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Chief justice, who put the people first, steps down

Many Sri Lankans see their former chief justice as one whose unconventional approach resulted in social justice.

COLOMBO // When Sri Lankans complained last year that a maze of barricades and security cordons in the capital intended to prevent attacks by Tamil rebels was curtailing their movement, the Supreme Court stepped in and had them removed.

Then, when citizens petitioned the court in response to the country's main state-run electricity supplier announcing its intention to increase tariffs, the court again stood by the people and the proposal was shelved. While such rulings have obviously been a relief to millions of Sri Lankans, they have often gone beyond judicial boundaries and interfered with the government. However, they may be a thing of the past after Sarath N Silva, the chief justice, retired from the bench on Sunday after a 10-year reign. He was replaced by Asoka de Silva on Monday.

According to litigants and lawyers, it was Mr Silva's unconventional approach that resulted in social justice. Many of his judgments targeted the elite, including politicians and even a former president. As corruption became more entrenched in society, with bribes needed for even the most basic services, people increasingly looked to the Supreme Court for justice. JC Weliamuna, a human rights lawyer who successfully prosecuted a case involving the former president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, last year, said the courts were seen as the last bastion of hope for the people.

"The executive and various arms of government have failed the people. Even the main opposition is inept. The people have no choice other than to seek relief from the courts which are doing just that," Mr Weliamuna said. "The courts were reacting quickly to the needs of the people," said a trades union leader, who requested anonymity. "The chief justice was tough with both senior and junior lawyers in the courtroom. Litigants felt comforted as they believed he would give them justice if there was a just cause."

As the government stepped up its fight against Tamil Tigers in the north and east of the country, residents in Colombo and elsewhere felt their freedoms being whittled away. As well as restrictions of movement, journalists were harassed and intimidated and prevented from reporting from the front line of the war. A senior government official, who also requested anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media, said the courts stood by the people at a time when freedoms were been fettered and the government was too occupied with its war on separatist rebels to administer to the people.

The Supreme Court delivered a plethora of judgments, including penalising Mrs Kumaratunga, as well as other government and business leaders, for selling state companies to the private sector, ordering police not to evict Tamils - who were fleeing fighting in the north - from Colombo, directing education authorities to come up with a people-friendly school admission system to cut corruption and persuading teachers to return to marking examination papers in a dispute over wages.

"When the government dilly-dallies on key administrative issues, people turn to the courts," the official said. However, there has been some concern about judicial interference, one lawyer said. Other critics of Mr Silva have accused him of politically biased judgments and running the court as a fiefdom. "Magistrates and judges who did not do his bidding were harassed until they resigned," an article in the Sunday Leader, an independent newspaper critical of the government, said.

Victor Ivan, the editor of the Sinhala-language Ravaya newspaper, said there were several cases in which the chief justice showed bias. "For example there was this famous case considering a teacher, Anthony Fernando, who had a problem with a judge and wanted the Judicial Services Commission, which administrates judges to take action. When this didn't happen, he filed a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court. But an annoyed chief justice sent him to jail for a year over some [minor] issue."

But most people - outside Colombo's elite circles - believe the court has served the people better than government ministries or parliament. The court's biggest impact, however, was a ruling overturning the sale of state companies to the private sector, a deal that ran into billions of rupees and involved senior businessmen and politicians, including Mrs Kumaratunga. The court ruled that the deals were corrupt and ordered the companies to return to state control.

Some of the country's biggest businessmen in charge of these companies were accused of fraudulent and corrupt deals. PB Jayasundera, the treasury secretary, and probably the most powerful civil servant in the past decade, was forced to resign over one corrupt deal. But the court met its match in the current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has refused to abide by an order to reduce fuel prices, after a petition was filed in court. The petition was subsequently withdrawn after Mr Silva said: "If the government is not complying with this order, we have no choice other than to dismiss the case".

Asoka de Silva, the next most senior judge in the Supreme Court, was on Monday appointed by Mr Rajapaksa as the new chief justice, but already citizens were sceptical that the new judge would be willing to stand up for their rights. "It is very unlikely that Sarath Silva's type of justice will be meted out. It may return to the era of a non-confrontational process," said a Tamil shopkeeper from the northern town of Jaffna.

fsamath@thenational.ae