By Gehan Gunatilleke -July 18, 2014
When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty- Thomas Jefferson
Justice stands boldly, armed with a sword and tempered with scales. Her blindfolds demonstrate her impartiality. She wields the Law and bends it to her will. Yet the Law is prone to misuse when stripped from its true mistress and usurped by tyrants. They use her sword to strike the innocent; manipulate her scales to subjugate citizens; and apply her blindfold to conceal atrocities. Law without Justice is perhaps worse than no law at all.
Throughout history, unjust laws have compelled resistance. The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. sought to repeal or revise oppressive laws that deprived the African American community of basic civil liberties. Likewise, Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, apartheid in South Africa, and the statelessness of plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka were all once sustained by laws, and were therefore considered ‘legal’. The liberation of those victims became possible only when those oppressive laws were eventually abolished.
Sri Lanka is at a critical juncture in its own history, wherein citizens must pause to judge the Law. We must reflect on whether the Law, in its present incarnation, is our friend or foe.
Time and again, the Law in Sri Lanka has been employed to torment the government’s opponents. It has been wielded like a sword to strike down dissenting voices. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), for instance, was enacted in 1979 presumably as a temporary measure to curb terrorism. Yet its preamble fails to offer even the courtesy of subtlety, as it presents the principal object of the Act as preventing ‘governmental change’. Consumed by fear, we permitted this Act to become a permanent fixture in our statute books. For more than thirty years thereafter, the PTA was selectively applied to target ethnic minorities. In 2009, J.S. Tissainayagam was found guilty of committing an offence under Section 2(1)(h) of the Act. This provision criminalises words spoken or written with the intention of ‘causing the commission of acts of violence or racial or communal disharmony’. The prosecution argued that the Tamil journalist, by accusing a predominantly Sinhalese Army of committing atrocities, had intended to incite acts of violence by Sinhalese readers against Tamils. This argument was sufficient to convince the High Court. During the early 1990s, a middle-aged Tamil couple was found guilty under Section 5(a) of the PTA for failing to report a suspect to the police. The prosecution argued that the couple personally knew the suspect and that he was suspected of committing offenses under the PTA. Yet the suspect was never charged. In a bizarre twist of irony, he sat in the courtroom as a free man witnessing his so-called ‘supporters’ being sentenced for their failure to report him. Read More