Ranjan Ramanayake sentenced for contempt of court Parliamentarian treading on perilous grounds
Questions raised about the proprietary of his seat
Parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake walked into the superior court complex
last Tuesday (13) where the case against him for contempt of court was scheduled to be taken up for clarifications only to learn that the Bench was ready to read out his judgment.
When the matter was taken up at 9.45 am Respondent Ramanayake had not
entered the court although he was in the premises. The matter was called again and the Bench comprising Justices Sisira de Abrew, Wijith Malalgoda and P. Padman Surasena directed that the respondent be brought before the court.
The court resumed proceedings at 10.25 am and the judgment was read out by Justice Sisira de Abrew sentencing Ramanayake to four years of rigorous imprisonment and the Registrar of the Supreme Court was directed to issue a warrant committing Ramanayake.
Later that day Ramanayake was taken to the prison bus by the police. He was handcuffed. There were not many around him except for the few Samagi Jana Balawegaya brethren who had come to show their solidarity. During the walk from the steps of the Supreme Court to the gate where the prison bus was waiting, he shouted into the cameras of waiting journalists that “all of them are rogues. I will not take back a single word I said.” Ramanayake was echoing the sentiments he had held throughout his trial.
The petition before the Supreme Court
The proceedings were initiated based on two petitions to the Supreme Court by Ven. Sudattha Thero and Ranawaka Sunil Perera. They said that Ramanayake, while addressing journalists outside the Prime Minister’s official residence at Temple Trees after a parliamentary group meeting in 2017, had stated that “the majority of lawyers have endangered this country”. Ramanayake had also said that “it is the bitter truth. A majority of the black-coated fraternity, not all but a majority. These lawyers work for money. I believe that the person who will be appointed as the justice minister could be a lawyer, but he should be a populist lawyer. He should work for the people not for his clients”. Both the Attorney General and Supreme Court respectively, looked at the petitions after they were lodged and concluded there were merits for a contempt of court case.
The twenty-one page long judgment identifies five instances where
abuse hurled by Ramanayake was similar and was insulting of judges.
The court also identifies several occasions where the respondent
reiterated his stance that he would not under any circumstances withdraw the sentiments expressed by him.
Over the course of his evidence, Ramanayake had on various days said that “if the judges derive some self-satisfaction after sending him to jail he will be very happy to go”. He had also said that “I will not withdraw anything that I have said. At present I have 21 cases, I will not withdraw what I have said. I will never withdraw. I maintain the stand taken come what may. I will never withdraw. Even if they sentence me to one year, two years, five years, ten years, twenty years, or life imprisonment. I maintain what I have said.”
Ramanayake in his evidence admitted he addressed the journalists outside Temple Trees and stated that 95 percent of judges and lawyers are corrupt but that he was not targeting the judiciary when he said it. What he intended was to belittle the actions of a former minister of justice.
However, when his counsel M A Sumanthiran questioned why he
later said that he will not withdraw the statement if his intention had not been to cast aspersions on the judiciary, Ramanayake said that there was some truth in his statement when considering statements made by a former Chief Justice. By this, he was referring to former Chief Justice Sarath Silva who after his retirement publicly acknowledged and apologised for giving a certain judgment relating to the tsunami fund which helped an individual to patronize high political office.
On behalf of the respondent it was argued that through evidence illustrated
before the court, he, at any point had not said anything against the Supreme
Court and thereby the court does not have jurisdiction or the power to hear the matter.
Analyzing Article 105(3) of the Constitution under which this matter was heard,
the judgment states that, “according to the above Article, the Supreme Court has the power to deal with the offence of contempt of court whether the offence of contempt of court was committed in court or elsewhere. Therefore, the above contention of the learned President’s Counsel for the Respondent should fail.”
Meanwhile, senior legal professionals are of the view that there is no specific
legislation that guides the offence of contempt in Sri Lanka. It is largely based
on the common law that is the main part of our legal system. However, the English law on contempt has evolved suitably to be applicable in current times.
Contempt law is anything that obstructs or interferes with judicial power in a
case. If the interference is with an ongoing case or something is published about a pending case, it can be attributed to contempt.
Referring to the utterances made by Ramanayake these professionals point out that these kinds of remarks are what is referred to in English law as scandalizing the court and are no longer recognised as an offence under it. For example, in the cases involving Gnanasara thero and even that of Tony Michael Fernando, where they interfered with the court proceedings, they were warned before they were charged with contempt.
Proportionality of sentencing
In Sri Lankan legal history the two main cases where persons were found guilty and punished for contempt are the cases against former Minister S. B Dissanayake and Bodu Bala Sena Chief Ven.Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero. These cases, where comparatively harsher sentences were handed down were instances where direct insults and slurs of a serious nature were hurled at judges while interfering with the court proceedings as opposed to the making of a general comment.
In other cases, a former editor of a newspaper was held to be in contempt of court and the punishment was to keep him in custody until the rising of the court. Tony Michael Fernando’s case is another example where he was sentenced to one-year’s rigorous imprisonment by the Supreme Court. He subsequently went before the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Commission for the alleged violation of his fundamental rights stating that the punishment meted out to him was harsh. The UNHRC after having inquired into the matter directed the Sri Lankan government to pay compensation to
Fernando. He was subsequently released after lobbying by the Asian
Human Rights Commission and other international bodies.
During the proceedings, Additional Solicitor General Sarath Jayamanne who appeared for the Attorney General submitted to court that it is time for
Sri Lanka to introduce contempt laws that would demarcate limitations.
Following the Ramanayake verdict a question has arisen about the fate of his seat in Parliament. This is because Article 89 and 91 of the Constitution deals with the disqualification of voters.
According to Article 91(1)(d) disqualifications laid down in Article 89 apply to those seeking election or functioning as members of Parliament. This provision kicks in when a person is punished with imprisonment for an offence which is punishable for not less than two years. Therefore, many have opined that Ramanayake’s seat will be vacated in six months and the next in line in the SJB will take over. However, another school of thought is that these provisions will not apply to the current case.
The Constitution does not state that contempt is an offence which is punishable over two years. The punishment varies on the circumstances and the evidence before court. Some legal experts argue that this punishment does not necessarily mean that Ramanayake will lose his parliamentary seat. The SJB is likely to appoint a panel of lawyers to study the implications of the sentence under Article 89, 91 and 105 of the Constitution.
Option to review judgment
A further option available to Ramanayake is his eligibility to ask for a fuller bench of the Supreme Court to review the judgment depending on the merits of the case. However, this will be done at the sole discretion of the Chief Justice.
Since the verdict, posts on social media platforms have been sympathetic towards Ramanayke and his good deeds. They see him as a people’s politician.
Ramanayake has been able to strike a few nerves during his political career. Among a handful of MPs in Parliament who are candid, he has continuously spoken against drug moguls and corrupt individuals undeterred by their consequences.
Interestingly the Supreme Court in the judgment includes the following from
the evidence he gave during the hearing.
“…He further stated that he was a film actor; that he entered politics in
the year 2006; that in the parliamentary election held in August 2015 he was
elected as a member of parliament from Gampaha district; that from August
2015 to date he represents Gampaha district; that as at present he is a state
minister; that he has produced films regarding corrupt politicians; that he
entered politics to send corrupt politicians to jail; that in the ten year
period of his politics he was not accused of any corruption; that he refused to
accept two vehicles sent to him by the government; that he refused to accept
enhancement of attendance allowance given to the members of parliament
and enhancement of salary given to the members of parliament; and that he
does not enjoy privileges given to the members of parliament.”