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Sri Lankans are, in general, an emotional lot. They like conspiracy theories and where there aren’t any they like to cook some up. The Ranjan Ramanayake verdict is a case in point. On the face of it the ruling seems, if not reasonable, then at least straightforward. Here is the case of a man who point blank called a majority of judges and lawyers corrupt, admitted in court that he did so and publicly stated that he would never take back what he said. Construed as contempt of court, the nation’s highest judicial body found him guilty and passed a sentence in line with the finding. One can certainly say Ramanayake shot himself in the proverbial foot but the truth of the matter stands that he said things that were interpreted, not by the parliament or the powers that be, but by the Supreme Court no less as deliberate, provocative insults.

A judicial pronouncement is different to an executive decision. Yet a vast majority of those commenting on the Ramanayake verdict don’t seem capable of making that distinction. This is significant, although also worrying, because such distinctions are important in a democratic society, even one as fragile as Sri Lanka. Then again, the social democratic left-liberal crowd in Sri Lanka has almost always been marked out, as Dr. Asanga Welikala once put it, by their inability to distinguish between legal theory and political practice.

By default, a judicial pronouncement is deemed to be free of political bias, based strictly and purely on points of fact and of law. Verdicts and judgments may not be to everyone’s liking, but if the catchphrase of the left-liberal crowd is “judicial independence”, forcing courts to dish out rulings compatible with particular ideologies would be not just detrimental but also antithetical to their campaign for a democratic society. Rule by Executive Decree is certainly undesirable, but so is, and so should be, Rule by Popular Opinion.

As a realist (political and philosophical) I tend to prefer the exigencies of the moment to the diktats of empty procedural justice. In this I agree with legal scholars who have constantly highlighted the importance of accounting for extrinsic, non-judicial factors when passing verdicts and giving rulings; the critical legal theorists are a case in point here. Yet these scholars continue to be ignored, if not cast aside; at my law school, to give one example, the chapter on critical legal studies happened to be the least studied and pored over. The Marxists and feminists have made their contribution as well. I suppose we ought to be grateful; they have taken the law, rather the study of law, beyond the cloistered formalism it used to be cornered in not too long ago. In any case, as far as this interpretation of judicial pronouncements is concerned, I believe, as does Harsha de Silva, that Ranjan Ramanayake’s sentence seems a tad too harsh by the standards of the crime he has been found guilty of.

But this is not what motivates and pushes those who oppose the verdict. There’s hardly any analysis made, hardly any case law precedent cited. Indeed, no one seems to have read the verdict at hand in the first place. I saw several posts comparing Ramanayake to no less than Vijaya Kumaratunga and his imprisonment by the J. R. Jayewardene government. The devil is in the detail: Kumaratunga was arrested and jailed with no charges on the flimsy grounds of being a Naxalite, vis-à-vis emergency (and thus Executive) regulations. Ramanayake, on the other hand, was found guilty of a criminal offence – one to which he himself admitted more than once – by three Supreme Court judges, in a case filed four years ago at a time when he was in the government, serving as a Minister. These points are important because they help tell us what the case is about and how those who claim to stand for vague, amorphous, but laudable, causes like justice and fair play have interpreted these terms.

What makes their already confused interpretation of the Ramanayake case and verdict even more confusing is the link they try to bring up between the contempt of court offence and those infamous tape recordings of his on the one hand, and the court’s ruling on his case and similar rulings on government MPs – particularly Pillayan and more particularly Premalal Jayasekara – on the other. Here too the devil is in the detail. The case has nothing to do with the tape recordings, even if they do colour our perceptions of Ramanayake. The judges did not even once bring up those recordings, nor did they refer to his outrageous expostulations regarding other professions, including his own.

The Pillayan-Premalal rulings are unfortunate and they reflect badly on a government that came to power on the One Country One Law bandwagon. But in neither of those cases was, or is, explicit government intervention visible; Attorney-General de Livera let Pillayan off the hook for lack of sufficient evidence while Premalal was allowed to sit in parliament pending the Supreme Court’s determination on his appeal. Here I like to take a purely judicial stance and conjecture that if Premalal is let off the hook, it will be because of arguments of judges rather than interventions of government ministers. To be sure, things do not always work that way, and to be sure, it is more than a coincidence that in the event Premalal is deemed innocent of the crimes for which he is accused, he will be allowed to sit as MP in the same parliament led by the government he contested from months ago.

But again these issues and the issue of One Country One Law and its (lack of) enforcement and implementation are, or rather should be, viewed separately from the Ramanayake case. The social media activists and justice warriors making their voices heard over the latter are taking the wrong approach as far as their defence of the man they’ve turned into a hero and a martyr goes. You do not valorise a man for a crime he committed by bringing up the good he did; you valorise him for a crime he did not commit, for which judges (mistakenly, if not unjustly) have found him guilty. In that sense Ramanayake’s parting words – “I said the truth and I will never apologise for it” – seem a tad too facile, not least because a cursory perusal of his case will make it clear that the determination depended on a) the accused taking back what he said, i.e. that a majority of judges and lawyers are corrupt, and b) statements made after the first which directly contradicted that disclaimer.

In a world of embellished factoids and half-truths, it really comes as no surprise that Ranjan Ramanayake’s defenders should construe statements like these as references to ruling elites and corrupt MPs. Yet they cannot be, and must not be, interpreted as such. Ramanayake refuses to apologise for a statement for which he was found guilty by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, a statement that brushed off an entire profession as corrupt. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, referring to ruling elites and MPs, much less would he have been prosecuted had he referred to the profession they indulge in. Robin Hood may have been guilty of theft but he distributed the riches he robbed to the poor. There is a link between these two acts in a way that there is no comparable link here. To put that in simple terms, those who defend Ramanayake, including Ramanayake himself, fail to realise that the man they are defending is different to the man the judges have indicted.

I do not consider Ranjan Ramanayake a hero. He has on more than one occasion spoken out against corruption but that is, as far as I am concerned, an extension of his populist movie performances. To consider him being sent to prison an act of martyrdom would be to insult every other lawyer, rights activist, journalist and decent human being who has been, here and elsewhere, then and now, imprisoned without the privilege of a formal charge, outside the judicial system. I hence consider Ramanayake’s ruling on par with the Pillayan-Premalal rulings: all three have been afforded the luxury of court hearings and judicial opinion. These hearings and opinions might not be to everyone’s liking, but then we should not try to make every hearing and opinion amenable to our sense of justice.

Ramanayake appeals to the social media pro-democracy middle-class crowd because he has gone through the easy way of critiquing “the system.” Many of those who harp on about Ramanayake and shed tears for him would likely look the other way had it been, say, a radical activist. Such are the vagaries and ironies of social media middle-class activism in this blessed land of ours.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]