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Justice of the young injustice of the old

DILI (SE): Lucille Abeykoon, a social worker from the Human Rights Office Kandy in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is wondering why one of the youngest countries in the world, Timor-Leste, has made so much progress in the protection of human rights, accountability and the rule of law, while her own land, which has been independent from its colonial power for 69 years, has made so little.
Abeykoon is delighted at what she found during an exposure trip to Dili during October at the invitation of the Judicial System Monitoring Programme, a non-government organisation based in Dili, Timor-Leste.
Although she notes that the legal system is still in the process of development and does not for instance distinguish between civil and criminal matters, it does incorporate a series of courts from a district level to Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court of Justice is still in its formation stage, but an exacting process of procedure already exists, as well as mechanisms to ensure that it is followed. It has no death penalty.
Abeykoon says it was surprise from the word go. “Entering the court was easy,” she says in an account of her visit.“There was no checking and it was friendly,” something she says is in direct contrast to her experience in her hometown of Kandy.
“In Sri Lanka ordinary people are harassed and victimised in court by security personnel from the minute they enter the building. They are scolded for simple reasons,” she says.
Abeykoon points out that in Kandy she has been denied entry to the court when accompanying a client because she was not dressed completely in white, and dress codes are enforced in such a way that they get priority over the delivery of justice.
Also in Dili, there was no waiting. The schedule is published and the timetable adhered to, whereas in Sri Lanka everyone must arrive at 9.00am, but there is no surety about when the magistrate will decide to begin hearing a case.
Every person under charge in Dili is assigned public defence, then the judge leads the presentation of evidence, not the prosecution. Abeykoon said that the judgers spoke gently to the accused and the victims of crime, allowing both time for explanation.
This too she said is in direct contrast to her experience in Sri Lanka, especially with victims, who are further victimised by the court and lawyers belittle them.
“In Sri Lanka rape victims are labelled as prostitutes by the defence, but watching the gentility and care shown by the legal fraternity in Dili brought tears to my eyes,” Abeykoon recalled.
She added that domestic violence against women is taken seriously in Dili, as well as being regarded as a serious crime. But she noted that the lawyers come prepared and the hearing proceeds in an orderly and concerned manner, with judgement promised within a week.
“In Sri Lanka, cases are more often deferred rather than taken up for trial. Generally there is a three-month interval between hearings and I have been a support person for people in a trial that went on for 15 years before any justice was delivered,” she related.
However, Abeykoon noted that even a highly serious and complex matter involving a government minister was cleared up within two years in Dili.
In addition, journalists are allowed, as well as observers. Visitors can also take notes and speak to each other quietly. And importantly, a public address system ensures that everyone in the court can hear clearly.
Abeykoon pointed out that none of these things happen in Sri Lanka and often no coherent reason is given for an adjournment or deferral.
“I have been scolded at home for reading the case file and taking notes, and even an emergency does not allow a hushed word to anyone… We have to remove the battery from our phones in the High Court or check it in. Once a man got eight months for yawning during a hearing,” Abeykoon recounts.
“I remember the mother of a girl who had been raped was told to remove her shoes before entering the court, lest she make a noise on the floor,” she relates, adding a string of occurrences from parents of the accused being refused entry to the court to straight out bullying by security personnel.
Abeykoon says that Monica Pinto, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur, prepared a report on the independence of judges and lawyers in Sri Lanka in 2016 that was highly critical of the legal system, including the attorney general, lawyers and the National Human Rights Commission. Abeykoon goes on to describe the criticism as speaking of the abuse of civil society and the families of both the accused and victims of crime.
She says that the report detailed the things that she found the legal system in Dili had already dealt with in its short 15 years out from under the toe of first Portugal and then Indonesia.
However, Sri Lanka totally disowned the report from the special rapporteur, with the minister for justice, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, telling the parliament that the special rapporteur had been misled by non-government organisations and describing her report as harmful to the nation’s sovereignty.
Abeykoon points out that Timor-Leste has ratified a significant number of international treaties and conventions in its 15 years, whereas Sri Lanka has ratified on 13 since 1980.
“Sri Lanka is a country that is always proud of its history as a nation, but does not adopt the best practices from other countries, whereas Timor-Leste, as a young nation, has made tremendous progress… Let us learn from Sri Lanka,” Abeykoon cries.
But one small incident she says explains a lot to her. As she was leaving the court in Dili, she saw a judge standing on the side of the road waiting to be picked up. “A sight for sore eyes to any Sri Lankan!”

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