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Govt., Opposition clash over alleged bid to tax EPF

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By Saman Indrajith

Chief Government Whip and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando told Parliament yesterday that there was a cold war within the SJB for the Opposition Leader’s post.

“Incumbent Opposition Leader is so upset and is trying to prove his relevance as other members in his party see a better and qualified leader in Patali Champika Ranawaka. Owing to this pressure, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has lost control of his mind and speaks whatever comes to his mind,” Minister Fernando said.

He said so during a heated debate that ensued in Parliament yesterday following Opposition Leader Premadasa, asking the government to withdraw a gazette announcing the Surcharge Tax Bill, which seeks to tax the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF).

Opposition Leader Premadasa said that the new Bill was a government plan to help itself to workers’ savings.

The Opposition Leader making a special statement demanded to know the government’s position with regard to the decline of usable foreign reserves to US $ 700 million. He questioned the measures taken by the Finance Ministry to contain the rising cost of goods, reasons for high inflation, among other key economic issues. He asked whether the Minister of Finance Basil Rajapaksa had requested a report on the financial situation under Financial Bill no 58 of 1948. He questioned the gazette notification issued on Monday 07 February 2022, according to which the government proposes a 25 percent tax on EPF. The Opposition Leader insisted that the government should answer his question.

Minister Fernando said that the government would not be able to reply to the gossip spread by the Opposition Leader.

“Opposition Leader Premadasa has come up with gossip. However, the Finance Minister will answer all questions he has raised in writing on another date,” he said.

Opposition Leader Premadasa:

“I only raised concerns about the financial crisis and never gossip.”

Presiding Member Deputy Chairman of Committees Angajan Ramanathan

said that the government would respond to the latter’s questions later. “The Leader of Opposition, the government will answer your question on another day,” he said.

Opposition Leader Premadasa:

“What nonsense is this? I raised pertinent questions which should be answered.”

Presiding Member Angajan Ramadanan:

The government will respond. I cannot allow more time than this. The Opposition Leader is not confining himself to the topic and then the government opposes that. This cannot go on.

SJB MP Dr Harsha de Silva

said that the government was trying to take over the workers’ savings.

SJB MP Kabir Hashim

also said that the government should provide an answer to the questions raised by his leader, and the Chief Government Whip had no brains.

Opposition Leader Premadasa:

I need a microphone. The Finance Minister is not in the House.

Chief Government Whip Fernando:

The Finance Minister and State Minister both are attending another function. We will respond to your questions soon.

Opposition Leader Premadasa:

According to parliamentary tradition, when the Opposition Leader is on his feet, his microphone should be on. But mine has been switched off.

Chief Government Whip Fernando:

We have clearly stated that we would respond. MP Hashim said I have no brains. But the capacity of the brains of those in the Opposition was shown when they had to lose power in four and half years. The Opposition Leader is scared that he would lose his post to Champika Ranawaka.



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Unprovoked attacks: AG asked to consider taking legal action against MR, others under ICCPR

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… arrest those named in court proceedings

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Colombo High Court Lawyers’ Association intends to move the Fort Magistrate’s court against the inordinate delay on the part of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to arrest those who had been named in the ongoing court proceedings as suspects.

The Fort Magistrate’s Court has issued a travel ban on ex-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Namal Rajapaksa, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Johnston Fernando, Sanjeewa Edirimanna, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, C.B. Ratnayake, Sanath Nishantha, Kanchana Jayaratne (Pavitra Wanniarachchi’s husband), Sampath Athukorala, Mahinda Kahandagama, Renuka Perera, Nishantha Abeysinghe, Amitha Abeywickrama, Pushpalal Kumarasinghe, Dilip Fernando and Senior DIG Deshabandu Thennakoon.

The Magistrate also imposed a travel ban on seven others who had been wounded in or were eye-witnesses to the attacks.

Alleging that the CID probe was progressing at a snail’s pace, Attorney-at-Law J. Tenny Fernando, Convenor has, in a letter dated 15 May, requested Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, to expedite the process. The copies of the lawyer’s letter have been forwarded to IGP C. D. Wickremaratne, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission Justice Rohini Marasinghe, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The Association has asked the AG whether the delay in taking those who had influenced the unprovoked attacks on protesting public into custody was because of their political status, political intervention hampering investigations or any other reason.

The association’s President and Attorney-at-Law Lakshman Perera told The Island that the public was seriously concerned about the double-standards in the CID’s response to the unprovoked attacks obviously carried out at the behest of those at the helm of Temple Trees and retaliatory violence.

Referring to the association’s letter to the AG, lawyer Perera said that the police headquarters over the weekend declared the arrest of over 200 persons in connection with retaliatory attacks whereas none of those whose passports were impounded were taken. Lawyer Perera noted that Police Spokesman and Attorney-at-Law SSP Nihal Thalduwa on Sunday (15) announced the arrest of a 49-year-old employee of Moratuwa Municipal Council in connection with the attacks on protest sites. SSP Thalduwa said that the CID took him into custody at Moratuwella, Moratuwa.

The Colombo High Court Lawyers’ Association has requested the AG to instruct the CID to take those who had been named in the court proceedings into custody without delay.

The IGP directed the CID to inquire into the incidents following a missive from the AG, who drew attention of the Police Chief to the domestic and international ramifications of the May 09 mayhem.

The association has queried whether the AG could file charges against some of those politicians who had allegedly instigated attacks in terms of Section 03 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No 56 of 2007.

Convenor Fernando warned the AG that the integrity of his Office is in question against the backdrop of both the legal fraternity and the citizenry relentlessly demanding expeditious handling of the Temple Trees case.

The association has emphasised that the ongoing investigations are under the purview of the AG in terms of Section 393 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act No 15 of 1979. Referring to the extensive coverage of the incidents in the mainstream as well as the social media, the association has questioned the honesty and the efficiency of the CID.

Appreciating the swift action taken by the AG’s Department in respect of principal suspects to secure a travel ban, the association has reminded the President’s Counsel Rajaratnam that the outfit is about to file action against the same lot and some additional suspects when the AG intervened.

Lawyer Perera said that if not for the AG initiating action, the association would have done the needful. The entire world was watching how the government handled this situation, he said, adding that it would be the responsibility of the AG to ensure justice.

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PM tells bitter truth, proposes how to overcome crisis

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With the country caught in a fiscal crisis, where it is unable to find dollars even to buy lifesaving drugs, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday declared some urgent steps that he proposed to take like privatising the money draining national carrier SriLankan Airlines.

The loss suffered by SriLankan for the year 2020-2021 alone amounted to SLR 45 billion. By 31 March 2021, the total loss was at 372 billion. “Even if we privatise Sri Lankan Airlines, this is a loss that we must bear. You must be aware that this is a loss that must be borne even by the poor people of this country who have never stepped on an airplane”, he said.

In his address to the nation, Premier Wickremesinghe said

the coming few months will be the most difficult times that Sri Lankans have experienced in their lives.

He said Sri Lankan economy is in an extremely precarious state and that the budget deficit for 2022 will be 2.4 trillion Sri Lankan Rupees.

“At present, the Sri Lankan economy is extremely precarious. Although the former government’s budget projected a revenue of SLR 2.3 trillion, SLR 1.6 trillion is the realistic projection of this year’s revenue,” he said.

Wickremesinghe said that the estimated government expenditure for 2022 is SLR 3.3 trillion. However, due to the increase in interest rates and additional expenditure of the former government, the total government expenditure is SLR 4 trillion.

He said that the government needs to find 75 million U.S Dollars in the next few days to provide the basic necessities for the people.

“At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day. Due to the diesel shipment that arrived yesterday, the diesel lack of diesel will be resolved to some extent. Two more diesel shipments are due to arrive on the 18th May and 1st June. In addition, two petrol shipments are expected on 18th and 29th May,” he said.

Wickremesinghe said that Sri Lanka produced 25% of electricity through fossil fuels.

Thus, if the country is not able to purchase adequate amounts of diesel soon, there is a possibility that the daily power outages will increase to 15 hours a day.

He added that the government incurs a loss of 84.38 rupees per liter of 92 octane petrol, 71.19 rupees per liter of 95 octane petrol, 131.55 rupees per liter of diesel, 136.31 rupees per liter of super diesel, and 294.50 rupees per liter of kerosene oil.

“The Petroleum Corporation can no longer bear this loss. Similarly, although the Electricity Board charges SLR 17 per unit of electricity the cost of production is at around SLR 48 amounting to a loss of about SLR 30 per unit. This is also a serious problem,” he said.

Given below is the speech in full: “Last Thursday, I accepted office as the Prime Minister. I did not request this position. In face of the challenging situation facing the country, the President invited me to take up this position. I assumed this duty not only as a political leader, but also as national leader who has benefited from free education at the Faculty of Law of the University of Colombo.

“At present, the Sri Lankan economy is extremely precarious. Although the former government’s budget projected a revenue of SLR 2.3 trillion, SLR 1.6 trillion is the realistic projection of this year’s revenue.

“The estimated government expenditure for this year is SLR 3.3 trillion. However, due to the increase in interest rates and additional expenditure of the former government, the total government expenditure is SLR 4 trillion. The budget deficit for the year is SLR 2.4 trillion. This amount equals 13% of the GDP.

“The approved debt ceiling is SLR 3200 billion. By the second week of May, we had spent 1950 billion. Therefore, the remainder is SLR 1250 billion. Yesterday, a cabinet decision was made to present a proposal to parliament to increase the approved limit for issuing treasury bills from 3000 billion to 4000 billion.

“In November 2019, our foreign exchange reserves were at USD 7.5 billion. However, today, it is a challenge for the treasury to find USD 1 million. The Ministry of finance is finding it difficult to raise USD 5 million required to import gas.

“Amidst all these issues we are faced with several grave concerns. To ease the queues, we must obtain approximately USD 75 million within the next couple of days. At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day. Due to the diesel shipment that arrived yesterday, the diesel lack of diesel will be resolved to some extent. Under the Indian credit line, two more diesel shipments are due to arrive on the 18th May and 1st June. In addition, two petrol shipments are expected on 18th and 29th May. For over 40 days 3 ships with crude oil and furnace oil have been anchored within the maritime zone of Sri Lanka. We are working to obtain dollars in the open market to pay for these shipments.

“A quarter of electricity is generated through oil. Therefore, there is a possibility that the daily power outages will increase to 15 hours a day. However, we have already obtained money to avert this crisis. We must also immediately obtain USD 20 million to provide gas to consumers. The situation of kerosene and furnace oil is even more urgent. At present, the Central Bank, local state and private banks, and foreign banks functioning in Sri Lanka are all facing a dollar shortage. As you are already aware, we possess a very low amount of US dollars. Nevertheless, we succeeded in bringing in a diesel shipment yesterday despite these adverse circumstances with Indian assistance. Therefore, you can obtain that diesel from today onwards. We will also work towards making a payment for the gas shipment that arrived on Tuesday. Therefore, you will have some respite from the gas shortage.

“Another grave concern is the lack of medicine. There is a severe shortage of a number of medicines including medicine required for heart disease as well as surgical equipment. Payments have not been made for four months to suppliers of medicine, medical equipment, and food for patients. The payment owed to them amounts to SLR 34 billion. In addition, payments have not been made for four months for medicine imported by the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation. As a result, pharmaceutical companies are taking steps to blacklist the SPC. Unfortunately, our Medical Supplies Division is unable to provide even two critical items of the 14 essential medicines that we currently need. These two are a medicine used in treating heart disease and the anti-rabies vaccine. The latter has no alternative treatment.

“We have planned to present a new alternative budget to the development budget proposed for 2022. Intend to present it as a concessionary budget.

“I further propose to privatise Sri Lankan Airlines which is incurring extensive losses. The loss for the year 2020-2021 alone amounts to SLR 45 billion. By 31st March 2021, the total loss was at 372 billion. Even if we privatise Sri Lankan Airlines, this is a loss that we must bear. You must be aware that this is a loss that must be borne even by the poor people of this country who have never stepped on an airplane.

“In the short term we will have to face an even more difficult time period. There is a possibility that inflation will increase further.

“At present, the government incurs a loss of SLR 84.38 per liter of 92 octane petrol, 71.19 per liter of 95 octane petrol, 131.55 per liter of diesel, 136.31 per liter of super diesel, and 294.50 per liter of kerosene oil. The Petroleum Corporation can no longer bear this loss. Similarly, although the Electricity Board charges SLR 17 per unit of electricity the cost of production is at around SLR 48 amounting to a loss of about SLR 30 per unit. This is also a serious problem.

“Against my own wishes, I am compelled to permit printing money in order to pay state-sector employees and to pay for essential goods and services. However, we must remember that printing money leads to the depreciation of the rupee. Under the current circumstances, even the Petroleum Corporation and the Electricity Board are unable to obtain rupees.

“The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives. We must prepare ourselves to make some sacrifices and face the challenges of this period.

“I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public. Although these facts are unpleasant and terrifying, this is the true situation. For a short period, our future will be even more difficult than the tough times that we have passed. We will face considerable challenges and adversity. However, this period will not be long. In the coming months, our foreign allies will assist us. They have already pledged their support. Therefore, we will have to patiently bear the next couple of months. However, we can overcome this situation. Doing so will require taking a new path.

“I thank the opposition leader and the leaders of the political parties who replied to the letters that I sent them informing them of the current situation.

“We must immediately establish a national assembly or political body with the participation of all political parties to find solutions for the present crisis. This will enable us to discuss with all parties and to arrive at decisions for short-, medium-, and long-term action plans that will enable us to rebuild our nation within a specified time frame.

“We will build a nation without queues for kerosene, gas, and fuel; a nation free of power outages, a nation with plentiful resources where agriculture can freely flourish; a nation where the future of the youth is secure; a nation where people’s labour need not be wasted in queues and in struggles; a nation where everyone can lead their lives freely with three square meals a day.

“I am undertaking a dangerous challenge. In the Caucasian Chalk Circle, Grusha crossed the broken rope bridge carrying a child that was not her own. This is an even more difficult undertaking. The precipice is deep and its bottom cannot be seen. The bridge is made of thin glass and there is no handrail. I am wearing shoes with sharp nails that cannot be removed. My task is to safely take the child to the other side. I am accepting this challenge for our nation. My goal and dedication is not to save an individual, a family, or a party. My objective is to save all the people of this country and the future of our younger generation. I will undertake this task willingly risking my life if needed and will overcome the challenges facing us. I ask you to extend your support to me in this endeavour.I will fulfill my duty towards our nation.”

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Parliament security beefed up in view of planned IUSF protest

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By Norman Palihawadane

Security for Parliament and surrounding areas has been beefed up in view of Inter University Students’ Federation-led agitations against the government and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

During a special meeting, headed by Sergeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando, with security experts and other stakeholders from Parliament, it was decided to enhance security during the next sitting week of parliament scheduled to start at 10 am today.

In addition the number of Navy boat patrolling in the adjacent Diyawanna Lake has been increased, parliament sources said.

The scope of intelligence observances and surveillance would be increased, sources said, adding that police and army men would be deployed in the surrounding areas of parliament premises.

Yesterday’s meeting also conveyed instructions issued by Defence Secretary General Kamal Gunaratne during his visit to the Parliament complex on Sunday.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena told The Island that the responsibility of providing security to the MPs had been handed over to the Police and the Army.

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