PARLIAMENT | Daily News

PARLIAMENT

Easter Sunday Attacks

Government, Opposition should work together to bring justice to victims: Johnston

Both the Government and the Opposition should discard political differences and work together to bring justice to the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks, Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando stated in Parliament yesterday.

Minister Fernando made this observation when a number of the Opposition MPs raised concerns regarding a complaint lodged against Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Harin Fernando by several Government MPs regarding a statement made by the former on the Easter Sunday attacks.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa requested Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to ensure the Opposition of its right to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.

“MP Harin Fernando made a series of revelations about the investigations conducted into the Easter Sunday terror carnage, last Tuesday. We got to know that the Government is planning to put MP Fernando in remand custody based on the Prevention of Terrorism Act. I would like to ask whether these people have not read the Parliament Privileges Act,” Premadasa said.

“Under this Act, there is no way of taking legal action over anything said by an MP within this Chamber. What MP Harin Fernando did was fulfilling the responsibility of a public representative. Therefore, do not try to shut the mouths of Opposition MPs and violate our freedom of speech that is ensured by the Constitution,” Premadasa added.

Opposition Chief Organiser Lakshman Kiriella questioned as to why such a complaint had been lodged when Parliamentarians are privileged to speak without any restrictions within the Chamber.

“MP Harin Fernando was repeating what the Cardinal was saying regarding the ongoing investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks. If you are unsure, check the recent speech made by the Cardinal. The Government should answer the questions raised by MP Harin Fernando instead of trying to arrest him.”

In reply, Minister Johnston Fernando said that the Government denied all the allegations levelled by the Opposition concerning a possible arrest made on MP Harin Fernando.

“The government will never allow such an arrest of an MP when he has spoken within his privileges. We stand with the Opposition’s opinion regarding this matter. When MP Harin Fernando and MP Manusha Nanayakkara made certain controversial statements regarding the Easter Sunday attacks, I asked them whether they could do the same without hiding behind the Parliament privileges. We invited all the MPs to work together and support the investigations conducted into the Easter Sunday attacks,” he said.

“Everyone is in agreement that we need to bring the culprits to justice. Therefore, please don’t use this tragedy to sling mud at each other. If the previous government was a responsible one, a tragedy like this would not have taken place. If the previous regime properly applied law after the attacks, it would not have lost the election. I do not agree with arresting MP Harin Fernando based on any speech he made in this Chamber. The report of the Commission was recently sent by the President to the Attorney-General, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) for further investigations,” he added.

“As far as I know, several Government MPs have made complaints regarding MP Harin Fernando’s statement with the police. However, they have not asked for him to be arrested. I can clearly remember MP Harin Fernando saying that his father warned him about an imminent terrorist attack, a few days before Easter Sunday. Such conflicts of interest should be cleared off in investigations. Therefore, I would like to request the Opposition Leader to be responsible and not to drag politics into the matter. Do not use individual MPs for your political agendas; Ranjan Ramanayake was used like that. Let us not politically divide ourselves when it comes to this matter,” the minister said.

Several MPs of the Opposition then raised concerns regarding the same matter, including MP Manusha Nanayakkara, MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara, and MP Nalin Bandara. At this juncture, Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena requested the Speaker to adjourn the House and commence the adjournment debate as the Opposition was “wasting valuable time by repetitively raising the same set of questions”.

Minister Gunawardena said, “A clear repetition is taking place. If you want a discussion on this matter, it can be called. I propose that we adjourn Parliament and go for the Adjournment Debate. There is nothing new in this argument, and as per the Standing Orders, there should not be any repeats on what has already been discussed. If there is a question, we will answer.”

“This Adjournment Debate is important as well. Now, for half an hour, the Opposition keeps going on and on about this one matter. Do not use the valuable time we have for Opposition’s advertising plans. We pay hundred thousand rupees per a minute of airtime. Please cooperate with the Government,” he added.

Speaker Abeywardena pointed out to the Opposition that if they desire, they should request a separate debate on the said matter.

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No one arrested over Lanka Sathosa Budget Pack criticism: Dr. Gunawardena

Trade Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena said in Parliament yesterday that no one has been arrested for criticising the Rs.1,000 Lanka Sathosa budget pack provided to people affected by the pandemic. Dr. Gunawardena said that MP Buddhika Pathirana had mentioned it while he was not in the Chamber.

Dr. Gunawardena questioned as to why some persons criticise the budget pack when it does no harm to people. “I wonder why these people are against this budget pack. It is helpful to the people. If these people cannot help the Government, it is alright. However, why they would criticise it and want to stop it is beyond my understanding. There is no corruption taking place with regard to this budget pack. If someone can prove otherwise, I shall not hold this ministerial portfolio,” he said.

“We provided people with a bag of goods with the good intention of providing relief to the people during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year season, even though there is a collapse in the supply chain. Sathosa includes 12 items such as 1kg of Nadu rice, 1kg of red rice, 1kg of white rice, 1kg of lentils, 1kg of white sugar, 1kg of onion, a facemask, 200 chilies, and 200 sprats into this budget pack for just Rs.1,000. The pack gives the customers an advantage of Rs.400,” the minister added.

“When this relief package was implemented, private sector companies also began to reduce the prices of their goods. That is a good thing. I table all the statistics on that. This relief bag was launched to give customers an advantage of at least Rs.300. I do not know why this budget pack has become the talk of the town. If the people of this country benefit from it, that is our only expectation. I do not understand why someone protests against it. All these allegations are levelled against a Government project,” Dr. Gunawardena said.

The said person has been arrested for a different case, which has no relation to his criticism against the budget pack, the minister added.

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‘Report of Presidential Commission investigating political victimisation neither impartial nor transparent’

National People’s Power (NPP) Leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake alleged that the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating incidents of political victimisation was neither impartial nor transparent. He said that the Commission was appointed for political purposes only.

Dissanayake said so opening the second day of the debate on the report submitted by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry. He added that none of the responsible authorities that investigated the Easter Sunday attacks has summoned him to give evidence, and that he is willing to give evidence on the matter if summoned.

The NPP Leader was also critical of the Government’s attempt to strip off the civil rights of several Parliamentarians, including himself, who were members of the Anti-Corruption Committee appointed during the previous regime.

The MP said, “In our country, there is an evident circle of fraudsters and thieves. There are groups of politicians who are in this circle. The same happens in many sectors, such as public administration, the police, and the legal system. This circle has robbed billions of public money. However, no action has been taken against any of them.”

“There are a number of rural schools that do not have basic sanitary facilities. The poor cannot afford health services, farmers cannot save their crops due to the human-elephant conflict, women are committing suicide due to micro-finance debt traps, youth are suffering from unemployment. Should we not fight against these thieves and fraudsters who rob people of their public money? We shall never give up our fight against this circle and Special Presidential Commissions; jails or murders will not stop our fight. Some people claim that I had power during the previous government. If I did, most of those who are sitting in the front lines of this Chamber would now be in jail,” Dissanayake added.

“The chairman of this Commission has a history of corruption. Some of the other members of this Commission have political affiliations to the present government, and some were involved in politics. There is one other person who has harassment allegations levelled against them. The Government could have done this in a better way, without appointing such corrupted persons as commission members,” he added.

“Now, let us look at what this Commission did. It was supposed to look into incidents of political victimisation suffered by public servants. However, most of the persons summoned before this Commission were not public servants, but businessmen with corruption allegations. The Commission has taken up several complaints after the deadlines. It is evident that the conduct of the Commission was partial. Where is the Interim Report of this Commission? The Commission Report was prepared completely for political purposes. This is the first time in Sri Lanka where a Commission has taken up cases which are still being heard in courts,” Dissanayake said.

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Political victimisation, a result of public service politicisation: Vigneswaran

Joining the debate on the Report of the Presidential Commission investigating political victimization in Parliament yesterday, MP C.V. Vigneswaran said that political victimisation was a result of the politicisation of the public service.

“Neither the Parliament nor politicians should interfere with the public service. That would violate the principle of separation of powers enshrined in Article 4 of the Constitution. The public service is part of the Executive. However, even the President and the Cabinet have only limited power in respect of the Public Service. The Constitution contains three chapters dealing with the Executive –viz. VII, VIII, and IX. Chapter IX deals with the Public Service. The only power that the Cabinet has over the Public Service is at a policy level.”

He noted that the Constitution, in its wisdom, does not permit even the President nor the Cabinet of Ministers to interfere with the workings of the public service. the Cabinet can only give policy guidance. In other words, the Cabinet cannot interfere with the decision of whom to prosecute. That decision is for the Attorney-General, and the Attorney-General alone.

“It is probably for this reason that the President has not sought to include the Attorney-General within the ambit of this Commission of Inquiry, despite naming several other institutions. However, it is shocking to note that the Commission has decided to embark upon its own voyage and decided to persecute even the prosecutors, ” Vigneswaran said.

He pointed out that the Cabinet is responsible to Parliament in the discharge of its functions. “If Cabinet itself can only give policy direction to the Public Service, then what can Parliament do in its supervisory capacity? It can only question Cabinet on its policy directives. Parliament can also pass a legislation ensuring that specific safeguards are built into the system to prevent political victimisation. However, it certainly cannot be involved in giving any directions to the Public Service at the individual level. That would be a grave transgression of the Constitution, and in violation of Articles 4 and 55.”

The MP said in his view that the entire idea of the appointment of a Presidential Commission to inquire into instances of political victimisation of public officers, state corporation employees, Tri-Forces personnel, and the police, was misplaced. The Public Service must be allowed to do its duty objectively and not to please those in power politically, he added.

“If the appointment of the said Commission was a folly, the Commission, itself, has proceeded with visible glee into territories that angels fear to tread. It is clear that there are several cases that are presently pending in relation to the matters inquired into by the Commission. The Commission is not a body recognised by Article 105 of the Constitution as an institution for the administration of justice. It simply has no business having anything to do with matters pending before the Judiciary,” the MP said.

“All the actions by the Commission in respect of pending cases would constitute a clear interference with the Judiciary, and as such, would be in violation of Article 111C, which states that any interference with the Judiciary would be an offence recognised in the Constitution, itself. If this debate seeks in any manner to implement the so-called recommendations of the Commission, this House, too, would be violating Article 111C. That is probably why, despite the ill-advised wording of the motion, no directions are being sought from the House,” he added.

It is probably for this reason that the penultimate preambular paragraph of Gazette 2157/44 of January 9, 2020, which established the Commission, states that the Commission’s mandate is without prejudice to any measures that have been taken or which may be taken. To do something “without prejudice” in relation to another thing is to ensure that whatever that has already been done cannot be affected. If so, how does the Commission recommend the “undoing” of several matters? It is simply inconceivable that the Commission does not understand its basic mandate.

There is an urgent necessity to revamp the Judiciary like how Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon set about doing. He set an example. Though personally selected and appointed by President J.R. Jayewardene, when he found that the President was trying to interfere with the independence of the Judiciary, he crossed swords with the President. He was of the firm belief that judges should be honest, hardworking, fearless, and independent. Many of us recruited by him are proud of him.

Vigneswaran also said that although recent events point to a death knell to democracy, rule of law and the independence of the Public Service and Judiciary, from the viewpoint of Tamils who have suffered at the hands of the successive Sri Lankan governments by being denied justice so far, this action of appointing a Commission and accepting a report of this nature by the Government was welcome to Tamils in a perverse way.

“It is welcome because it highlights exactly what was recently said in Geneva. It gives an example of how Sri Lankan Governments pervert the course of justice. It proves what is being said by Tamils: the Government of Sri Lanka cannot be trusted to allow justice to take its own course. This is why Tamils, Human Rights’ Organisations, and the UN are clamouring for the appointment of international tribunals,” he said.

“If those accused of corruption will not be allowed to face trial, what hope is there of getting war criminals tried? Those of you in the Government that blame the Diaspora and NGOs and the West for allegedly persecuting Sri Lanka should look hard at what you are doing right now. It is you who are letting the country down by such dubious methods to save your vassals and bondsmen,” he added.

“None of us have the right to say that we alone love this country. If the majority in this country acted humanely, prudently, and with far sight, this country would not be in the dire straits it is in today. Our youth would not have taken up arms. I hope we will change our ways and tread towards unity and prosperity,” MP Vigneswaran said.