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Justice Minister Ali Sabry on what he’s trying to do

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Omnibus interview with Saman Indrajith

Justice Minister President’s Counsel Ali Sabry is known in the legal fraternity as among the most brilliant lawyers this country has seen in recent times. He has embarked on an ambitious plan to reform the legal system especially in respect of addressing law delays. He is confident that he could bring about the change and that will ultimately help this country and its people to reach their true potential, Minister Sabry said during an interview with The Sunday Island.

Excerpts:

 

Q: What is your assessment of the current political situation?

A:

In the current political situation, when it comes to party politics, the government is of course in a very strong position with its two thirds majority in parliament. Of course there are differences of opinion within the ruling party. That is how democracy works. But still in the government we are all united, compared to the opposition which is weak and not effective.

 

Q: The government came to power promising constitutional reforms. There were reports that the reforming process had commenced months back under your leadership. Would you like to comment on the current statusd of that process?

A:

On the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and with the approval of the cabinet we have appointed an 11-member committee led by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva to report on constitutional changes. It is a committee with diverse opinions and representations of many religions and communities. There are jurists, legal luminaries, legal academics, and members of civil society, Buddhists, Catholics, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. They have been given a mandate to study and examine past attempts to amend the constitutions, to consult the public, religious leaders and political parties and to come up with a draft constitution. They have been working very hard. I understand that last weekend they traveled to Kandy to meet some of the people there to get their opinions as a part of the consultative process. They will submit their first draft in March. It would be then presented to the Cabinet to decide on its passage through parliament.

 

Q: There is a strong opinion that constitutions since Independence have not been able to support building what is known as a unique Sri Lankan identity but instead contributed to promoting communal identities. Do you think that the new constitution would be able to do something different and help promote a pan-Sri Lankan identity?

A:

Ideally that should be the case. But you have to understand that this is a country with a great history based on Buddhism. So Buddhism has to be preserved and given the foremost of place as it has been the case in the 1972 and 1978 constitutions. By doing so it should ensure we respect other religions too. We can embrace good qualities of all our communities and create a Sri Lankan identity that is acceptable to 70 percent of the Sinhala Buddhists. In that case we must promote the brand of Buddhism known in this country for centuries, helping people celebrate each other not despise each other, creating an identity which will help each other. That’s the brand of Buddhism known to people of this country for a long period of time.

The worst done to the Muslim community has been done by those promoting the ideology of Taliban and other extremist groups. They profess a brand of Islam that true Islam is never known for. It is a militant and non-tolerant, a rigid brand. Opposed to that we have a history of Sri Lanka known for its religious tolerance and love of peace. For example while the whole world was hating Japan at the San Francisco summit, Mr. JR Jayewardene, representing this country, who helped them to open their eyes to reality by explaining the Buddhist value that hatred never ceases by hatred but would only cease by love, respect and mercy. Whenever there were disputes between nations in the region, Japan and China, India and China and India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike met with their leaders and diffused those tensions by professing Buddhist values. When all the powerful nations were trying to write off Palestine from the world map, Mahinda Rajapaksa stood up and supported them.

Those leaders could achieve peace because our society is based on values Gautama Buddha had preached such as equality; respect for each other’s dignity and love. That is the brand I think that we should promote once again. If that happens we will be truly representing ourselves as true ambassadors of this great country and great philosophy of Buddhism which nobody can oppose or go against. It is a choice for all Lankans right now. As a Muslim I hate Taleban Islam. They have inflicted the biggest damage on the Islamic faith. We do not want any extremism of any sort. Every religion preaches peace, harmony, respect and brotherhood. Having said so, Sri Lanka should be primarily a Sinhala Buddhist country. We have been respected by the world as being primarily a Sinhala Buddhist country in the 1960s and 1970s. We must get a Sri Lankan identity which embraces everyone, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims so that all can feel proud and say that we, despite all our differences, are Sri Lankans. That is where I want to see this country going.

 

Q: There are news items quoting you of ambitious plans by the justice ministry to effect changes. According to some, the changes mean overhauling the system and that many archaic laws are being changed. How long do you think this would take?

A:

One of the main reasons that compelled me to take leave from the legal profession and enter politics was that the need to change the legal system. This system needs an overall change. In the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business in 2028’ world ranking we were at 112 out of 185 countries. In the index of ‘Enforcement of Contacts’ Sri Lanka was at 165 out of 189 countries because it takes such a long time to enforce a contract here. Countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda are ranked better than us because their legal systems are more effective than ours. It is not about the independence of the judiciary per se. With regard to the independence of the judiciary I think we can be happy where Sri Lanka stands today irrespective of the few cases of which people are complaining. Independence of the judiciary itself is not everything. It has to be effective, efficient, time-tested, and affordable. That is what the rankings are about.

Before I started politics I was involved in legal reforms from the Bar Association as an executive committee member, as a treasurer then finally as the deputy president. We have a very strong strategy to look into all matters carefully. In one of our research results we found that Sri Lanka has 15 judges per one million population whereas advanced countries such as Germany and Canada have almost 200; countries like Singapore have more than 100 per million people whereas Malaysia and Thailand have 65 to 68 judges, even India has 20 judges per one million. We decided to increase the number of judges and started it from the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. More judges would be appointed to lower courts in the coming months.

In addition we started improving infrastructure of court houses countrywide. We have not yet been able to embrace the advantages made available to us by technology. Other countries have done that and digitalized their systems. We recently started the digitizing process. The Supreme Court started e-filing rules. Magistrate Courts and Court of Appeal commenced to hear bail applications online. High Courts now accept e-filing and the Court of Appeal commenced e-hearing. There is so much to be done but we hope we can complete this in four years time.

We are also planning to bring about amendments to many laws that had not been visited for many decades. For that purpose we have appointed three committees on criminal law, civil law and commercial law. Altogether around 20 committees are now working on different specialized areas of law. I am happy to say more than 150 highly respected lawyers are serving in those different committees and most of them serve voluntarily without taking any fee for their services. There is an expectation in our legal community that something is happening and they need to be part of it. I am very optimistic that we could transform this system. It will take some time for results.

In some matters we have been able to see the results. When I assumed duties the backlog of cases stuck at the Government Analyst’s Department was around 16,000. Now, we have almost finished most of those case analyses and by the end of March we finish clearing the backlog. In January, we set a very high target of turning out 4,828 reports. We achieved 104 percent. That was something unthinkable six months ago. I am sure that we can transform the system.

Q: There were reports that Sri Lanka Law College Student’s Union had been agitating for some time demanding that there were academic, infrastructure and welfare issues of students that have been overlooked. There were also reports that the president and secretary of the union met you recently with all those matters presented in writing. The students complain that what they witness is a game of passing buck between authorities. In what way you can solve their problems because it was also your college once.

A:

I have a huge respect, love and admiration for the Law College. It is a great place which has turned out Lankan leaders such as Presidents JR Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapaksa. We need to preserve that place and maintain its standards and stature and independence. The Incorporated Council of Legal Education is an independent body. The Justice Minister can appoint few people to the council, but the majority is ex officio – the Chief Justice, two members of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Solicitor General, two members from the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and Secretary to the Ministry of Justice. It is an independent body and unfortunately there had been no funding from the government to the council for its functions. They have to meet their expenses with the funds collected as fees from the college. That is the problem.

I took over in August, and I did not want to remove serving members though some were appointed by the previous government. They are also respectable members of our profession. Though they have been appointed to the council by the previous minister, I did not want to be ungrateful and remove them in the middle of their terms. When their terms ended I appointed my representatives including Harsha Amarasekera, the Chairman of the Sampath Bank, Sanjeewa Jayawardena, Naveen Marapana, Sampath Mendis, all are President’s Counsels and Prof Camena Gunaratne and also the Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Colombo. I hope the new team will come together and study the situation and decide what is to be done. I agree the Law College needs to be upgraded and it has been long neglected in all aspects of its quality of education, infrastructure, welfare of students, extra-curricular activities, embracing technology etc. I am sure that his lordship, the Chief Justice and his Council will carefully re-look at problems and find a way to upgrade the Law College. I am ever willing to help.

 

Q: Many brilliant lawyers held the post of justice minister. Some of them after their stint in politics returned to the Bar not to be welcomed. For example it is said that when Felix Dias Bandaranaike returned to the bar after a stint in politics, the legal fraternity at Hulftsdorp considered him a ‘plague’. The fraternity including judges and other lawyers will keep in mind what the justice ministers do. How do you see your future?

A

: I do not have long term ambitions in politics. I want to positively contribute for the upliftment of our country. Some people misinterpret even a single word I may say. All my intentions are very pure. I have sacrificed a lot to come here. I firmly believe in a single Sri Lankan identity. I also firmly believe Sri Lankan Muslims should live and embrace Sri Lankan culture. There is a sub-Sri Lankan Muslim culture that is different to the Sinhala Buddhist culture. But it is a Sri Lankan Muslim culture. That has to be embraced. There is nothing for us to be afraid of each other. We can help each other. We must create that environment. That is one of the objectives in my coming to politics.

As I already told you I decided to come to politics because I want to see a change of system. I have seen the agony of clients and people because of the delays. On the other hand this country cannot reach its true potential when the justice system is in the lower slots of international rankings. As long as I am here I work 24 hours by seven. My staff in the ministry too work in the same manner. Those at the government analyst’s department worked many extra hours without even applying for overtime to clear the backlog of reports. I am so grateful to them because they work very hard. They work because they have felt something is happening and the whole bisiness is moving in the right direction.

All the officers in this ministry, I am so glad, are working to complete their tasks. Some of them are working even on Saturdays and Sundays. That means that they know that we have come here for a reason and we will transform this place. The ultimate beneficiary of this work is the general public.

We are interested in making the Sri Lankan legal system world class, to bring our rankings higher so ultimately that will contribute to the rule of law so people will be safe on the streets; that they do not need to wait for a long period of time to see justice being done. After completing this I will go back to my profession to practice law.



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Features

Sohan…adapting to the ‘new normal’

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Surprisingly, the Coronavirus pandemic seems to have galvanised our entertainers into action.

True, most of the big bands are finding the going pretty tough, these days, as most public shows, like concerts, sing-along, and dances, have been put on hold.

Fortunately, we do have artistes who capitalise on unexpected situations to continue to keep the public, and their fans, entertained – of course, doing it differently

Band leader Sohan, of Sohan & The X-Periments fame, who is always innovative, when it comes to music, has hit upon a novel idea, in order to keep his band occupied, for the next three months.

He has decided to put The X-Periments into ‘recording mode.

Says Sohan: “I’m getting them involved in doing in-house recordings at my home studio.”

And, what’s more, I’m told that Sohan has found a secret sponsor, so the boys will be paid, too. Obviously, it’s a win-win situation and that makes Sohan extra happy!

The veteran artiste/entertainer went on to explain that the main CD will contain cover versions of his favourite songs, and will also include a duet with his daughter Erandika who is scheduled to be in Sri Lanka, hopefully, in May. She is currently in the States.

The song, Sohan has in mind, is that immensely popular golden oldie, made popular by the late Nat king Cole (and daughter Natalie Cole) – ‘Unforgettable.’

Clifford Richards will be seen in a virtual concert, along with Corrine Almeida, and Sohan

The second CD will feature Sohan’s original songs, both western and oriental. 

Sohan will be working with Shobi Perera, Kumar de Silva, Rajiv Sebastian, Roshan de Silva, Chrys Wikramanayake, Rukshan Perera and Damian Wikkramatillake on his novel project, while Krishantha de Silva, who manages Sonexco Enterprises, will take on the role of coordinator.

Although this project will keep The X-Periments, busy, one day of the week will be designated as ‘recording day’ and they have a deadline of three months to complete this project, said Sohan.

There is also a possibility of Sohan inviting a few of his friends to join him in the vocals but that will depend on the materiel he decides on.

“There is no point in hanging around, waiting for work. Musicians have to innovate and create work to keep going, during these challenging times.”

 Sohan is also working closely with Corinne Almeida  and Clifford Richards and has an idea of doing a virtual concert, with the same line up that was featured at the Valentine show, called  ‘Love at the Edge.’

Rajitha, of Misty, is helping them with the technical details of the show,

No doubt, things are looking a bit rosy for Sohan & The X-Periments, and Trishelle.. 

The guys are also working with Benjy and Aquarius, on a mega event, for Richard de Soysa, to be held at Nelum Pokuna,  which is scheduled for mid- May, of 2021, and will feature 10 leading artistes ..

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Remembering Dr. Neville Fernando

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This tribute is in remembrance of my father-in-law, the late Dr. Neville Fernando who would have celebrated his 90th birthday on 9th March 2021. He passed away unexpectedly on the 4th of February 2021 due to the deadly COVID-19 virus.

His birthday will be remembered with an almsgiving to the priests at the Kotikawatta temple to invoke merits on him to attain the Supreme bliss of Niravana. Religious observances on his birthday were an annual occurrence even during his lifetime.

As I ponder his memories, being ‘no more’ is the saddest thought that crosses my mind. I suspect that if you are reading this you understand what I mean logically. Death means that our loved ones never grow a year older, although logic does little to clear up our confusion when his birthday continues to happen year after year.

His memories and deeds throughout his life brought back towards the day I joined his family, when I was just a medical house-officer at the Nawalapitiya Hospital in 1982, through the marriage to his only daughter. Even then he was known to be a real legend and an honest politician. Today, I am in this position as a cardiologist due to his encouragement, loving care and continuous assistance in whatever means. My mind is full of memories of those loving moments shared together. He was a loving, kind and straight gentleman. I may also use the words handsome and charismatic leader. He will inspire us throughout our lives. His pleasant disposition will charm anyone and uplift our mood.

He led a good life and now has a left a good legacy of four children( three boys and one girl) whom any father would be proud of, nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren loved by everyone. He is now no more and no one can fill the void nor bring back the warmth and love he exuded.

We all have courage and we have our convictions, but rarely have the courage of our conviction. His kindness and compassion were his key attributes that made him so special. He had been a good general practitioner before coming to Parliament defeating a formidable leftist politician Leslie Goonewardene who represented Panadura for decades. It was a landmark victory for the UNP in 1977. He was a kind and compassionate doctor who served the rich and poor alike in Panadura for many years and was sought after by his patients for his well known ‘athguna’ (healing hands). This is where he earned his loyal fan base to enter into politics.

Among many things he achieved in Panadura establishing the “Kethumathi” Maternity Hospital, the only one of its kind outside Colombo, helping Sri Sumangala Girls College expansion programme, starting Agamathi Girls school and Janadhipathi Boys School and self funding the Sri Saugatha Vidyalaya Pirivena building at n the Rankoth Viharaya temple in Panadura. Likewise he helped many Buddhist temples during his tenure.

He also started an industrial zone in Modarawila, Panadura which was an abandoned marshy area before that. He had provided the first computer lab and two acres of additional land to expand the Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya which is spoken with gratitude by the students of his alma mater. He did not expect anything in return.

He was a fearless ,principled and honest man who opposed JRs’ motion to takeaway Mrs.Bandaranaikes’ civic rights as he never wanted to compromise his basic human qualities over politics. Very soon he left the Government before any attempt to expel him and formed a small party with few other honest politicians. Later he joined SLFP on the invitation of Mrs.Bandaranaike and worked in the party as an Assistant Secretary for the progress of the country.

He was a maverick par excellence ,an entrepreneur ,extraordinaire and a businessman with a foresight. As one of the pioneers in the hospitality industry, he built hotel Swanee, subsequently he started JF and I, one of the most modern printing and packaging factories in the country to date. He also pioneered a porcelain factory called “Royal Fernwood Porcelain” in Kosgama. Which provided so many employment opportunities and in time to come, helped to economically develop the area.

Continuing his political career, he entered Parliament again as an SLFP opposition member. Later on in 1994 he decided to give up politics.

His divestments in the Porcelain factory enabled him to purchase Asha Central Hospital which was developed with latest equipment and brought to international standards. This is the time I had to take a difficult decision to leave the Government as a Consultant Cardiologist and join Asha Central Hospital in 1998 to help him in his endeavour. He developed and managed Asha Central Hospital till 2007 and subsequently sold it to start his new venture SAITM or South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine with the encouragement of the then Min.of Higher Education Wishwa Warnapala.

Infact I was very much concerned about the new development because of the past experience in the country with the North Colombo Medical College. He always used to tell “every child should have the right for a decent education either in a government or non-government organisation”. His main vision was to give a higher education opportunity for the students .Therefore apart from medicine he also established nursing, engineering , IT, management programmes with the help of esteemed academics who believed in his vision. He established the Dr Neville Fernando Teaching hospital (NFTH) in Malabe to provide clinical training for his students at the medical faculty .It was a impressive state of the art hospital with 1002 beds and latest medical equipment . All of this was done during his 80s which was a remarkable achievement.

SAITM gave him immense pride and a lot of pain at the same time. He was very proud of the fact that he was able to give so many scholarships to deserving students (close to Rs.600 million scholarships during his time).In addition to saving a tremendous amount of foreign exchange he was also able to give an opportunity to students to stay in Sri Lanka with their parents, without having to go overseas for their education leaving behind all family and friends.

However, he had to face many obstacles during this period and was socially and politically crushed due to SAITM. With time, he made a decision to give the NFTH to the Government in return for the clinical training of the medical students of SAITM. In 2017 SAITM was closed down by Maithripala Sirisena who gave in due to the heavy opposition made by the unions against private medical education.

At 89 years of age he was an avid Facebook warrior and used to keep abreast of what was going on in the social media. He was a big cricket fan and never missed watching a cricket match day or night.

Writing about this unique personality cannot be limited to a few words. His life is a monumental story full of new chapters. He dreamed big and his dreams were of public service, even when he was no longer a politician. He yearned to make this country a better place for people to live in, even in his eighties.

May his journey of Sansara be a short one and may he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!

 

Dr Mohan Jayatilake

Consultant Cardiologist

 

 

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Boogie Night with Suzi

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Yes, music lovers, get ready to boogie the night away, this Saturday, March 13th.

From 9.00 pm to 10 pm, you would be given the opportunity to see Friends’ former female vocalist, Suzi Croner (Fluckiger) boogie away on Facebook, on Talent Network Group (TNG).

Suzi is excited about this new scene, which will be live streamed, worldwide., and she plans to belt out songs from the Friends’ era (’80s and ’90s), country, and rock ‘n’ roll.

She is already working on her repertoire and says she will make ‘Boogie Night with Suzi’ a real exciting event.

TNG is a Dubai-based project, administered in Dubai, with moderators, worldwide.

And, that means, the whole world is going to see Suzi boogie away.

Several local artistes have already been featured on TNG.

 

 

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