Lawyers boycott court proceedings to support of a judge who fled Sri Lanka

Lawyers have decided to boycott court proceedings as protesters took to the streets in support of a judge who fled Sri Lanka after an order on a disputed religious site.

Rallies have been taking place in Northern and Eastern provinces almost all days this week, demanding independence of the judiciary after district judge T Saravanarajah quit and fled the nation.

He was handling the case of a disputed archaeological site, claimed by both Buddhists and minority Tamil Hindus as their place of worship with historical importance.

Saravanarajah’s resignation letter, dated Sept. 23 and addressed to the secretary of Sri Lanka’s Judicial Services Commission, said he was resigning because of  the “threat to my life and stress.”

Civil society groups and lawyers organized a human chain on Oct. 4. covering 10 kilometers on the main road from Jaffna town to Maruthanarmadam in the Northern province.

Meanwhile, lawyers attached to the Bar Associations across eight districts in the two provinces have decided to boycott court proceedings till “a transparent and independent probe” is conducted.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has called for a report after criticism from the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and civil society outfits.

Saravanarajah earned the wrath of hardline Buddhist groups over his order on a highly contested Kurunthurmalai temple, an ancient place of worship in the Thannimurippu area of Mullaitivu district, frequented by Tamil Hindus.

According to Hindu devotees, the archaeological remains of the temple were removed by Buddhist monks, and a new shrine was built despite a court order banning construction work until the case was resolved.

Buddhist groups have claimed that the site is linked to their history and justified their decision to construct a new shrine.

Saravanaraja ordered the removal of unlawful construction.

The judge alleged in his resignation letter that the attorney general of Sri Lanka asked him to reverse his order during a meeting on Sept. 21.

His resignation came in the wake of three petitions in the Court of Appeal, a higher court with the power to hear appeals against district court orders. The judge has been named as the first respondent in all the cases in the higher court.

In recent months, when Hindu devotees tried to engage in religious activities in the temple, they were opposed by the archaeology department and Buddhist groups. However, last month the court granted them permission.

During his inspection in July, Saravanarajah asked for a report from the archaeology department and questioned why a new infrastructure was erected on the disputed site despite a court ban on it.

Human rights groups have called for preserving the independence of the judiciary after the alleged threat to the life of the judge.

“If a judge had to flee the country due to threats, it reflects on the state of the rule of law in the country and the judiciary. If a judge cannot be safe, how can an ordinary citizen be protected?” asked K.S Ratnavel, a human rights lawyer.

“Those judges who are not giving in to this government agenda” will have to face several challenges to carry out their duties, said the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association.

It is not yet clear where Saravanarajah is staying after fleeing the Indian Ocean nation.

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