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Wednesday October 5th, 2022

ICJ, academics, request Sri Lankan authorities to respect prominent lawyer’s human rights

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ECONOMYNEXT – Acknowledging the need to conduct thorough investigations into any alleged offence, a collective of academics, lawyers, clergymen and human rights activists requested the Chief Justice yesterday to intervene in the allegedly arbitrary detention of attorney-at-law Hejaaz Hizbullah.

“We request the Hon Chief Justice to take note of the apparent interference by law enforcement authorities in the right of an officer of the Supreme Court to practice his profession freely and make necessary interventions to ensure attorneys-at-law are able to perform their functions without fear,” the collective said in a statement.

The statement was signed by 117 individuals representing the following institutions: the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners, Families of the Disappeared, the Human Rights Office, Kandy, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, and the Right to Life Human Rights Centre.

The group also called upon the authorities to “respect Hizbullah’s due process rights, in particular to grant immediate access to his lawyers to receive instructions, provide reasons for his arrest as well as evidence that the arrest is not arbitrary and produce him before a magistrate immediately.”

Hizbullah was arrested by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) on April 14 under provisions in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). According to a habeas corpus application filed by his father Naina Hizbullah on April 17, five persons posing as Health Ministry officials had entered the lawyer’s residence and interrogated him in handcuffs. They had then demanded access to two case files he had worked on – a decade prior, according to some media reports – and, having recorded a statement, took him into CID custody.

Police spokesman SSP Jaliya Senaratne subsequently told reporters that the senior lawyer was arrested in connection with last year’s Easter Sunday bombings

The citizen collective in their statement claimed that, to date, Hizbullah has not been informed of the reason for the arrest nor has he been granted access to his lawyers except in restricted circumstances for about fifteen minutes and in the presence of a CID officer.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on April 21 called upon the Sri Lankan authorities to respect human rights in the conduct of their investigation of the April 2019 bombings, including ensuring that investigations into the alleged involvement of Hizbullah are conducted in accordance with due process and fair trial guarantees under international law.

Specifically, the ICJ said, the authorities must specify the charges against him, grant him full and immediate access to a lawyer, and investigate the circumstances of his arrest for potential rights violations.

“No one questions the Government’s need and obligation to investigate the horrendous Easter Sunday attacks, but these investigations must be conducted in a way that is consistent with international law and the Sri Lankan Constitution,” ICJ Asia-Pacific Director Frederick Rawski said.

“Not serving Hizbullah a remand order as required by law and denying him full and confidential access to legal counsel is unacceptable and in violation of international standards on the right to liberty,” he added.

The ICJ’s call was echoed by the citizen activist collective.

“While acknowledging the need to conduct thorough investigations into any alleged offence, in this instance, prima facie it appears that the detainee has been denied due process rights.

“The fact that Mr Hizbullah has not been allowed to meet his lawyers without the presence of CID officers despite a written request submitted on April 15 is cause for grave concern as the right to legal representation is an important element of the right to due process, to which every person is entitled according to Article 13 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Unimpeded access to legal counsel is also a statutorily guaranteed right to any person arrested in Sri Lanka.”

The signatories were particularly troubled by the CID officers’ allegedly demanding access to the lawyer’s case files which they said is a severe impingement of attorney-client privilege, as well as of Hizbullah’s right to practice his profession freely.

“Such blatant disregard of the due process rights of an officer of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka and what appears to be his right to practice his profession freely, have a chilling effect on all legal professionals in Sri Lanka, as it creates fear they will be penalized for meeting with persons who are alleged to have committed offences as part of performing their duties as attorneys- at- law,” the statement said. (Colombo/Apr23/2020)

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