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Proposed Amendment to Antiquities Ordinance – a boost to destruction of antiquities

(Courtesy of The Island)

It has been reported that the Ministry of Justice is moving to amend the Antiquities Ordinance, repealing the provisions therein preventing the courts from releasing persons charged with or accused of offences under the Antiquities Ordinance on bail. Under the proposed amendment, the Magistrate’s Court is to be given power to release such persons on bail. This proposal is made in the guise of a measure to reduce prison congestion.

Theft of antiquities, demolition of the Buddha statues and causing damage to archeological sites by treasure hunters and the willful destruction and damage of antiquities and archeological sites by interested parties have become serious problems that need to be urgently addressed with deterrent action.

As reported in the media, from 1977 to 1994 the Police received 242 complaints of theft, damage and destruction of antiquities; from 1995 to 2001, the number of complaints the Police received was 424. There is a sharp increase in the number of incidents reported in the recent past. In 2019, the Archaeological Department received 630 complaints of incidents where antiquities were either damaged or destroyed. During the first nine months of 2020, 430 such incidents were reported to the Archeological Department.

The Antiquities (Amendment) Act No. 24 of 1998 was enacted by Parliament with a view to preventing the incidents of theft of antiquities and willful destruction and damage of antiquities and archeological sites. This Act introduced three new provisions enhancing the penalties for offences under the Ordinance and requiring the offenders to be kept in custody without bail till the conclusion of the trial.

S.15A. Any person committing theft of an antiquity in the possession of any other person shall be guilty of an offence –

S.15B. Any person willfully destroying, injuring, defacing or tampering with an antiquity or willfully damaging any part of it shall be guilty of an offence –

  1. 32. Any person who commits a breach of (a) any provision of S. 21 (commencing or carrying out any work of restoration, repair, alteration or addition in connection with any protected monument except upon a permit issued by the Commissioner General of Archeology), or (b) any regulation made under S. 24 shall be guilty of an offence – punishable on conviction after summary trial before a Magistrate with a fine not exceeding Rs. 50,000 or with imprisonment for a term not less than two years and not more than 5 years or with both such fine and imprisonment. Same penalty has been laid down for all offences under the Act.
  2. 15C. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Code of Criminal Procedure Act or any other written law, no person charged with or accused of an offence under the Antiquities Ordinance shall be released on bail.

The penalties laid down in the Act for these serious offences are hardly adequate to have a deterrent effect on the culprits. The Court has the option of imposing a fine instead of a jail sentence. The maximum fine that can be imposed is Rs. 50,000. Quite often a fine of a lower amount is imposed. It is very seldom that a sentence of imprisonment is imposed on an offender in these cases.

Only the provision that a person charged with or accused of an offence under the Antiquities Ordinance cannot be released on bail by any Court has some deterrent effect on the offenders. They have to remain in custody for a few weeks or a few months till they are charged in the case. Once they are charged, in most cases they plead guilty and pay a fine and walk away.

In response to certain media reviews critical of this move to amend the law enabling Magistrates to release the suspects on bail when they are produced in Court as something detrimental to the protection of our archeological heritage, Chief Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Justice, Mr. U. R. de Silva, P. C. has issued an explanation justifying the Justice Ministry decision to relax the law, enabling the Magistrates to release the offenders on bail. According to his explanation:

  1. All those who are arrested and produced in Court by the Police are not treasure hunters. Abusing the law, the Police arrest and charge innocent people. As an example, he cites how the Police produce drug addicts in Courts as drug traffickers, preventing them from being released on bail by the Magistrates.

It is no secret that the Police have heavily contributed to the congestion in prisons by producing in Courts many drug addicts as drug traffickers, abusing the law and thus preventing them from being released on bail by the Magistrates. The Attorney General is also aware of this. That is why the Attorney General, following the Mahara Prison riot, stated that he had instructed the Inspector General of Police several times to consider filing cases under S. 78(5) of the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act instead of S. 54 (a), which has been the usual practice, in order to reduce prison congestion.

Why doesn’t the Ministry of Justice propose to amend the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Act, enabling Magistrates to grant bail to persons arrested with small quantities of drugs instead of keeping them in custody for years without bail, in the same manner it proposes to amend the Antiquities Ordinance?

If the Police abuse the law by arresting and producing in Courts innocent people as treasure hunters and keep them in custody without bail, why can’t the AG and the IGP direct them to strictly comply with the law and take action against the police officers who abuse the law?

  1. This is a state of affairs totally different from what the legislature expected.

It is an erroneous statement. Parliament enacted this law in 1998 specifically for the purpose of protecting antiquities by taking stern action against those who damage or destroy them. S. 15C clearly states that whatever the other laws may state, no person charged with or accused of an offence under the Antiquities Ordinance shall be released on bail.

  1. As the Immigrants and Emigrants Act has been amended enabling Courts to release suspects on bail, it is a grave mistake not to amend the Antiquities Ordinance enabling Courts to grant bail.

This is also not a correct statement. The Immigrants and Emigrants Act was amended by Act No. 31 of 2006 to grant relief to hundreds of suspects held in custody being unable to obtain bail due to the Supreme Court Judgment given in 2006 in Thilanga Sumathipala case (Attorney General & others vs. Thilanga Sumathipala – (2006) 2 SLR 126) depriving the Court of Appeal of its jurisdiction to grant bail.

This Act made provision for release on bail of all persons held in remand without bail on the date on which this Act came into operation due to the Supreme Court Judgment in the Thilanga Sumathipala case.

This Amendment Act did not grant power to the Magistrate’s Courts to release on bail all suspects held in custody in respect of all offences under the Immigrants and Emigrants Act. Under this Amendment, a Magistrate can grant bail only for an offence in respect of which there is no express provision made for granting bail. – S. 47A (2) Where there is an express provision for granting bail, a Magistrate cannot grant bail in respect of such offences.

Only a High Court can grant bail to a person accused of an offence under S. 45C of the Act upon proof of exceptional circumstances.

  1. 47 (1) of the Act states that, notwithstanding anything in any other law, the offences mentioned therein shall be non-bailable and no person accused of such an offence shall in any circumstances be admitted to bail.
  2. Whenever any digging is done anywhere the Police have the habit of arresting persons and producing them in Court as suspects under the Antiquities Ordinance. They have to languish in custody for months till the certificate is produced showing that it is not a place coming under the Antiquities Ordinance.

The Antiquities Ordinance clearly states what are the offences coming under it. Instead of amending the law enabling Magistrates to release the offenders committing all kinds offences under the Ordinance on bail at the time they are produced in Court, there are many things that can be done to prevent the Police from acting arbitrarily abusing the law.

The Police cannot arbitrarily arrest people and produce them in Court for digging any land; If they do so a complaint can be made against the Police to the Supreme Court or the Human Rights Commission for violation of fundamental rights.

The Attorney General can direct the Police not to arrest and prosecute without ascertaining from the Archeological Department whether it is a site with antiquities.

The Court can promptly call for the certificate from the Archeological Department.

  1. Another sorry state of affairs is that, though the place where the digging was done is not a place coming under the Antiquities Ordinance, the Police file action on the opinion of the Commissioner General of Archaeology that charges can be brought if it appears that the digging has been done in search of antiquities.

No such action can be filed under the law. It is an arbitrary action taken totally contrary to law. One cannot understand why the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the lawyers appearing in these cases remain silent without challenging the legality of such actions.

  1. As they cannot obtain bail, in many of these cases suspects plead guilty for an offence which they have not committed and pay the fine of Rs. 50,000 getting their image tarnished. Having understood this practical reality, the Ministry of Justice has taken action to address this issue.

This is a strange story. Why should a person plead guilty for an offence which he has not committed? How can a lawyer advise his client to plead guilty to an offence which he has never committed?

What are these cases in which the innocent people have pleaded guilty for offences which they have never committed and paid fines of Rs. 50,000 tarnishing their images? Before which Courts? Can the Ministry of Justice issue a list of these cases?

Why should they pay Rs. 50,000 in each of these cases? Rs. 50,000 is the maximum fine a Court can impose for any of these offences. As laid down in the Act, the penalty is a fine not exceeding Rs. 50,000. The Court has the discretion to impose a lesser fine. Depending on the circumstances of the case it may be a fine of Rs. 10,000, 20,000 or 25,000.

All these are false premises.

Archeological sites and antiquities in a country are the national historical heritage of the people of the country. Not only the present generation, but all the future generations also have an equal right to them. Destruction of archeological sites and antiquities will result in the destruction of the historical national heritage of the people of the country. It may be a deliberate attempt at turning the history of the country upside down by erasing historical evidence. It is worse than any act of destruction of environment.

If any forest is destroyed it can re-forested. But if an antiquity or an archeological site is destroyed it can never be restored to its previous condition. Bamian Buddha Statues destroyed by Talaiban in Afghanistan is a clear example. A replica may be erected in its place, but it has no historical or archeological value. Any change, alteration, removal or addition of parts in an antiquity or an archeological site will result in the diminution of its archeological value. That is why even commencing or carrying out any work of restoration, repair, alteration or addition in connection with any protected monument without a permit issued by the Commissioner General of Archeology has been made an offence punishable under the law and all offences under the Antiquities Ordinance have been made unbailable by any Court of law.

Frequently our media, both print and electronic, disclose incidents of destruction of antiquities and archeological sites throughout the country. Many of these incidents reported from the Northern and Eastern Provinces, are not acts of treasure hunters, but deliberate and planned acts of destruction of archeological sites by interested parties. Though hundreds of such incidents are reported, very seldom legal action is taken against the culprits due to lack of adequate resources in the Archeological Department and lethargy or insensitivity of the officials.

In the face of the threats currently posed, antiquities and archeological sites remain survived even to this extent due to the provision in S. 15C of the Ordinance that no person charged with or accused of an offence under the Antiquities Ordinance shall be released on bail by any Court. Even the Court of Appeal has no jurisdiction to release such a person on bail. If the Antiquities Ordinance is amended as proposed by the Ministry of Justice granting jurisdiction to Magistrate’s Courts to release on bail offenders charged with offences under the Antiquities Ordinance, any offender who has deliberately destroyed any priceless antiquity or archeological site will be able to obtain bail and go home on the day he was produced in Court itself. This will amount to giving an open license for the destruction of archeological heritage of our people. As the maximum fine that can be imposed is Rs. 50,000, any offender can pay the fine and get the license. By paying the fine he can get away after destroying any antiquity.

The Chief Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Justice has suggested to increase the penalties for the offence while granting jurisdiction to Magistrate’s Courts to release offenders on bail. If the offenders can get bail from the Magistrate’s Court when they are produced in Court, even if the amount of fine that can be imposed for the offence is increased to Rs. 500,000, that will not have any deterrent effect in preventing deliberate and planned activities of destruction of archeological sites in the North – East and other areas in the country.

If this amendment proposed by the Ministry of Justice is brought about that will seal the fate of all our unprotected antiquities and archeological sites. It will wide open the gates for destruction of our invaluable antiquities and archeological sites.as happened in the case of Devanagala, Kuragala and Vijithapura. No museum, antiquity or archeological site will remain safe thereafter.

It is an unshirkable duty and responsibility of the Government to protect this national heritage of our people for the posterity. It can be done not by relaxation of the laws enacted for the purpose protecting them, but by further strengthening the law against this destruction. If a mandatory minimum jail sentence coupled with a fine, such as imprisonment for a term not less than two years and not more than 5 years and a fine not less than Rs. 50,000, is laid down for the offences of theft of an antiquity and willfully destroying, injuring, damaging, defacing or tampering with an antiquity then the penalty may have a deterrent effect on persons prone to commit this type of offences. Persons committing these anti-national crimes must be kept in custody without bail till the conclusion of the trial as in the case of offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

By Kalyananda Tiranagama

Executive Director

Lawyers for Human Rights and Development

 



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