Saliya Pieris bowed out as the president of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) on Friday last week after giving it leadership for two consecutive terms.

On the threshold of his departure Pieris, a criminal lawyer and President’s Counsel became the object of vilification for his purported defence of Nadun Chinthaka, better known by his alias Harak Kata, and a suspect in underworld crime. Earlier this month Chinthaka was extradited from Madagascar with the help of Interpol and is currently being detained by the Criminal Investigation Department for 90 days for further questioning by them. His father Nelson Wickramaratne appealed to the Court of Appeal, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission and Interpol for his son’s protection because of fears for his life and Pieris is his counsel for the court case. In a series of inexplicable coincidences, suspected underworld figures like Makandure Madush and Kosgoda Tharaka have fallen victim to shootings while in the custody of the police and Wickramaratne does not want a re-play for his son. The involvement of Pieris in the case will be a strategic cue to the police to stop usurping the jurisdiction of the courts with covert moves to pass judgement on suspects before being proven guilty. Crucially, it will also ensure the judicial process takes place and give it the legitimacy it has been deprived of. The BASL itself has raised public awareness about the notoriety of deaths in police custody.

It was also on Friday that a group of men and women descended on Pieris’s law chambers in an organised protest to object to his role in the case. They were carrying placards slandering Pieris.

The protest triggered a prompt letter from the BASL to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) demanding appropriate action to guarantee Pieris’s continuation of his functions as a lawyer and ensure his safety. The BASL also raised its concerns about the serious hindrance to the right of a lawyer to represent a client, a professional right which is safeguarded by the law. S. 41 of the Judicature Act ensures the rights of representation of an attorney. The provisions of the Act give an attorney the right to advise and assist clients and to appear for them in court. It also entitles a party to be represented by a lawyer. These guarantees were upheld in the Supreme Court case of Wijesundara Mudiyanselage Naveen Nayantha Bandara Wijesundara v Siriwardena and others.

Animosity towards Pieris has been growing. With Pieris driving it, the once lacklustre BASL was catapulted into a higher realm, keeping checks and balances on the administration of justice and rule of law. Since last year, it has been prolifically issuing public statements denouncing the ultra vires actions of the state and its agents. It was among the front runners in the condemnation of the state’s heavy-handed treatment of protesters during the aragalaya with Pieris himself a familiar sight defending them in court.

More recently, it has underscored the importance of appointing a suitable successor when the tenure of the current IGP ends. It has condemned the legislature for undermining the independence of the judiciary in the backdrop of the brewing stand-off between the judiciary and the executive after the local government election which was to be held in March this year was scuppered. Allied to this has been the crusade to ensure the peoples’ franchise at this election is not taken away, for which cause Pieris has appeared as counsel for the Elections Commission.

His dogged chutzpah earned him the ire of President Ranil Wickremesinghe. In February this year, Wickremesinghe ground his axe with Pieris. He spoke disparagingly of Pieris as a political lawyer who should not have appeared for the Elections Commission and contended it should have got a lawyer from the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya or Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.


During the BASL’s 49th convocation at the BMICH last Saturday the essence of Pieris’s parting advice was to stay on course with the fight to ensure equilibrium in the scales of justice. ‘In these two years the BASL took up strong positions on many issues and where necessary sought recourse to the courts to secure the rights of the people’, said Pieris. He foresaw new threats emerging to the rule of law and a concerted effort being made to undermine the independence of the judiciary. ‘In the coming months the Bar will need to continue to fiercely stand for the principles which are at the core of our profession and to protect the rights described in the Constitution as the tangible heritage of the people’.




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