BY KITHSIRI WIJESINGHE-20 JUNE 2017
The government of Sri Lanka has come under heavy attack for threatening to disbar a leading human rights lawyer who publicly criticized continuing violence against religious minorities.
Following remarks in a televised talk show by attorney at law Lakshan Dias that over 190 attacks against Christians have taken place since the government of President Maithripala Sirisena took office in January 2015, the minister of justice has threatened to revoke the license of the lawyer.
Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe and President Sirisena publicly attacked Lawyer Dias, quoting the Catholic Archbishop of the Colombo diocese Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who denied any knowledge of attacks against places of worship.
Rights watchdogs, Christians, civil society activists and leftist leaders have condemned the concerted effort to discredit Lakshan Dias instead of taking action against perpetrators. They have also called upon the government to assure the security of the lawyer.
Threat to marginalized groups
Human rights watch in a statement from New York has condemned the statement by justice minister as bullying.
“The government needs to put a quick end to Justice Minister Rajapakshe’s attempts to bully Lakshan Dias, a leading human rights lawyer who stands up for Sri Lankans at greatest risk,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“By threatening Dias’s license, the government is threatening all marginalized groups that depend on him and other rights defenders for protection.”
The statistics presented by Lakshan Dias has been based on information documented by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), including police complaints and case numbers of many such incidents.
NCEASL says that the information has been shared earlier the Ministry of Religious Affairs under successive governments, and shared information of acts of intimidation and violence. It has also shared its’ incident reports and documentation with other agencies closely working with the government including the South Asia Policy and Research Institute.
A statement issued by the NCEASL endorsed by over 200 signatories calls upon the government to ensure the safety and security of the lawyer and his family and uphold his fundamental rights to engage in his chosen profession, and continued enjoyment of the freedom of expression as a Lawyer and a defender of rights as guaranteed under the constitution.
Catholic and non-Catholics
It further emphasizes that the attacks referred to by Lakshan Dias is against churches of non-Catholic denominations.
“We draw attention to the distinction between the references made to attacks on Evangelical Christian churches as opposed to Roman Catholic churches, and also note that Cardinal Ranjith functions as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo,” says the NCEASL statement.
Leader of the left wing Nava Sama Samaja Party, Dr Vickramabahu Karunaratne heavily criticized the government for acting on misinformation provided by Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith on attacks against non-Catholic institutions.
He slammed the president and justice minister for “acting like fools” without studying facts provided by sources other than the Catholic church.
Mobs led by saffron robed individuals
The Methodist church of Sri Lanka has expressed its frustration over the fearful trend of religious fanaticism ‘raising its beastly head’ once again.
A statement issued by the Bishop of the Methodist Church says that mobs led by a few saffron robed individuals had physically obstructed their members from worshiping on several occasions.
“We hoped that with the dawn of the ‘Good Governance Government’ in 2015 this wave would have abated, and we state that due to the humane and righteous vision and policies of His Excellency the President and the Government, this wave of fanaticism was subdued to a larger extent,” says the statement issued by Bishop Asiri P Perera, “But unfortunately since of late we have observed this fearful trend raising its beastly head once again. What should be done is that all religions come together to establish and affirm noble human qualities in this country.”
The Bishop strongly condemns the attempt to obstruct the legal carrier of Lakshan Dias by “some individuals who have been misled by these extremists”.
Pluralism and Diversity within religious communities
Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) has urged Minister Rajapakse to broaden his sources of information and verification and to desist from threatening human rights defenders which it describes as “a bad practice of governments from the past”.
It calls upon the Minister to be both aware of and sensitive to the pluralism and diversity within our religious communities in his verification of facts.“We reiterate our calls to President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe to launch an independent investigation of recent attacks against religious minorities, places of worship and businesses as a matter of national priority and to take all necessary action within the present legal framework to arrest and prosecute perpetrators,” says a statement issued by CPA.
“The government must take speedy and effective steps to restore the trust and confidence of all communities in its willingness and ability to protect and defend the rights of all its citizens.”