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Editorial

Presidency should be straitjacketed

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Saturday 26th June, 2021

 

Presidential pardons for convicted prisoners always cause public outrage when the beneficiaries happen to be politically connected. It is only natural that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has come under fire over the release from prison of former UPFA MP Duminda Silva. One cannot but agree with the position taken by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) on the issue; one considers it is worthy of public endorsement. Taking exception to the presidential action at issue, the BASL has, in a letter to the President, called for an explanation. One hopes that the President will respond.

Protests, however, will not prevent Presidents from releasing convicted criminals from prison. In the late 1970s, the SLFP-led Opposition let out a howl of protest when the late President J. R. Jayewardene pardoned Gonawala Sunil, who was serving a jail term for raping a teenage girl. About three decades later, among those President Mahinda Rajapaksa released from prison were two foreign women incarcerated for drug dealing, and a politician’s wife on death row for a murder. President Maithripala Sirisena, who promised good governance, pardoned the Royal Park murderer, among others. The incumbent President has released an army officer imprisoned for killing Tamil civilians.

There is a pressing need to curtail the presidential powers as regards pardons for convicts. It is much more prudent to campaign for putting in place constitutional safeguards to restrain the Executive President than to protest when convicts are given pardons and then forget about the issue. It is our failure to put the President in a constitutional straitjacket anent his or her power to pardon prisoners that has enabled JRJ, Mahinda, Sirisena and Gotabaya to act in this deplorable manner.

While being critical of the presidential pardons for convicts, one should not make the mistake of thinking that every judicial decision is synonymous with justice, and the judiciary is infallible. There have been judgments that have raised many an eyebrow. Former Chief Justice Sarath N Silva has publicly regretted his judgment in a case against then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Ranjan Ramanayake’s telephone recordings that contain his conversations with judges and senior police officers on criminal investigations and court cases, during the yahapalana days, have not only revealed how politicians exert influence on some members of the judiciary and the police but also caused an erosion of public confidence in the judiciary and the police.

The US has also frowned at the presidential pardon for Duminda. One may agree with it on this score, but the question is whether the US actually respects the Sri Lankan judiciary and its decisions? If so, will it explain why it sought to save Prabhakaran, whom the Colombo High Court had tried in absentia and sentenced to jail for masterminding the 1996 Central Bank bombing, which killed 91 people and maimed dozens of others besides causing a huge economic loss to the state? The US, as one of the self-appointed Co-Chairs of Sri Lanka’s peace process, pressured the Sri Lankan governments to negotiate with Prabhakaran, who was responsible for heinous crimes, and share state power with him.

Meanwhile, the BASL, which has rightly called upon politicians to respect the judiciary and judicial decisions, also, owes an explanation to the public in respect of some very serious matters. Why didn’t it take up the cudgels for the judiciary when the judges of the Colombo High Court came under threats after delivering the judgment in the White Flag case in 2011? A bunch of BASL members abused the judges including a female in raw filth, smashed up court furniture, and the police had to remove the judges to safety as the protesting lawyers and others threatened to harm them.

The BASL also chose to remain silent when Chief Justice Mohan Peiris was threatened by thugs following the 2015 regime change and subsequently ousted politically. True, the manner in which his predecessor, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, was removed from office, was deplorable, but she should have been reinstated with the help of Parliament, which had ‘impeached’ her. Instead, President Maithripala Sirisena, at the instance of some BASL officials, ‘vapourised’ CJ Peiris, who held office from 2013 to 2015. President Sirisena deemed that Dr. Bandaranayake had not ceased to be the CJ, and therefore the appointment of Peiris was null and void ab initio. If so, why was no action taken against Peiris, or the person—the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa—who appointed him? CJ Peiris signed documents, drew a salary, enjoyed perks of office and delivered judgments. Will the BASL provide an explanation?

The constitutional provision that enables the Executive President to pardon convicts will continue to be abused, and what needs to be done, we repeat, is to prune it down. Before the ongoing protests peter out, a campaign should be launched to achieve that end.

 

 



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Editorial

Another win for misogynists?

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Thursday 5th August, 2021

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena saw red yesterday in the House, and took SJB MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna to task for accusing him of having turned a blind eye to a recent incident where a group of male SLPP MPs allegedly subjected SJB MP Thalatha Athukorale to verbal sexual harassment during a debate. Denying that he had ever taken any instance of sexual harassment lightly, a visibly incensed Speaker said he had not been in the Chair when the alleged incident was said to have happened. He warned MP Wijerathna not to bring the House and its members into disrepute by making false allegations.

MP Wijerathna may have got it wrong about the Speaker, but that does not mean her main complaint against some SLPP MPs should go uninvestigated. She would not have made it and incurred the wrath of the government in the process if she had not witnessed the incident. The real issue is not who was in the Chair at the time of the incident, but that a female MP suffered sexual harassment in Parliament itself, and nobody has done anything about it.

We do not, for a moment, think Speaker Abeywardena ignored an instance of sexual harassment. He may not have been present in the Chamber at the time, as he has said, and the member in the Chair may not have heard the lewd remarks in question amidst the din in the house. However, now that MP Wijerathna has made an official complaint to the Speaker about the alleged incident, a probe is called for.

Worryingly, government MPs responsible for verbal sexual harassment have gone scot-free to all intents and purposes, and MP Wijerathna, who courageously took up cudgels for the victim, has got censured! This may be the reason why women who become victims of sexual harassment are afraid of seeking justice. Media reports about some dirty lawmakers sexually harassing women MPs, during the yahapalana government, also went uninvestigated because the victims were too scared to make complaints. Misogynists in the garb of MPs are really lucky.

There are some good men and women in Parliament, and they should sink their political differences and join forces to ensure that female MPs can carry out their legislative duties with dignity, free from harassment. The onus is on the Women Parliamentarians Caucus to mobilise these MPs as well as others who abhor sexual harassment in all its forms and manifestations.

The question of anyone bringing Parliament into disrepute does not arise, given the steep drop in public esteem for it. There have been situations where brawls in the Chamber frightened schoolchildren, in the public gallery, out of their wits; some of them were so shaken that they burst into tears. In 2018, the Joint Opposition MPs (who are currently in the SLPP) resorted to violence to disrupt parliamentary proceedings as they had failed to muster a working majority for the forcibly formed Mahinda-Maithri government teetering on the brink of collapse. Speaker Karu Jayasuirya had to be removed to safety as they moved towards him. The rioting MPs toppled the Speaker’s Chair and damaged his desk. Nobody was punished for the riot in the House although complaints were lodged with the police, and a parliamentary committee was appointed to look into it. All those mobsters in the garb of MPs should have been sacked by way of deterrent punishment.

The problem that MP Wijerathna sought to have solved by bringing it to the notice of Parliament remains unsolved. But she can rest assured that all right-thinking people are on her side. The Opposition must ratchet up pressure on the government to take punitive action against the SLPP MPs responsible for sexual harassment of female Opposition MPs.

Where are the Opposition knights in kapati suit, who are making a public display of their chivalry, and looking for dragons to slay, and do a lot of tilting at windmills? Will they summon the moxie to fight for the rights of women MPs among them?

 

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Editorial

A rotting fish head

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Wednesday 4th August, 2021

 

What is this world coming to when female legislators complain of sexual harassment in Parliament itself? SJB MP Rohini Wijeratne yesterday complained to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena that SJB MP Thalatha Athukorale had suffered verbal sexual abuse at the hands of some government MPs during the recent debate on the no-faith motion against Minister Udaya Gammanpila. She alleged that the Chair had done nothing to rein in the unruly SLPP MPs, who went scot-free. It was Parliament’s moment of shame.

Speaker Abeywardene later told the House there was no truth in MP Wijeratne’s claim, but the SJB insists that the incident happened, and a probe must be conducted.

A few years ago, the media revealed that some male MPs were sexually harassing their female counterparts. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya promised action and asked for formal complaints, but nobody came forward, and the issue fizzled out. The victims obviously chose to remain silent for fear of reprisal and stigma.

Allegations of verbal sexual harassment are not limited to Parliament. The local government institutions have their share of frustrated males notorious for insulting and/or even making advances to female councillors; they cannot utter a single sentence devoid of smutty double entendre.

We reported, on 18 Jan. 2021, that female local government members were denied their right to speak at council meetings, dominated by unruly males. Maharagama Urban Council member (SLFP) Chandrika de Zoysa was quoted as having said, at a press conference organised by a collective of female councillors, that their male counterparts heckled them and even shouted them down whenever they tried to speak. A similar situation prevailed at all other councils, the female councillors said. We editorially commented on the predicament of women, and called for action against the misogynists. Some women’s rights groups took up the issue, but the problem persists, we are told. How can we get rid of the scourge of gender-based discrimination against women when the so-called people’s representatives themselves promote it with impunity?

The SJB-led Opposition should ensure that action is taken against the bad eggs in the garb of government MPs who made lewd, demeaning comments on Thalatha, who is a former Minister of Justice. The members of the Women Parliamentarians’ Caucus, whose mission is to empower women and eliminate violence and harassment against them, must circle their wagons, and protest until a probe is ordered.

The Opposition must name the SLPP MPs who harassed Thalatha so that the public will know who these sick characters are, and action can be taken against them. It should also explore the possibility of moving a no-faith motion against these shameless elements, and making the House discuss the issue of gender-based discrimination against its own members and adopt measures to solve the problem once and for all. The Opposition holds protests over numerous issues, but is silent on the sexual harassment of one of its female members.

All political parties have women’s wings, which must take up the issue of discrimination and sexual harassment female representatives undergo in political institutions.

Women account for more than one half of Sri Lanka’s population, but there are only 12 female MPs. The number of women legislators should be increased. Women must push for this. This is something the Parliamentary Select Committee, tasked with identifying ‘appropriate reforms of the election laws and the electoral system’ and recommending ‘necessary amendments’, should give serious thought to.

We are not short of male MPs who pretend to be paragons of virtue and pontificate to others. We hear them urging the protesting teachers to behave. Shouldn’t they put their own house in order before faulting others for indiscipline? A fish, as we keep saying, is said to rot from the head down.

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Editorial

Friends of the virus

Published

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Tuesday, 3rd August, 2021

Coronavirus is an elusive enemy, and it is a mistake to declare victory prematurely in a country’s war against it. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Arden performed the hongi, a few weeks ago, presumably in a bid to show the world that their countries were safe. But, today, the virus is troubling Australia, again. Brisbane and Gold Coast have been locked down, and the army is patrolling Sydney to ensure that travel restrictions are fully enforced. The US also made the mistake of lowering its guard after a successful vaccination campaign. It now has a resurgence of coronavirus to contend with; the daily infection rate is expected to reach 300,000 soon. The Delta variant has also caused China’s Covid-19 defences to collapse with a surge in infections even in cities declared coronavirus-free. Japan has extended the state of emergency to more areas. This is what the Delta variant is capable of.

It is against this backdrop that the Sri Lankan government’s decision to make all state employees report for work with effect from yesterday should be viewed. When all public sector employees start going to work, buses and trains will be chock-a-block, and the transmission of coronavirus will receive a turbo boost.

True, the country cannot afford to remain closed indefinitely, and it has to be reopened to revive its ailing economy. But caution should be exercised when restrictions are removed. It would have been prudent for the government to stagger the reopening of public institutions. The state sector, which is terribly overstaffed, may be able to maintain its performance at a reasonable level with about one half of its workforce. Some processes in the public sector can be streamlined technologically to make them less labour intensive.

The government says that most of the state employees have been vaccinated against Covid-19, and are therefore safe, but the fact remains that breakthrough infections are on the rise, and the vaccinated people could also transmit the virus, albeit at a lower rate.

Chances are that the ongoing protests by teachers will not be over anytime soon. Infections could fan out through protesting teachers, most of whom are said to be fully vaccinated. When teachers return home after taking part in protests, they may infect their families and friends. It took only a single infected cook to land a whole village in the soup, the other day, in the Kalutara district. Nearly 90 persons contracted Covid-19 thanks to him, according to media reports.

The government deserves praise for its hitherto successful vaccination programme, but unfortunately it is driving trade unions to launch street protests and thereby boost the transmission of the Delta variant. It has got its priorities all mixed up. What possessed it to present the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) bill amidst an unprecedented national health emergency, and provoke other stakeholders into taking to the streets?

The focus of the government and the Opposition should be on beating the virus and reviving the economy. Even the existing national universities lack resources and are struggling to maintain standards. They remain closed due to the pandemic. It defies comprehension why on earth the government is in a mighty hurry to upgrade the defence university at this juncture.

The government should seriously consider putting the KNDU bill on hold, and the protesting teachers ought to stop street demonstrations and opt for talks with the government to have their salary issues sorted out. Unless the spread of the Delta variant is stopped forthwith, the country will have to be closed again. The economy, which is already on oxygen support, will not survive another round of lockdowns; the government will be left without any funds for any university, and the protesting teachers will not receive even their salaries. All workers including those in the private sector and their families will have to starve in such an eventuality. This is the danger that the government and the protesters are exposing the country to. They are the friends of the virus.

 

 

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