order. He, however, said that when action is directed at persons not engaged in waging war, every precaution and safeguard must be taken to minimise hardships.

Even as efforts were being made to racially profile people at checkpoints and during cordon and search operations, where arbitrary arrests were being made in the city and suburbs, Chief Justice Silva ensured justice for all citizens in a multi-cultural and multi-religious society.

He reminded the authorities that the state had a bounden duty to afford security to Tamil persons fleeing previous abodes to seek refuge in the capital. If refuge is denied in the city and suburbs, these people end up refugees in foreign lands, with the implication that the state cannot protect them.

Even as the country was losing hope in all democratic institutions, with the Executive becoming stronger and the military calling the shots in a near dictatorship, the Judiciary fearlessly ruled in favour of a hapless population.
While many have tried to portray Sri Lanka as a failed state, we salute the Judiciary for acting fearlessly and the Executive for reacting respectfully by dismantling checkpoints in terms of the judicial order.

The order could have caused a standoff between the Judiciary and the Executive – thankfully that was not to be.
On the arbitrary closure of roads to ensure the security of officials, the judgment stated that security measures should be carried out with minimum inconvenience to citizens exercising their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of movement.
It was judicial activism at its height – deserving to be admired by the entire population. For the past two years, the people remained as silent bystanders as they were taken for a long ride on the highways and byways of Sri Lanka while threatened officials drove roughshod over them, even at peak hours.

We may ask: Aren’t there better ways of protecting these threatened officials without subjecting the masses to so much suffering?
The Chief Justice said the alleged infringements were typical of the travails, hardships and harassment imposed on the people, who peacefully engage in their lawful pursuits and travel on our public roads in the exercise of their fundamental right to the freedom of movement, thereby denying such persons the equal protection of the law and the freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.
In a stinging indictment on the police, he said even though it was the duty of Police officers to use their “best endeavours” and ability to prevent all crimes, offences and public nuisances, a multitude of such offences, he remarked, have been committed by them.

This judgment, delivered by the highest court in the land, also proved that the people could still have hope in and turn to the Judiciary in their darkest hour.
The twin action of judicial order and Executive implementation also demonstrated that a system of checks and balances is still operative.
As for the Legislature, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has proposed that the Chief Executive (President) be responsible to Parliament for the exercise, performance and discharge of his powers, duties and functions. This, no doubt, is a step in the right direction.

We journalists would remember how much we clamoured for the supremacy of Parliament over the Executive during the dictatorial rule of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
However, sadly, it was Wickremesinghe who stifled dissent and thwarted efforts by UNP Leaders like Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, G.M. Premachandra and others to check the dictatorial powers of the President.
It took Wickremesinghe a good 15 years to propose such far-reaching changes to give Parliament supremacy over the Executive Presidency, which he failed to secure in 1999 and 2005.

Chandrika Kumaratunga also enjoyed two full terms and both she and President Premadasa dissolved Parliament arbitrarily when their parties were threatened in the House. Wickremesinghe now wants the presidential power to dissolve Parliament (arbitrarily) to be clipped.

Wickremesinghe’s reforms, though belated, are pro-democratic, forcing us to endorse them. By extension, may we also call on Wickremesinghe and President Mahinda Rajapaksa – who head the two main political parties, the UNP and the SLFP – to permit greater democracy within their respective parties?
The media, which is the watchdog of society, has worked tirelessly during successive administrations to uphold democracy and human rights.

We have not only fearlessly informed the public of undemocratic acts and human rights violations, but also admonished the powers that be through editorial comment. The stock response, however, has been to turn the guns of state on the media.
Despite this, media personnel from all organisations will protest against the prevalent threats to, and killing of, media personnel during the past few years. Towards this end, they will march tomorrow, on World Human Rights Day, from Narahenpita Junction to the Media Ministry at noon.