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COPA baffled by massive rewards for Customs at the expense of Treasury

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Question mark over Tax Appeals Commission

70% of fine on Lanka Coal ends up with officers

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The cash-strapped government hasn’t been able to recover tax revenue running into billions of rupees, in spite of sporadic interventions made by the Parliamentary Watchdog, the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA).

 According to a report submitted to Parliament on July 20 by COPA, the situation has been further complicated by the Customs receiving substantial amounts, as rewards, from fines imposed on tax defaulters, at the expense of the Treasury.

 Prof. Tissa Vitarana, in his capacity as the Chairperson of the 22-member COPA, has submitted the report.

 The COPA has questioned the Customs why prominent palm oil importers Pyramid Wilma Pvt Ltd and Naratha Agro Industries (Pvt) Ltd. were allowed to appeal in 2019 against the Attorney General’s decision that loss of revenue suffered by the Treasury to the tune of Rs 6.130 bn during 2013-2016 period should be charged from 2013 instead of 2016 as recommended by a committee that inquired into the irregularities.

Pointing out that the Tax Appeals Commission couldn’t accept appeals made after the stipulated 3 month period following a particular decision, COPA has instructed Director General of Customs, Maj. Gen (retd) Vijitha Ravipriya to inform the Tax Appeal Commission. DG, Customs has done so on Feb 2, 2021, COPA according a copy of the report made available to The Island.

 Tax Appeals Commission has been established in terms of Tax Appeals Commission Act No 23 of 2011 (subsequently amended).

 COPA has also dealt with an unprecedented case of Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and Customs being involved in a costly case wherein the latter was seeking 50 percent of a fine imposed on SLPA as a reward for those involved in the inquiry. According to COPA proceedings, the SLPA had been blamed for defaulting on the payment of Rs 916,526 over the import of gantry cranes and other equipment worth Rs 11,498,829,084 way back in 2011.

 In spite of talks involving stakeholders, including the Treasury as well as the House watchdog over the years, the issue hadn’t been resolved as both parties spent quiet a lot on lawyers.

 Customs have sought a staggering 50 percent as a reward for officers from the fine imposed on the SLPA. The Consultative Committee on ports and shipping has inquired into the possibility of the Treasury taking the entire sum.

 COPA has questioned the rationale in one government institution receiving cash reward at the expense of another as it caused quite a problem. According to the COPA report made available to The Island, the watchdog has requested Chief Accounting Officer/Accounting Officer to send all relevant reports and documents to parliament before the Customs appeared before Prof. Vitharana’s outfit in two months.

 Prof. Tissa Vitharana told The Island that remedial measures should be taken to improve the revenue collection process. Appreciating the services rendered by members of his committee, the political veteran said that the need to enhance state revenue couldn’t be ignored. The LSSPer noted that the government income had now fallen very much less than 10 percent of the GDP, a situation all should be seriously concerned about.

 COPA has examined the legal wrangle involving the Customs and the SLPA against the backdrop of Customs officers receiving half of Rs 205 mn imposed on Lanka Coal Company (Pvt) Ltd as rewards due to the payment being categorized as a fine instead of an additional tax. The company in question has been formed by CEB (60%), Treasury (20%), Ceylon Shipping Corporation (10%) and SLPA (10%). COPA pointed out that in addition to taking 50 % of the so called fine, Customs had secured a further 20% (Rs 41 mn) for their welfare and management fund leaving Rs 61.5 for the Treasury.

 COPA has underscored the need to amend relevant laws to prevent recurrence of such irregularities.

 COPA has revealed a spate of instances wherein due to range of factors, including raging Covid-19 epidemic had been blamed on the inordinate delay in settling a substantial number of tax appeals. The tax and penalties pertaining to 1,108 appeals amounted to a staggering Rs 18,684,603,316 whereas only 49 were finalized.

 

 



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President instructs officials to vaccinate kids with Pfizer

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Health Ministry still deliberating pros and cons

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed health officers to inoculate children between the age 15 to 19 with Pfizer vaccine, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva said yesterday.

General Silva added that the President had also instructed officials to inoculate children with special needs above the age of 12, with the Pfizer vaccines. He there are around 50,000 children with special needs.

General Silva said Sri Lanka would receive adequate Pfizer vaccine doses in the coming weeks. During the Presidential Task Force meeting, on Covid-19, it was decided to allow the Department of Motor Traffic, and the Land Registry to operate during the lockdown, which was extended until 01 October. However, a few hours before this statement was made, Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath told the media that no decision had been taken on vaccinating children.

He, however, said that discussions were ongoing about vaccinating children.

“There are a number of discussions on this because this is a serious matter. We have also decided that when we vaccinate the priority will be given to children with comorbidities. Then the rest will be vaccinated based on age groups. But we have not decided on anything else,” he said.

The dates, the brand and other details would be announced once the Health Ministry was done with consultations with experts. Once the decisions were taken the Ministry would prepare guidelines which would then be made available to the public, he said.

“So, I urge the parents not to worry or panic. They can vaccinate their children once we issue guidelines. We will ensure that this will be done safely and with virtually no side-effects or shortages,” Dr. Herath said.

The Deputy Director General of Health Services also urged people not to be misled by claims that those who had been double jabbed and being treated at home were dying in increasing numbers. Some people with serious underlying issues could die even if they were double jabbed, he said.

“However, as we vaccinate an increasing number of Sri Lankans, the deaths and those who need ICU treatment will decline rapidly. Don’t be fooled by various unscientific claims. We are a nation that has universal vaccine rates and we should maintain that tradition with COVID,” he said.

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Sumanthiran demands immediate due process against Lohan

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Immediate legal action including arrest and prosecution must be taken against Lohan Ratwatte and others who were involved in the incidents at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons, TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said on Thursday. He said Ratwatte’s mere resignation from one portfolio would not do.

“The Presidential Secretariat has issued a statement that Lohan Ratwatte has taken responsibility for the incidents that transpired at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. Although Ratwatte is said to have resigned from his post as Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, he continues to be a minister in charge of other subjects. This is not something we can accept,” he said.

The TNA MP said that the State Minister should be removed from all his positions immediately and the pistol he carried with him should be taken away from him.

“Otherwise, it’s a grave threat to the public at large,” Sumanthiran said. There had been other incidents where Ratwatte brandished his weapon in public spaces, he added.

The TNA MP said that an independent investigation should be held with regard to those incidents and Ratwatte and others involved in entering the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons should be arrested and charged.

“The police have still not taken any action in this regard. The question that must be posed is how he was able to carry his personal firearm inside the prison premises. Prison officials must answer these questions,” he said.

MP Sumanthiran said that given that the prisoners were wards of the state, their security was in the hands of the state.

“Therefore, this is a very serious incident. Action must be taken accordingly,” he said.

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Taking contradictory stand on 2015 Geneva Resolution

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‘Govt. seeking credit for accountability mechanisms set up by previous administration

UNHRC 48th sessions:

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena has alleged that the government’s stand on accountability issues at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is contradictory to its much publicised opposition to the Geneva Resolution 30/1 co-sponsored by the previous administration.

Sri Lanka co-sponsored 30/1, on Oct 1, 2015. The then Foreign Minister the late Mangala Samaraweera is on record as having said that the UNP-led government had President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to go ahead with the co-sponsorship.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s media spokesperson Gunawardena yesterday (17) pointed out that the government, at the ongoing 48th sessions of the UNHRC, has reiterated its commitment to key accountability mechanisms set up in terms of the Geneva Resolution.

Civil society activist Gunawardena, who also functioned as the Director General, Information Department during the previous administration said that the assurance given by Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris last Tuesday (14) should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from 30/1 resolution.

Prof. Peiris’ predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena announced Sri Lanka’s withdrawal at the Feb-March 2020 sessions.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) owed an explanation, Gunawardena stressed, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Stop playing politics at the expense of our international relations,” Gunawardena said, underscoring the need for what he called a national consensus on the post-war reconciliation process.

Responding to another query, Gunawardena said that FM Prof. Peiris in his address to the Geneva sessions discussed the progress in what he described as a domestic process in respect of accountability issues. Reference was made to the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR) and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). However, the FM conveniently failed to acknowledge that the OMP, OR and ONUR had been established in keeping with the 2015 Geneva Resolution that covered broader understanding of transitional justice.

The SLPP, while taking credit for the ongoing transitional justice process, continued to publicly reject 30/1, the very basis of the solution, Gunawardena said. “In other words, the SLPP’s actions are very different from their pledges before the electorate in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Referring to the assurance given by Prof. Peiris at the UNHRC that Sri Lanka Human Rights Council was carrying on its mandate, Gunawardena challenged the government to prove its sincerity by allowing no holds barred investigation into SLPP lawmaker Lohan Ratwatte’s raids on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons on Sept 6 and 12, respectively.

The announcement made by the HRCSL regarding its decision to initiate an inquiry of its own in the absence of police investigation received public attention and appreciation, Gunawardena said.

Commenting on the declaration that Sri Lanka was engaged in an integrated process to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in line with international norms and best practices, lawyer Gunawardena urged the government to study the work done by the previous government in that regard. Referring to statements made by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in that regard, Gunawardena said that the then Joint

Opposition quite maliciously rejected the move. “They should be ashamed of theirconduct,” relevant ministers and the Attorney General Department couldn’t be unaware of the agreement on new anti-terrorism law.

Gunawardena said that the SLPP administration shouldn’t hesitate to appreciate the previous government’s achievements. “We are quite pleased that mechanisms accepted by the previous government continue to be in operation even though the progress seems slow. However, the SLPP cannot deprive the UNP-led administration of the credit it deserved,” lawyer Gunawardena said.

Gunawardena urged the government to examine the report of the Committee appointed by then Premier Wickremesinghe to develop what he called the policy and legal framework of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka. He said that a politically motivated campaign derailed that effort whereas the Opposition propagated the lie the yahapalana government intended to deprive Sri Lanka of anti-terrorism law.

Asked to comment on the revelation of the SLPP government having talks with a group of civil society activists to explore ways and means to strengthening the reconciliation process, Gunawardena said that a 13-page Foreign Ministry note dated Aug. 31, 2021 addressed to Colombo-based diplomatic missions acknowledged the pivotal role played by the civil society. Having always accused the civil society of being part of a Western strategy, the same lot exposed their duplicity by meeting a group of civil society activists.

Gunawardena was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ministers, Basil Rakapaksa, Prof. Peiris, Dinesh Gunawardena, Ali Sabry, PC, and Namal Rajapaksa having separate meetings with SLCC (Sri Lanka Collective for Consensus) in the run-up to the Geneva confab. SLCC comprises 16 individuals.

Gunawardena noted the Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, too, in her hard-hitting Sept 13 statement on Sri Lanka referred to President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the SLCC.

Gunawardena said that in addition to the SLCC, another group styled itself as the Civil Society Platform (CSP) in a statement issued on Sept. 13 made its position clear on a range of accountability issues as well as stepped up pressure on the civil society. CSP consists of 30 organizations and 36 individuals.

Responding to declarations by FM Prof Peiris and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage that external investigations wouldn’t be acceptable, lawyer Gunawardena said that instead of rejecting the investigation the government should furbish whatever information in its hands or had access to the new investigative mechanism. The government couldn’t ignore the fact that the UNHRC authorized the fresh investigative mechanism at the 46th session with an overwhelming majority with 22 countries voting for the resolution, 11 against and 14 missing the vote.

Gunawardena urged the government to take a realistic view as Sri Lanka didn’t have time and space to engage in silly maneuvers. The bottom line was that the March 2020 announcement that Sri Lanka withdrew from 30/1 was nothing but a farce, Gunawardena said.

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