ECONOMYNEXT – Actor-Politician Ranjan Ramanayake is behind bars sentenced to a four-year prison term for contempt of court by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka but outside the prison walls he is gaining further popularity and acquiring the status of a folk-hero.
An online petition asking for his release has rapidly drawn thousands of signatories and letters and Social Media posts have appeared supporting him ranging from former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to Rights Activist Sunanda Deshapriya.
The petition on Change.org had garnered more than 7,000 signatures as of Monday morning.
“At a time in our country where racketeers, murderers and thieves are ruling the roost you have raised your voice against corruption and that is why you have had to face this sentence,” Kumaratunga wrote on her Facebook page.
Ramanayake is a close relative of Kumaratunga’s slain husband Vijaya, another actor politico.
Ramanayake was punished for saying that most judges and lawyers are corrupt, something senior journalist and political activist Victor Ivan supported.
While his assertion that 90 to 95 per cent of judges are corrupt is contestable, various surveys have shown some corruption in the court’s system.
Ivan joined Lawyers, Constitutionalists and Human Rights activists who have decried the decision, saying it was an excessive sentence for the offence and some pointed to the fact that in other countries with a similar legal tradition as ours there is in place a set of regulations as to how courts should treat contempt cases.
As EconomyNext reported last week Director, Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law, Dr Asanga Welikala said a public apology should be adequate.
Welikala went further saying Sri Lanka’s “De-democratisation has seen an uptick.”
Hejaaz, Harin, Pilleyan, Ranjan. De-democratisation in Sri Lanka just recorded a qualitative uptick. Now is when we really begin to see the effects of the Twentieth Amendment.
— Dr Asanga Welikala (@welikalaa) January 12, 2021
According to him, the power to punish for contempt of court lies completely at the discretion of the court. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, he said, where English law principles are used like in Sri Lanka, many countries have introduced legislation to regulate contempt of court powers.
The sentencing drew immediate international attention with the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) agreeing with Welikala saying that “on the basis of the norms and standards established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocol (ICCPR), the sentence of 4 years imprisonment for contempt of the court is a gross violation of the established legal rules-based in the common law tradition and under international law.”
The ICCPR is now part of the Sri Lankan Statutes and several persons ranging from short story writers to Social Media activists have been jailed under its provisions.
In a statement released after Ramanayake’s sentencing, the AHRC head Basil Fernando recalled the case of Tony Fernando who was jailed for one year’s RI in 2003.
In that case, as well as the case in which another colourful politician, serial party-jumper S B Dissanayake, was also imprisoned for contempt, the United Nations Human Rights Commission ruled that in both the jailing was “arbitrary detention” according to international law.
Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunge dismissed the fuss being made about Ramanayake saying he “reaped what he sowed because of his unguarded mouth. Don’t point the finger at the government.”
Ramanayake’s party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya has vowed to stand by him although its leaders have tip-toed around the correctness of his statement about the extent of corruption in the judiciary.
The SJB boss, Parliamentary Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa also said that the party would fight for Ramanayake to retain his seat in Parliament and that “President’s Counsel are exploring ways of helping him.”
While many of Ramanayake’s supporters would not agree with the substance of what he said disparagingly about judges, what he told reporters just before his sentencing has hit a chord.
Ramanayake, speaking in Sinhala said that “none of the thieves, or racketeers will be arrested. Both sides are buddies, they will not catch or jail each other.”
He pointed to countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia where former Prime Ministers have been charged with corruption and the state money that was stolen has been recovered.
“That won’t happen here because our entire society is corrupted and we want this corrupt system to go on,” he said.
Ramanayake added that it was the illegal sand-miners and other criminals who want their leaders in power “so that they can carry on their criminal activities.”
Deshapriya, who as a child soldier took part in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna uprising in 1971 served a 13-year term and deeply appreciated Ramanayake’s comments.
But he was saddened by the fact that Ramanayake’s public voice will be silenced.
Deshapriya also had a word of advice for the actor.
He said he used his time in detention to study and made “prison my university” and said the actor should make full use of the opportunity to learn and fill his cell with books.
(Colombo, January 18, 2021)
By Arjuna Ranawana