JAFFINA: The North Sri Lankan Tamil-majority town of Jaffna was traditionally known for its industrious, scholarly, and above all, law abiding citizens. During the armed struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had seen to it that no one (other than they) broke the law or the norms of Tamil society.
But armed robberies, house break-ins, internecine gang warfare, rapes, eve teasing, and drug and alcohol abuse began to surface and assume menacing proportions after the war ended with the annihilation of the LTTE in May 2009.
Armed with knives and swords, gangs inspired by Tamil action movies, freely moved about Jaffna town, zipping through streets on motorbikes, indulging in turf wars, house break-ins, and chain snatchings. School students had taken to drugs, alcohol and even pimping. What was particularly galling was that some of the young offenders were from families of professionals.
The people, from Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran downwards, pointed an accusing finger at the 150,000 Lankan troops stationed in the Northern Province supposedly to maintain law and order. If criminals were running amok, Security Forces personnel must be hand in glove with them, they alleged. Chief Minister Wigneswaran kept calling for a total withdrawal of the armed forces to restore law and order.
But while most Tamils were content to put the blame on outsiders and did little to change the situation themselves, Jaffna High Court Judge Manickavasagar Ilancheliyan decided to take the cudgels. Using a mixture of law, spunk and derring-do, he brought the crime rate down visibly in just a year and a half, winning plaudits from every section of society.
“The parents of the errant boys were among the happiest as they had totally lost control over them,” Ilancheliyan told Express.
“I used my judicial power to order the Special Task Force (STF) to aggressively patrol the streets in the evenings. Many Tamil leaders objected to this saying that the STF was accused of human rights violations in Eastern Lanka. But I saw the STF as an arm of the police which had a duty to enforce law and order. I also declared the assembly of more than five persons as unlawful and ordered the arrest of violators,” he said.
Correcting another weakness in the local judicial system, Ilancheliyan stopped the practice of letting the accused go off on bail or to allow lawyers to seek adjournments continually.
“I believe in taking strong deterrent action,” he said when asked if he was not too harsh.
Going beyond his official brief, Ilancheliyan would informally warn offenders to cease indulging in unlawful acts. To control the drug menace, he warned a leading Tamil politician suspected of having links with Kerala ganja distributors, that he could be arrested.
Ilancheliyan’s awesome reputation as a fearless judge stemmed from his handling of the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy rape and murder case in 1999. The incident which took place at Chemmani in Jaffna district, involved Captain-rank military personnel. The case involving an 18 year old Jaffna school girl who was abducted and raped in an army camp, got international attention when accused Corporal Somaratne Rajapakse revealed in Ilancheliyan’s court, that 300 to 400 bodies were buried in a mass grave at Chemmani and that seven officers had indulged in rape and murder.
Ilancheliyan not only had the officers arrested, but ordered exhumation of the bodies. Fifteen bodies were exhumed under the glare of the international media.
“Predictably, the Defense Ministry objected to the arrests, and many thought that Lanka’s Sinhalese majority will not allow a Tamil judge to remand Sinhalese army officers. But President Chandrika Kumaratunga bowed to international pressure and allowed the arrests. However, the four arrested officers went to the Court of Appeal in Colombo and got bail,” Ilancheliyan said.
The officers went on to get promotion to Lt.Colonel rank even as the case was on.
In the case of the rape of two Tamil women at Viswamadu in 2010, Ilancheliyan sent four Corporals to 20 years RI, and ordered compensation of LKR 500,000 and a fine of LKR 25,000. If the compensation and fine were not paid, the accused would undergo 30 years’ RI, he ruled.
“These two cases in which a Lankan judge brought army personnel to book were used by the present Lankan government to argue at the September 2015 session of the UN Human Rights Council, that the Lankan judiciary is independent and courageous and that there is no need to have foreign judges in the proposed Judicial Mechanism to try war crimes,” Ilancheliyan said.
In 2001, the US government made Ilancheliyan an honorary citizen of the US in recognition of his contribution to judicial independence.
Recalling the award, Ilancheliyan said: “When I was told by US officials that I could stay back in the US as a citizen, I said I would like to continue to serve the Lankan judiciary. Thereupon, a State Department official remarked that their choice was right!”