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Govt. can prove its sincerity by abolishing MPs’ duty free vehicle permits – Nagananda

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Financial crisis

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Colombo District SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) MP Madura Vithana yesterday (19) said that he wouldn’t take the duty free vehicle permit he was entitled to.

The former Kotte Mayor said that he had informed the relevant ministry of his decision. The newly elected member said so when The Island asked him whether he intended to honour his promise to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not to utilise the permit. Vithana polled 70,205 preference votes in the Colombo district. The SLPPer admitted that it wouldn’t be fair on their part to receive such privilege as the country was struggling on the economic front.

Attorney-at-law Nagananda Kodituwakku asked whether members of parliament were entitled to such generous grants. Kodituwakku told The Island yesterday (19) that it would be a massive challenge for the new government to scrap the duty-free vehicle permit scheme.

The 9th parliament meets today (20) at 9.30 am.

Acknowledging that the SLPP’s 2019 presidential poll manifesto titled ‘Vistas for Prosperity and Splendour’ dealt with the issue, the public litigation activist pointed out that the economy was in such a perilous state that the government couldn’t under any circumstance provide duty free facility to members of parliament now.

In a section titled ‘An efficient governance mechanism,’ the SLPP assured in Oct 2019 in the run-up to the presidential poll that the procurement of vehicles for the public sector (including Ministers) and purchase of multi-faceted office facilities would be suspended for a period of 3 years. In addition, the renting of such facilities would also be stopped for a period of three years.

Kodituwakku pointed out that the assurance was given months before corona epidemic ruined the national economy. Responding to another query, Koditiwakku asked how the government could provide that having restricted imports due to deepening foreign reserve crisis

Having gradually increased the duty free facility, those who represented the last parliament received tax exemption as much as Rs 33 mn in the import of luxury vehicles and the privilege to sell it.

Kodituwakku said that members of all political parties sold the vehicles on the same day they were registered under their names.

The former Customs officer alleged that lawmakers deprived the country revenue to the tune of billions of rupees by selling their duty free vehicles to those who could afford to import expensive vehicles through proper channels. In terms of the relevant laws, duty free imports couldn’t be sold to another party unless the importer settled government dues, Kodituwakku said.

According to Kodituwakku, the Right to Information (RTI) Law enacted by the previous government gave him an opportunity to expose the massive scam perpetrated by members of parliament.

When the then Customs Chief declined to furnish the required information pertaining to the importation and the transferring of vehicles, Kodituwakkku moved the Supreme Court, successfully. “The Customs provided me everything I asked for after the Attorney General assured the Supreme Court information would be provided in terms of the RTI Law.”

Kodituwakku acknowledged that he hadn’t been successful in moving the Supreme Court against those who had sold their duty free vehicles contrary to the laws.

Top SLPP leadership would definitely come under pressure to issue duty free permits regardless of the much advertised promise to do away with duty free facility, Kodituwakku said.

The SLPP won 145 seats out of 225 in parliament whereas the breakaway UNP faction obtained 54 seats.

Kodituwakku said that the parliament was responsible for financial discipline and enactment of laws. Instead, the parliament as an institution allowed deterioration of financial discipline to such an extent the system was abused to reimburse expenses incurred by candidates regardless of the party they represented, the attorney-at-law said.

Part of the campaigning costs was covered by raising funds by selling the duty free vehicle, Kodituwakku said.

He said that the people would stop exercising their franchise if they really knew what was going on both in and out of parliament.

Kodituwakku questioned whether the top political leadership had the courage to abolish the duty free scheme or at least suspend it until the country recovered from the worst ever financial crisis faced in post-independence period. The interim government obtained USD 400 mn from India, then requested New Delhi to re-schedule Sri Lanka’s debt and sought an additional USD 1.1 bn loan facility, Kodituwakku pointed out. The parliament should set an example now as the country faced daunting challenge in reviving the economy.

Kodituwakku alleged that during the previous administration some of those National List members who had been appointed originally resigned to pave the way for newcomers to obtain the duty free facility. There were at least three such cases between 2015 and 2020, the outspoken lawyer pointed out, challenging the new parliament/govt to do away with such bad old practices.

 

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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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