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'Criminal' equalled to 'Cicero' turns President's Counsel

Self proclaimed “Jesus Christ:” with his Counsel Hemantha in 1982

Law College Lecturer, late Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali once asked his students whether there were any 'civilians' among them. There was a pin-drop silence, and the students wondered why.

Athulathmudali broke the silence to explain that he wanted to know how many were interested in civil law. He then asked whether there were any 'criminals'. Up went the hand of a tall lanky lad. This 'criminal' was none other than Hemantha Warnakulasuriya who took silk as a President's Counsel last Friday.

I knew Hemantha as a court reporter from the time he stepped into the hallowed precincts of justice at Hultfsdorp. Therefore, I felt it is appropriate to recall a few interesting cases of this man whose voice may still echo in that compound though he has now risen to the highest level in his profession.

If one speaks of interesting legal encounters in the Magistrates Court, the name Hemantha Warnakulasuriya is certainly in the lead. The man who defended an accused for having robbed a bread- fruit to feed his son, was later the leading defence counsel in many a murder case in the country. The episode of that bread fruit case in brief now follows:

"Mr. Warnakulasuriya, you seem to appear not only for the defence but also for the prosecution as well, to prove your point", remarked Keerthi Srilal Wijewardene, Chief Magistrate, Colombo during the trial before him way back in 1982. The case was of a human nature where a man had pilfered a bread fruit to feed his child.

The complainant was a wealthy woman from Colombo. I do not know whether the new President's Counsel, Hemantha Warnakulasuriya remembers this case which made front page news in "The Island" at that time when I was a court reporter covering the Magistrates' Court. Turning to the complainant, Mr. Warnakulasuriya said, "Sir, I can see that the complainant is a very humane person from her appearance.

She would have certainly spent more on petrol to come here. Her inability to control her anger on seeing the accused run with the bread fruit may have forced her to complain. Otherwise, I am certain she would not have wasted her valuable time and money to punish this man for a fruit that just costs ten cents. Isn't it?, he asked her. She nodded in favour.

The accused was warned and discharged. "Hunger is greater than anger", quipped Mr. Warnakulasuriya before he took his seat. In the mid 1970s', this man Hemantha Warnakulasuriya drove into the Magistrates Court in a bright red sports car to start his career after his apprenticeship period under the late D. C. De Silva at Panadura.

Not knowing what the trend was at Hulftsdorp, Hemantha was a self starter. The men who most dominated that complex were giants like Bunty De Zoysa, P.C., Daya Perera, P.C. and Jayantha Gunesekere, P.C. After the Royalist, Chippy Gunesekere, it was Hemantha who came to dominate the MC as a Royalist.

His long journey to the position of President's Counsel could be described as the one from the 'log cabin to the White House'. If it was not so, Hemantha would never have been equalled to Cicero by the most respected Judge of the Supreme Court, the late Tissa Dias Bandaranayake who chaired the Lalith Athulathmudali Commission. In his report, Justice Bandaranayake said, "The witness was cross examined by Mr. Warnakulasuriya. We believe that the learned counsel was equal to Cicero".

Now, I will describe another event in the MC which hit the headlines and even made Hemantha popular in the international media. There was a case where a man claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. He was charged with assaulting a police officer.

This "Jesus Christ" claimed he punished the cop with the spiritual powers in him. But, this "Jesus Christ" had to be defended. The defence counsel was Hemantha. It was a difficult task. Despite being a devout Buddhist, Hemantha unfolded scriptures in the Bible to seek pardon for the accused. Magistrate Chandradasa Nanayakara roared with laughter as Warnakulasuriya quoted from Peter to Paul not forgetting Moses and Judas. Finally, the police officer agreed to compound the case and the self proclaimed "Jesus Christ" was pardoned.

The late Bunty Zoysa was a giant at that time in Hultsdorp. But, Hemantha never feared to battle with such men when it came to court. He had the highest respect for Bunty Zoysa. When many others feared to accept cases in the MC where Bunty appeared, Hemantha took up such challenges.

In a case where then Sub-Inspector, Priyanka Perera was charged with the murder of a suspect in the police cell at Grandpass, Hemantha appeared for the deceased. Bunty appeared for Perera. The Magistrate was Chandradasa Nanayakkara. Bunty knew he was fighting a losing battle. Hemantha battled to ensure that the sub-inspector was remanded.

Hell broke loose one morning when the Magistrate threatened to report Bunty to the Supreme Court and the President for trying to influence him the previous night over the telephone. Sittings were suspended. Several, including Hemantha had to plead with the Magistrate to save Bunty. Sub-Inspector Perera was remanded.

There was another interesting case where medical men insisted it was a suicide by a woman in Kolonnawa due to drowning. But, Hemantha argued it was a case of homicide. Magistrate, G. Wickremsekere ordered the body be exhumed. The time was not made public. Myself, Norman Palihawadana and photographer, Wimal Surendra had a sleepless night at the Borella cemetery.

Prof. Nandadasa arrived at the cemetery around 8.30 a. m. that day with the Borella Police to exhume the body. Later, it was established that the woman had been strangled to death and thrown into the river. Such was the proven ability of this lawyer, Hemantha Warnakulasuriya who reigned over the MC for three decades.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made the correct decision in making him a President's Counsel.



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