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Media And Christian Organisations Raise Concerns

Jun 23, 2017 3:12:47 PM - thesundayleader.lk

Justice Minister’s Statement Threatening Lakshan

by Ifham Nizam

Attorney-at-Law Lakshan Dias and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe

Hundreds of prominent individuals covering various spectrums and more than 30 organisations had come hard on a recent statement by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe threatening to remove an attorney-at-law of the Supreme Court.

The Sri Lanka Chapter of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA-SL) strongly condemns the recent statements by Justice & Buddhism Affairs Minister threatening to deny the license of professional practice of Attorney-at-Law Lakshan Dias for raising issues of persecution of religious communities.

“Rather than further inquire into the concerns raised by this accomplished and respected lawyer, the Justice Minister has chosen to attack him for raising these very issues. In doing so, SAFMA Sri Lanka is concerned that the Minister is hindering and undermining the freedom of religion and, consequently, the freedom of thought and expression,” a statement said.

Human Rights Lawyer, Lakshan Dias, appearing on a television programme titled ‘Aluth Parliamenthuwa’ on Ada Derana, commented on the recent spate of religiously motivated attacks.

He had claimed that there were 195 cases of racially motivated attacks against Christian places of worship from January 8, 2015 to date. He quoted the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) as his source while presenting his arguments. He further asserted that extremist Buddhist monks were responsible for a significant portion of these attacks.

In response, Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, addressing an audience at the opening of a new Court complex in Mankulam, Kilinochchi, quoted Lakshan Dias as claiming that 166 attacks were reported against Christian places of worship. Rajapakshe claimed that these were blatant lies intended at misleading the general public and driving them to panic. Further to this, he also made a remark that almost certainly implied that Dias was foreign funded.

“Mr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe – Justice Minister of Sri Lanka has threatened to ‘remove’ me as an Attorney-at-law of the Supreme Court unless I apologise to the nation within 24 hours.  I believe that the response of the legal profession must be swift and uncompromising.

This is utterly reprehensible, unprecedented and a serious threat to me as a professional and unilateral order. It is also potentially a contempt of court, as only the Supreme Court can remove lawyers.

I as a member of Bar Association of Sri Lanka urgently seek BASL response to this, as it’s an intimidation, threatening and damaging my practice and my existence as a human being,” says Attorney-at-Law Lakshan Dias.

Free Media Movement (FMM), as an organisation stands for freedom of expression including social democracy and media freedom, questions the Minister whether this is the transformation for democracy and good governance achieved by the Sri Lankan society on January 8, 2015.

In a situation where there are allegations on attacks on religious centers, the due process should be inquiring it from the IGP or any other responsible authority, not from a leader of another Mission. Without following such process, threatening Lakshan Dias for removing him from his profession is entirely unacceptable, FMM points out.

“This statement by the Minister has exceeded the limitations of the behavior of a responsible and moral individual and we emphasise the fact that it is an intimidation against the right to freedom of expression,” FMM said.

Therefore, no matter the accuracy of the statement by Mr. Lakshan Dias, Free Media Movement emphasizes his right to freedom of speech and expression while affirming that the Justice Minister’s behavior is a menace to the rule of law and the democracy of the country, says FMM Convener C. Dodawatte and Secretary Dileesha Abeysundara.

As a body of journalists dedicated to social justice, SAFMA Sri Lanka is shocked that the Minister has made this threat against a lawyer directly in connection with that lawyer’s professional defence of religious rights which are guaranteed by the freedom of expression bestowed by the Constitution. The Justice & Buddhism Affairs Minister has made this threat publicly and, further, demanded that lawyer to apologise “in 24 hours”, in a situation where the country is experiencing on-going hostile and violent acts against religious communities.

Excerpts of the statement

All Sri Lankans know that religions in our country have experienced persecution at various moments throughout our history. Both the Buddha Sasana and the Vedic denominations have suffered persecution since ancient times, including the colonial era. In recent times the Islamic Umma and Christian Church have experienced persecution.

Indeed, the whole country is aware of the public campaigns of hostility against Christianity and Islam that began in recent decades and continues to this day. The news media has responsibly reported these inflammatory campaigns and the resulting violence.

As socially committed journalists, the members of SAFMA-SL firmly uphold the freedom to practice religion and philosophies as an inalienable part of the larger freedom of expression and thought.

Rather than further inquire into the concerns raised by this accomplished and respected lawyer, the Justice Minister has chosen to attack him for raising these very issues. In doing so, SAFMA Sri Lanka is concerned that the Minister is hindering and undermining the freedom of religion and, consequently, the freedom of thought and expression.

Call to protect religious freedom and religious harmony in Sri Lanka

The National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, which represents the majority of non-Roman Catholic churches in Sri Lanka, is disturbed by some of the views expressed over the past few days in relation to the violence, intimidation and the threat posed against Christian churches in the country.

“We reiterate the fact that Christian churches have been subject to violence, intimidation and threats over the past few years. This is in addition to the many ongoing issues that the Christian community faces with regard to the construction of places of worship, the registration of churches, house churches, Christian education in state schools and the forced closure of churches etc. which successive governments have failed to address despite us having made clear representations to the relevant authorities.

We are of the opinion that the current crisis, which has been precipitated through TV debates and pronouncements of politicians, is only trying to deal with the visible wounds and symptoms of a problem without trying to address the root causes.

We recognise that many of the problems we face are precipitated by the actions of a small number of extremist elements within each religion. The Council has been involved, over very many years in, formal and informal, consultations and conversations with Religious leaders from all faiths and with variety forums within the Christian community. We are confident that honest and frank dialogue sustained by a sincere commitment from the Religious Leaders of all faiths can reduce the tension without further damaging the interfaith cordiality and harmony that has existed in this country.

We once again stress, to all those in positions of authority that it is of paramount importance that law and order should be enforced by the police without bias and fear. No individuals or groups should be allowed to take the law into their own hands and must be prevented from inappropriately using religious sentiments for personal or political ends. Only last week we issued a statement that was clear in both of these principles.

We appeal to the government to take immediate steps to seek to resolve the underlying problems faced by religious minorities on this island and appeal to the Religious Leaders to come together to collectively address the crucial underlying issues, so that religious freedom for all religious communities is upheld in law and that the right of every individual to proclaim his or her own religion, and to contribute to public life, without being subjected to attack or ridicule, is respected and protected.”

Signed by:

* Rev. Saman Perera – Chairperson of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka and President, Presbytery of  Lanka

* Rt. Rev. D. R. Canagasabey –Bishop of Colombo, Church of Ceylon, Diocese of Colombo and Bishop of Kurunegala, Church of Ceylon, Diocese of Kurunegala.

* Rt. Rev. Dr. Daniel S. Thiagarajah, Bishop of Jaffna Diocese, Church of South India

* Rev. Asiri P. Perera, President/Bishop, Methodist Church of Sri Lanka

* Rev. Priyantha Wijegoonawardene, President, Sri Lanka Baptist Sangamaya

* Rev. Stanley Nelson, President, Christian Reformed Church

* Colonel Alistair Venter, Territorial Commander, The Salvation Army

* Rev. G. Nadarajah, President, Lanka Lutheran Church

* Rev. Michael Dissanayake, Chairperson, Assemblies of God of Ceylon

* Rev. Leslie Keegal, President, Church of the Four Square Gospel Church in Sri Lanka.

* Rev. W.P. Ebenezer Joseph, General Secretary, National Christian Council of Sri Lanka

The NCCSL also represents the following Ecumenical Organizations:

* Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)

* Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA)

* Student Christian Movement (SCM)

* The Ceylon Bible Society

* Christian Literature Society

* Theological College of Lanka.

* Back to the Bible Broadcast

* Colombo Theological Seminary

* Youth for Christ

Solidarity with Human Rights Defender and Attorney at Law, Lakshan Dias

We are appalled by the Minister of Justice’s attempts to intimidate Attorney-at-Law Lakshan Dias, with threats that steps would be taken in terms of the law to have him removed from the legal profession. We condemn this conduct of the Minister as an abuse of power, resulting in an individual being subject to public disrepute and hostility.

On  June 14, 2017, Mr. Dias, appearing on the talk show ‘Aluth Parlimenthuwa’ on Derana TV, stated that there were 195 incidents of attacks and other forms of harassment against Christian places of worship in the country since the beginning of 2015. On June 16, ITN news telecast a speech of the President referring to comments made by Mr. Dias. The President, here, stated that he had immediately called Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of the Roman Catholic Church to verify Mr. Dias’ claims and that he was told that the Cardinal was unaware of any such incidents. Subsequently, on June 17, ITN news telecast a statement by Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse reiterating the President’s statement and further threatening to initiate action to remove Mr. Dias from practicing law unless he apologises to the nation within 24 hours.

The statistics presented by Mr. Dias were based on information documented by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), including police complaints and case numbers of many such incidents. On May 27, 2017, the NCEASL issued a press release, expressing concern over 20 incidents targeting Christian places of worship in 2017. Moreover, research reports compiled by Verité Research based on the documentation of the NCEASL titled, ‘Silent Suppression: Restrictions on Religious Freedoms of Christians (1994-2014) – A twenty year trend analysis’ and ‘Judicial Responses to Religious Freedom: A Case Analysis – Judicial responses towards the fundamental rights of the Christian community in Sri Lanka during 2005-2014’ further highlight violations against the Christian community in Sri Lanka. The Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka too, on May 31, 2017 wrote the President, drawing attention to attacks on places of worship, targeting Christian and Muslim communities, seeking the President’s intervention.

The NCEASL had previously, communicated to the President through a letter dated September 30,  2016, its’ desire to represent the interests of the Evangelical Christian community, a minority religious group in the country, at the Inter-Religious Council of Sri Lanka but did not receive a response to this request.

The NCEASL has met with officials of the Ministry of Religious Affairs under successive governments, and shared information of acts of intimidation and violence. The NCEASL has also shared its’ incident reports and documentation with other agencies closely working with the government including the South Asia Policy and Research Institute, and is prepared to present to the President, evidence of the statistics quoted by Mr. Dias in his interview.

In this light, it is surprising that both the President and the Minister of Justice are unaware of such incidents. 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 Malcolm Ranjith functions as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo. Mr. Lakshan Dias is a renowned lawyer and a committed human rights defender who has engaged in civil society activism for over two decades. He is a member of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and many local and regional human rights groups.  He has appeared for many fundamental rights violation cases on a pro-bono basis, on behalf of marginalised and underprivileged people. He has also represented many victims of religious violence and discrimination from minority religious communities.

We, as a civil society, view the targeting of Mr. Dias as an attempt to silence human rights activism. Moreover, we express our serious concern about the threat posed to Mr. Lakshan Dias’s legal career and his safety.

We strongly urge the following actions by the Government:

1. Immediate action from the Minister of Justice to make public that Mr. Lakshan Dias Attorney at Law’s assertions was based on reported statistics.

2. Ensure the safety and security of Mr. Dias and his family and uphold the fundamental rights of Mr. Dias to engage in his chosen profession, and continued enjoyment of the freedom of expression as a Lawyer and a defender of rights guaranteed to all under Article 14 (1) (a) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

Issued by:

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance Sri Lanka

* Alliance Development Trust (ADT)

* Ceylonese Evangelistic Association

* INFORM Human Rights Documentation Center

* International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES)

* Lawyers for Democracy

* Mannar Women’s Development Federation (MWDF)

* Mothers and Daughters of Lanka (MDL)

* National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO)

* National Peace Council (NPC)

* Northern Muslim Civil Society

* Organization for Protection of Paanam Paththuwa

* PAFFREL

* People to People Dialogue on Peace and Sustainable Development

* PrajaAbilasha Land Rights Movement

* Right to Life Human Rights Center (R2L)

* Rural Development Foundation

* Transparency International Sri Lanka

* Women’s Action Network (WAN)

* Women’s Centre

* Women’s Political Academy

* World Evangelical Alliance, Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC)