Well -known lawyer and Human Right Defender Lakshan Dias has flown out of his motherland to an undisclosed destination for reasons of personal safety,it is learnt.
The outspoken lawyer had been receiving threats from different quarters after stating in a TV forum that over a 190 incidents of violence,harassment and intimidation against Christians and christian places of worship have occurred in Sri Lanka for the past two years since January 8th 2015.
It was on Jan 8th 2015 that President Maithripala Sirisena was elected to office. This statement irritated the governing establishment as it shattered the illusion that attacks against Christian churches had ceased after the Rajapaksa regime was booted out and the”Yahapalanaya”(Good governance)Govt under President Sirisena took over.
Though there had been mounting pressure on Mr. Dias for several days the immediate reason that compelled him to suddenly flee the country is attributed to a newspaper interview given by Justice and Buddha Sasana minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said informed sources.
In an interview published in the Colombo English daily “Ceylon Today” Justice minister Rajapakshe was asked the following question –
Q: You recently said that you will take action to disbar a lawyer if he fails to apologize to the nation for his statement regarding alleged attacks on 166 Christian places of worship. Many organizations criticized your statement in support of the lawyer. As a President’s Counsel, who is well-versed on the provisions of the law, do you think this lawyer’s disbarment is possible?
The minister replied in the following manner –
A: He is a traitor and is in a mission to spoil the reconciliation process. He is eagerly waiting to grab an opportunity to create unrest in the country. These people behave in a manner similar to animals.
I am taking action against his statement. You can see the results in a couple of days.
Although Mr.Lakshan Dias’s name was not mentioned in the question and answer , it was common knowledge that the references to a “lawyer” were about him.
According to informed sources the minister’s assertion that the results of his action would be seen in a couple of days had triggered off alarm bells.It was suspected that some sinister conspiracy was being hatched against Mr. Dias
Earlier both President Sirisena and minister Rajapakshe had reacted strongly against Mr.Dias for making the statement.
In an abysmal display of colossal ignorance about Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical Christians, President Sirisena wrongly assumed that the reference by Mr. Dias was to Catholic churches. The president said he had contacted Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who had denied Catholic churches were attacked.
Justice minister Rajapakshe also followed suit by criticising Mr. Dias and threatening to take action debarring him as a lawyer. This incurred widespread criticism as a Justice minister is not empowered to debar a lawyer. Furthermore at a time when there is a world-wide negative opinion about the Sri Lankan judiciary and legal profession Rajapakshe’s threat served to damage the image of Sri Lanka further.
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka(NCEASL) issued a statement setting the record straight about the comments made by Mr. Dias and the context within which they were stated. The NCEASL statement released on June 19th 2017 calling for the safety of Mr. Dias was endorsed by 180 individuals and 20 organizations from different ethnicities and religions.
Apsrt from the NCEASL several other organizations such as the Human Rights Watch, National Christian Council and Free Media Movement also issued statements critical of the Justice minister.
In spite of the widespread criticism the Justice minister seemed adamant in his determination to “Take action”Against Lakshan Dias. With the newspaper interview explicitly revealing the minister;s state of mind and intentions , Mr.Lakshan Dias was “advised” by those concerned about his safety to depart from Lanka.
The statement issued by NCEASL on June 19th 2017 is reproduced in full below –
Solidarity with Human Rights Defender and Attorney at Law Mr. Lakshan Dias
We are appalled by the Minister of Justice’s attempts to intimidate Attorney-at-Law Mr. 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 14thJune 2017, Mr. Dias, appearing on the talk show “AluthParlimenthuwa” 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 16thJune, ITN news telecast a speech of H.E. the President referring to comments made by Mr. Dias. H.E. 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 17thJune, ITN news telecast a statement by Minister WijeyadasaRajapakse 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 27thMay 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 31stMay, 2017 wrote to H.E. 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 30thSeptember, 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 H.E. the President, evidence of the statistics quoted by Mr. Dias in his interview.
In this light, it is surprising that both H.E. 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 marginalized 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.