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19A: Key changes necessary but consensus on several provisions – SLPP lawmaker

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‘We received two mandates to enact a new Constitution’

By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP National List member Gevindu Cumaratunga strongly pushed for a new Constitution instead of bringing in the 20th Amendment in place of 19th Amendment enacted at the onset of UNP-SLFP administration in 2015.

Addressing a media briefing at the Sri Sambuddajayanthi Viharaya and meeting organized in Kandy also on Sunday (30), Cumaratunga emphasized that Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP received overwhelming mandate at the 2019 presidential and 2020 general election, respectively, to enact a new Constitution.

The leader of civil society group Yuthukama dealt with the 13th, 16th and the 19th Amendments as well as the Proportional Representation (PR) system introduced by the then President JR Jayewardene. In addition to one NL slot, Yuthukama Kalutara district candidate Anupa Pasquel entered parliament.

The ideal solution would be to either abolish/do away with inimical provisions in those amendments, Cumaratunga said, underscoring the responsibility on their part to realize the mandates received at the presidential and parliamentary polls.

Cumaratunga said that the 13th Amendment undermined the country’s unitary status whereas the 16th imposed restrictions on the use of Sinhala language in the North and East and the 19th caused anarchy. Therefore, tangible measures should be taken to abolish/amendment/rectify shortcomings without further delay, he said.

Cumaratunga pointed out how the National Joint Committee (NJC), in a statement issued recently explained the need to address all problematic matters without focusing only on the 19th Amendment. Referring to a statement issued by the Buddasasana Karyasadaka Mandalaya on August 25, 2020, Cumaratunga emphasized that the 19th Amendment wasn’t the only cause for continuing political turmoil and instability.

Therefore, the government should seriously look into concerns expressed by those who really believed in a total constitutional overhaul, Cumaratunga said. The civil society activist acknowledged that an influential section of the government pushed for the 20th Amendment in place of 19th Amendment as enactment of a new Constitution would take time. Cumaratunga said that those who preferred the 20th instead of the 19th Amendment were of the view a new Constitution couldn’t be enacted without public consultations.

Lawmaker Cumaratunga questioned the need to engage in fresh public consultations as the previous government conducted quite large scale countrywide operation in that regard. The procedure included a comprehensive report put out by the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms and the parliamentary process spearheaded by Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly.

The first meeting of the Constitutional Assembly took place on April 5, 2016.

 The Yuthukama leader said that the high profile constitutional reforms process that had been undertaken by the previous government was in the public domain. Those who had campaigned for that constitutional reforms process were routed thrice at the 2018 Feb Local Government poll, 2019 Nov presidential and 2020 August general election, Cumuratunga said.

 Now that the SLPP had secured a near two-thirds majority and the required support could be obtained from friendly political parties, the government could go for a referendum. Such a course of action would allow the government to achieve its objective without having to go before the Supreme Court.

Cumaratunga said that consensus could be reached on some provisions in the 19th Amendment. Pointing out that the SLPP government was agreeable to the two term limit on an executive president and the restriction of presidential term to a five-year period, Cumaratunga said that Yuthukama, too, believed those provisions should be retained.

Far reaching change required pertaining to the 19th Amendment was the provision that deprived the elected President to hold ministerial portfolios, MP Cumaratunga said. Emphasizing that Article 4 where the sovereignty of the people was dealt with, specified as follows in Sub Article 4b: “The executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President of the Republic elected by the People,” Cumaratunga said all obstacles should cleared for the President to take over the defence portfolio.

Lawmaker Cumaratunga said that it would be better to specify that the President should hold the defence portfolio.

MP Cumaratunga said that the provision that denied the President the right to dissolve parliament one year after the general election, too, should be amended. In terms of the 19th Amendment, the President received the right to dissolve parliament only after the House completed four and half years.

The former government amended the provision that dealt with the President’s power to dissolve parliament in spite of the Supreme Court previously ruling that such a change should be subjected to a referendum, Cumaratunga said. The civil society activist pointed out how President Sirisena struggled to cope up with treasury bond scams allegedly perpetrated by the UNP as he lacked the constitutional power to intervene.

Commenting on the provision that deprived anyone below the age of 35 contesting the presidency, Cumaratunga said that the particular stipulation should be retained. The MP said that he didn’t see any reason why a person at such a young age should contest the presidency.

Cumaratunga also discussed the continuing controversy over amending the constitutional provision that prevented dual citizens from seeking public office. The National List MP said that he would like to discuss the matter taking into consideration Basil Rajapaksa’s dual citizenship (US and Sri Lanka), former Central Bank Governor and now fugitive Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving up his US citizenship to be eligible to contest 2019 presidential election.

 Lawmaker Cumaratunga said that having left the country soon after the 2015 change of government Basil Rajapaksa could have stayed in the US. Instead, the former SLFP National Organizer returned in April 2015 after the then government initiated investigations, Cumaratunga said. The police arrested and remanded him and he underwent hardship but remained committed for a political role, the MP said. If all dual citizens were prepared to face investigations the way Basil Rajapaksa did, there was no need for the provision to prevent dual citizens from holding public office, Cumaratunga said.

However, Arjuna Mahendran fleeing the country was evidence that dual citizens/foreign citizens shouldn’t be accommodated unless they accepted sole Sri Lankan citizenship, he said.

Cumaratunga said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had set an example by giving up his US citizenship to serve the country. The lawmaker said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the wartime Defence Secretary played a significant role while being a US citizen.

The MP said that the stipulation that the President and members of parliament should only be Sri Lankans could be extended to other higher level categories.

Lawmaker Cumaratunga declared his firm support to the Independent Commissions while calling for proper procedures to be followed in making appointments to Independent Commissions. Pointing out that the previous government blundered by accommodating TNA leader R. Sampanthan as the Opposition Leader to enable him to sit in the Constitutional Council, Cumaratunga alleged that was done to manipulate the process.

Of the 10 member Constitutional Council, five are appointed in agreement between the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader.

 If the Joint Opposition was given the Opposition Leader’s Post, the whole process wouldn’t have gone awry, Cumaratunga said.

He said that Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa could choose five persons to ensure the proper functioning of the Constitutional Council. The MP said that the need was to rectify the Constitutional Council and the Commissions not to abolish them. Cumaratunga proposed that the President could choose from persons recommended by the Constitutional Council. The President should also receive the constitutional authority to remove those appointed, the MP said.

Cumaratunga said that the SLPP should be sensitive to the sentiments of those who brought the party to power. The lawmaker warned that political parties and the government could no longer continue as if public sentiments didn’t matter. “Look at what happened to the UNP. The UNP was reduced from 107 to 55 (SJB 54 + UNP 1), TNA 16 to 10 and the JVP 6 to 3,” Cumaratunga said, adding that those treacherous civil society elements were taught an unforgettable lesson.

Quoting statements issued by the Buddasasana Karyasadaka Mandalaya as well as the NJC, MP Cumaratunga strongly suggested that much delayed Provincial Council elections shouldn’t be held as the very basis of the system undermined the country’s unitary status or in other words was contrary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘One Country, One Law’ concept.

 

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Hemasiri begins to unload against Sirisena

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Former President Maithripala Sirisena, on April 24, 2019, had told former IGP Pujith Jayasundara that if the latter took the blame for the Easter Sunday bombings he would be given his pension and posted to any country of his choice as an ambassador, former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando yesterday told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) investigating the Easter Sunday attacks.

Fernando said that Jayasundara had come to him for advice on the matter soon after Sirisena had made the offer. Fernando refused to advise him, given the sensitive nature of the proposal. “I told him that he should talk to his family members,” Fernando said.

Sirisena had also told Jayasundara that the Commission he appointed to investigate the attacks, headed by Supreme Court Judge Vijith Malalgoda, would clear the former IGP. Jayasundara only had to accept the responsibility and resign, Fernando said.

The witness also said that around 25 and 30 decisions taken by him as the Defence Secretary had not been implemented due to President Maithripala Sirisena’s interference.

“On one occasion, former IGP Jayasundara and I prepared the documents needed to transfer some police officers. The following day, Sirisena called me, scolded and asked me to cancel the list. He said he was the Defence Minister and that IGP and I had no authority to do such things. Although I tried to explain that there was no political motive behind our attempts, he was not ready to accept it.”

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Now, UK concerned about detention of lawyer allegedly involved in Easter Sunday carnage

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Dinesh G. says matter before SC

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Many an eyebrow has been raised over the UK condemning the arrest of 2019 Easter Sunday attack suspect, lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.

The Cabinet on Wednesday (16) discussed the British government criticism of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the 30/1 accountability resolution and current human rights situation in Sri Lanka et al.

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena briefed the cabinet of ministers of strong criticism directed by the UK at the onset of the ongoing UNHRC sessions.

The UK’s International Ambassador for Human Rights, Rita French, in a statement delivered on behalf of Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and the UK alleged that civil society and human rights groups in Sri Lanka experienced an increasingly difficult operating environment.

A British statement quoted Ambassador French as having said: “Instances of intimidation, harassment and surveillance continue, including threats to families of disappeared persons. Individuals are detained indefinitely without appearance before court, such as lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah.”

Declaring Sri Lanka’s dynamic and diverse civil society lies at the heart of its vibrant democracy, the Core Group expressed its strong solidarity with Sri Lanka’s civil society, and human rights defenders while requesting the government to take all steps necessary to allow them to operate freely.

Cabinet spokesman and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella Thursday (17) told post-cabinet media briefing of Sri Lanka’s response to Core Group’s latest criticism. The Core Group also made reference to the proposed now controversial 20th Amendment to the Constitution as well as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa government quitting the Geneva process.

The UK statement further quoted Ambassador French as having said: “”It (Sri Lanka Government) has suggested that a new domestic process will take the Geneva agenda forward. While we appreciate this continued commitment, previous such processes have, regrettably, proved insufficient to tackle impunity and deliver real reconciliation. This Council will want to pay particular attention to how the new approach, will differ from these previous attempts and put the victims of conflict at its heart. The future of the Independent Commissions including the Office for Missing Persons and Office for Reparations will be particularly important.”

Responding to several questions regarding attacks on Sri Lanka over human rights and accountability issues at the post-cabinet media briefing, Minister Rambukwella pointed out that Lord Naseby had quite efficiently countered the very basis of the 30/1 accountability resolution. The minister recalled how Lord Naseby in Oct 2017 in the House of Lords set the record straight. Kandy District lawmaker pointed out that Ambassador French’s statement was nothing but an extension of accusations propagated on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. The Media Minister was flanked by co-cabinet spokesperson Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana and Director General of Information Department Nalaka Kaluwewa.

Minister Rambukwella said that Sri Lanka wouldn’t succumb to international pressure.

Responding to The Island queries regarding the Core Group’s criticism, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said that Geneva statement had been conveniently silent on why lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah was taken in by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

The police took him into custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in April this year over his alleged involvement in the Easter attacks nearly a year before.

Noting that Hizbullah had moved the Supreme Court against his arrest, Minister Gunawardena pointed out that British nationals were among about 40 foreigners killed in near simultaneous suicide attacks in Colombo, Batticaloa and Katuwapitiya. Nearly 270 killed and over 400 wounded in Easter Sunday attacks.

Minister Gunawardena said that those who had been critical of certain aspects of the ongoing investigation into Easter attacks should go through the submissions made by the Attorney General‘ s

Department in respect of Hizbullah arrest before the court. The minister said that the AG compared the suspect with the late Anton Balasingham, UK based theoretician of the LTTE.

Responding to another query, the Minister said that the government would certainly inquire into UK claim that civil society and human rights groups were operating in an increasingly difficult environment.

Perhaps, they should reveal specific incidents in case the civil society and human rights groups brought them to the attention of UK the High Commission or other members of the Core Group.

Minister Gunawardena said that civil society groups worked overtime against the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) during 2019 presidential and 2020 general elections. Their high profile projects went awry, the minister said, adding that the SLPP did nothing other than to rout the political opposition at two national elections.

The Foreign Minister alleged that various interested parties were making a desperate effort to sustain anti-Sri Lanka campaign though the then government restored peace over a decade ago. Colombo based embassies couldn’t be unaware of the ground situation, Minister Gunawardena said that incident-free presidential and parliamentary polls highlighted the peaceful environment. There was absolutely no basis for accusations that civil society and human rights groups faced threats whatsoever, the MEP leader said.

Minister Gunawardena acknowledged that the government would have to set the record straight as regards war crimes accusations reiterated by some lawmakers from the North at the inauguration of the 9th parliament.

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SJB General Secretary condemns 20A

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By Saman Indrajith

SJB General Secretary MP Ranjith Maddumabandara yesterday said that the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution had started with all signs of dictatorial regime and any one who cherished democratic values should abhor it.

Addressing the media at the Opposition Leader’s Office in Colombo, MP Madduma Bandara said that only a very few members of the Cabinet of Ministers had seen the content of the draft bill of the proposed amendment. “Not even the Prime Minister has seen it.

Many ministers do not know what it was about. But they have been forced to pass it. Those are signs of a dictatorship being created. If this is the way the Prime Minister and the ministers of the cabinet are being treated before the 20th Amendment becoming law, we can imagine the way it will be once the amendment becomes the law,” he said.

“The MPs who vote for this bill will do so to prune down their powers themselves. Parliament has the supreme power over public finances. But as per the new laws proposed by the draft bill the parliament will lose those powers and they will be vested with the executive presidency. This bill is an attempt the undermine the powers of the legislature. So the MPs will lose their power. We hope that those in the government ranks will have clear understanding of the repercussions of this bill,” he said.

Kegalle District SJB MP Sujith Sanjaya Perera said: “The SLPP government was formed on a promise of bringing down the cost of living and provide relief to the people. They promised to produce the food needed for the country within this land. Now there is a shortage of fertilizer. Farmers complain of the collapse of their cultivations because of lack of fertilizers. Planters too complain of the fertilizer shortage. Nearly 50 per cent of tea industry has faced the problem. There would be food scarcity very soon. Farmers have no means to work for the next Maha season.”

Gampaha District SJB Member Harshana Rajakaruna displaying a coconut at the press conference said: A coconut is now priced at 100 rupees. A kilo of sugar is 150 rupees, a kilo of rice is sold at Rs 120 and the potato price has increased to 180 rupees a kilo. The cost of living is skyrocketing. Where is the relief package promised to people. That was promised at the presidential election campaign. It is nowhere to be seen.

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