On September 19, 2019, Sri Lanka’s University Grants Commission (UGC), at the apparent behest of the military, ordered the University of Jaffna to bar law professor and human rights lawyer Kumaravadivel Guruparan from practicing as an attorney.
Since 2011, Guruparan has led the department of law at the University of Jaffna. He is also the founding executive director of the Adayaalam Center for Policy Research (ACPR), which works on human rights and policy issues in Sri Lanka. Over the years, he has represented many clients who have suffered human rights violations, including a high-profile case from 1996 involving the enforced disappearance of more than twenty-four Tamil youths. Sources indicate that Guruparan has become the target of harassment and intimidation in response to his recent human rights advocacy. On August 7, 2019, for example, officers from Sri Lanka’s Terrorism Investigation Department reportedly visited the ACPR offices and demanded information on staff and their work.
On August 21, the Sri Lankan military reportedly sent a letter to the UGC, questioning the basis for allowing Guruparan to practice as an attorney while employed as a law professor. UGC forwarded the letter to University of Jaffna’s administration. Weeks later, on September 5, the UGC reportedly passed a memorandum that sought to bar Guruparan from practicing law. That same day, the UGC also decided that it would not permit any university faculty in Sri Lanka to practice law, a decision later communicated to universities in a circular dated November 26. On September 19, the UGC reportedly approved the memorandum and communicated to the University of Jaffna their decision to bar Guruparan from practicing law. On November 9, the University of Jaffna Council determined that it would require Guruparan to refrain from practicing law while employed as a university professor.
As of this report, it is unclear whether Guruparan has appealed UGC’s order. Further, the UGC has not publicly disclosed its rationale for barring Guruparan from practicing law or for its decision impacting university faculty across the country.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about disciplinary actions against a scholar, at the apparent behest of the military and state authorities, apparently for their peaceful human rights activism and associations; reports of harassment and intimidation targeting the same scholar; and an order banning all university professors from litigation. State authorities have an obligation to respect universities’ institutional autonomy, including by refraining from actions intended to retaliate against or restrict scholars’ peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.