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Lawyers Urge Government to Respect the Right to Peaceful Protest

(February 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Lawyers for Democracy (LfD), a body of lawyers representing over 300 lawyers around the country, committed to democratic values, are deeply concerned with and condemn the events of the past week where a person’s right to protest and expression guaranteed in the Constitution of Sri Lanka were severely undermined by the law enforcement authorities and supporters of the government. Thousands of citizens of Sri Lanka took to the streets to protest the unlawful arrest of the common opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka but were deprived of their right to peaceful protest when unwarranted power and violence was unleashed on them.

Several protests were organised throughout Sri Lanka where citizens from all walks of life came together to condemn and protest the unlawful arrest of General Fonseka. Many of these protests which started peacefully were disrupted by use of force. We lawyers witnessed firsthand barbaric patterns in obstructing the peaceful protests in several places including Hultdsdorf, near the main court complex. We were shocked to witness that protesters were first attacked by hooligans and thugs who were provided protection by the police. Subsequently the same peaceful protesters were beaten by the police.

Democratic countries including Sri Lanka have ratified international conventions guaranteeing the freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Constitution of Sri Lanka contains a Fundamental Rights Chapter which under Article 14(1) guarantees the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression as a fundamental right of all citizens.

We remind the citizens of Sri Lanka that on 1st July 1992, during the then President R. Premadasa's regime, the then opposition politicians, led by Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse conducted rallies around the country called 'Janaghosha'. This rally was obstructed by the police on the orders of the then political leadership. The Supreme Court has held in a case in respect of those incidents that those actions of the police were unconstitutional and stated as follows:

"The Right to support or to criticize Governments and political parties, policies and programmes, is fundamental to the democratic way of life and the freedom of speech and expression is one which cannot be denied without violating those fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all civil and political institutions..... It was thus a grave, deliberate and unprovoked violation of the citizen’s freedom of speech and expression". (Amaratunga v. Sirimal).

This decision, which is respected worldwide, also held in no uncertain terms that shouting slogans against the government or conducting rallies by itself is not an incitement to violence or riot, warranting the intervention of the police. However when armed thugs approach a peaceful crowd it is the duty of the police first to protect a peaceful protest.

The conduct of the police is extremely questionable particularly the manner in which peaceful protests are suppressed as seen in the past week. Under section 56 of the Police Ordinance, the Police have the duty to "apprehend disorderly and suspicious characters". Last week we witnessed the Police providing protection to thugs who were disrupting a peaceful protest than providing protection to those who needed it. We commend several Magistrates who have been strong in holding the Police accountable and urge the Police to investigate the real culprits.

We as lawyers call upon the Government and in particular the defense authorities to uphold the law of the country and respect the right to dissent. We urge the authorities to immediately stop unlawful attacks on peaceful protests, initiate independent investigations and bring the perpetrators to justice.

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