by C.A. Chandraprema
What comes into the mind of the ordinary person on the street when he or she hears the term ‘witness protection’ or ‘victim protection’ would be the need to ensure that victims of crime or witnesses are given the protection they need. For example, the eatery owner in Ratmalana whose establishment was subject to a spectacular drive by shooting by members of an extortion gang, is a victim of violence and needs to be protected from the gangs that were after him. Likewise there are key witnesses to various crimes who need to be protected. While giving adequate protection to victims and witnesses is necessary, laws that turn victims and witnesses into predators, who are able to use the law to hound suspects, and browbeat the law enforcement authorities and even the courts is an obvious perversion of justice.
In this respect, the provisions of the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 4 of 2015 which was signed into law on March 7, 2015, requires further scrutiny. The stated objectives of this Act are to set out, uphold and enforce the rights and entitlements of victims of crime and witnesses, to provide assistance and protection to victims of crime and witnesses and to enable victims of crime to obtain compensation from persons convicted of having committed offenses against them, and to set out duties and responsibilities of the State, judicial officers and public officers towards the promotion and protection of the rights and entitlements of victims of crime and witnesses etc. All these are no doubt laudable objectives, but the manner in which these objectives are to be realized according to this Act, gives rise to many questions.
Turning victims into blood hounds
Section 3(f)(ii) of Act, No. 4 of 2015 states that victims will have the right to inquire into the progress of the investigation being conducted into the complaint presented by the victim of crime, by means of a query addressed to the police station or other authority conducting the investigation, the Attorney-General or the Registrar of the Court, as the case may be, of the dates fixed for hearing and the progress and the disposal of judicial proceedings relating to the offense complained of by the victim of crime, including the non-summary inquiry, trial, appeal and application in revision.
The victim will also have the right to inquire from the officer-in-charge of the relevant police station or other authority conducting an investigation, the Attorney-General, the Registrar of the Court or the Superintendent of Prisons, as the case may be, of the dates fixed for the release on bail, the discharge of the suspect, the institution of criminal proceedings against the accused, the conviction, sentence or acquittal of the suspect or the accused; and the date for the release from prison of the convict, and the reasons therefor. Investigating and punishing people for the commission of a crime is the responsibility of the state. But Act No. 4 of 2015 seeks to make it the business of the purported victim to personally pursue the case against the purported criminal to the very end.
It’s only with regard to a few crimes like assault or rape that the perpetrator may be known and identified upfront. In criminal matters, more often than not, an investigation is necessary before a suspect can even be identified. Yet this Act seems to assume that the alleged perpetrator will always be known upfront to the alleged victim. If it’s a case of a victim knowing upfront who exactly had committed the purported crime against him, it will be a different matter but if a victim is unaware of who committed the crime against him and has to wait until the police names a suspect following an investigation and then invokes the provisions of this Act against that suspect, horrific miscarriages of justice could occur.
In certain places, the Act states the painfully obvious. Section 3(g) for instance upholds the right of a victim of a crime to present, either orally or in writing, a complaint to any police officer, in any police station or other unit or division of the Police Department and to have such complaint impartially and comprehensively investigated by the relevant investigating authority. It’s for that very purpose that the British colonial power created the police force that we have today. The Act states that having made the complaint, victim is entitled to be represented by an Attorney-at-Law during an investigation, including criminal and forensic investigations and magisterial inquiries into the alleged offense and make necessary representations to the appropriate competent authorities who are conducting such investigations.
Next of kin of victims are also victims
The victim also can obtain certified copies of Cause of Death forms, Post Mortem Reports, Medico-Legal Reports, Reports of the Registrar of Finger Prints, Reports of the Government Analyst and any other report of an expert and reports filed in the Magistrate’s Court by the Police. In other words, the victim is authorized to breathe down the necks of the entire law enforcement apparatus including the police and the judiciary and this at a stage when the perpetrator of the crime is still obviously unknown. Mercifully, there is a provision to say that where an application is made to obtain certified copies of the reports referred to above, the Magistrate to whom such application is can refuse to issue such reports if the police are of the opinion that the issue of such Reports would prejudice the on-going investigations.
The victim is also allowed to present written communications or make representations through legal counsel to the Attorney-General, before, during and after the investigation and before and during the conduct of judicial proceedings, including the non-summary inquiry, trial and appeal. The victim is also allowed to present written communications or make representations through legal counsel to an investigator, who is conducting an investigation into the offense and to be entitled to receive a response in regard to such communications or representations made. Can any good result from a victim being able to bring pressure on the investigators, the Attorney General and even the courts right through the appeal process as well? Not only is the victim entitled to make representations to all these bodies, he is entitled to receive responses as well. This is guaranteed to slow down the legal processes even further by placing unbearable workloads on the police, the AG’s Dept. and the courts.
Furthermore, the victim is entitled to be present at all judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings relating to an offense, unless the court, or tribunal determines, for reasons to be recorded that such victim’s evidence would be materially affected if he hears other evidence at such proceedings or the due discharge of justice could be secured only by the exclusion of such victim from being present during the hearing of certain parts of such proceedings. Following the conviction of the offender and prior to the determination of the sentence, the victim is entitled to either personally or through legal counsel, to submit to court the manner in which the offense concerned had impacted on his life, including his body, state of mind, employment, profession or occupation, income, quality of life, property and any other aspects concerning his life.
If an appeal or application in revision is presented by a person convicted of having committed an offense, the victim can submit to court that adjudicates upon such appeal or application in revision, the manner in which the offense concerned had impacted on his life, including his body, state of mind, employment, profession or occupation, income, quality of life and property and any other aspects concerning his life. If a
grant of a pardon or remission of sentence is being considered with regard to that convict, the victim is entitled to receive notice thereof and submit to the person granting such pardon or remission, the manner in which the offense committed had impacted on his life including his body, state of mind, employment, profession or occupation, income, quality of life, property and any other aspects concerning his life. Whoever drafted this law has clearly been watching too many blood vendetta movies.
The manner in which which this Act defines a ‘victim’ is of pivotal importance to this discussion. According to this law, a
‘victim of crime’ can mean a person who has suffered injury, harm, impairment or disability whether physical or mental, emotional, economic or other loss, as a result of an act or omission which constitutes an offense under any law, or a person who suffers harm as a result of intervening to assist such a person. The term ‘victim’ can also be applied to any member of the family and next of kin of such person, dependents and any other person of significant importance to that person. It’s indeed a law to facilitate the pursuit of blood vendettas by other means. Needless to say that if this law is taken to its logical conclusion, what we are looking at is an avalanche of litigation and paperwork that will bury the law enforcement authorities and the courts more effectively than the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii.
According to the Act, a victim of crime is also entitled to receive a sum of money from the government to defray the costs of breathing down the necks of the law enforcement authorities, the AG’s Dept. and the courts. Under the provisions of the Act, apart from victims, witnesses too are entitled to receive from investigating, quasi-judicial and judicial authorities fair and respectful treatment. A witness shall not be harassed or intimidated, coerced or violated as a consequence of providing information relating to the commission of an offense. Furthermore, a witness shall be entitled to protection against any real or possible harm, threat, intimidation, reprisal or retaliation. This however was always the case, even before Act No. 4 of 2015 was enacted. The intimidation of witnesses was never looked upon with approval by anybody in this country.
Institutional backing for victims
In addition to all the provisions mentioned above which enable victims to breathe down the necks of the police, the AG’s Dept and the courts, there is provision in the Act for the creation of a National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses which is to be run by a Board of Management. The duties and functions of this Authority is to receive complaints relating to and investigate into an alleged infringement or imminent infringement of any right or entitlement of a victim of crime or a witness, investigate and inquire into such alleged infringement or imminent infringement and to require any relevant authority to take such appropriate corrective measures in that regard.
The victim and witness protection Authority shall have the power to conduct investigations into an alleged or an imminent infringement of a right or entitlement of a victim or witness, and to require any person other than a judicial officer or a Commissioner of a Commission to appear before the Authority and to produce before the Authority any document, a certified copy thereof or other material in his or its possession or custody, including the reports of investigations, information book, extracts and officers visiting book extracts of the police, for examination and copying; to require any person other than a court or a Commission to provide to the Authority in writing, any information which it or he is likely to possess; interview and record the statement of any person other than that of a judicial officer or a Commissioner of any Commission; and make an application to any court or Commission and be entitled to obtain certified copies of any proceedings of any case.
The Authority is also entitled to enter into, examine and record any event, location or process taking place in any place, including an investigation, inquiry, trial or other proceeding. In other words, if the victim is unable to breathe down the necks of the police, the AG’s Dept. and the Courts, he or she can get the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses to do the job on his behalf. Section 14(1)(f) of the Act states that the Authority may solicit, accept and receive donations, gifts, bequests and grants from sources within or outside Sri Lanka and to apply the same for the proper discharge of it’s duties and functions. Section 24(3) states that the Authority shall not solicit or obtain any assistance from any foreign government or national, foreign or international organization without the prior sanction of the Attorney-General and the Secretary to the Ministry of the Minister in charge of the subject of Foreign Affairs. But that really means nothing. All that the AG and the Minister of foreign affairs will do is to ensure that the funds come from legally acceptable sources.
Act No. 4 of 2015 is a highly suspect piece of legislation from beginning to end. Why do we need foreign aid to maintain a body meant to look after the interest of victims and witnesses? This will enable interested foreign parties to use the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses to browbeat the police, the AG’s Dept. and even the Courts until they have their way with regard to cases they have an interest in. Any person who fails to comply with any requirement imposed by the Authority will be guilty of an offense of contempt of the Authority which shall be punishable by the Supreme Court as though it were an offense of contempt committed against the Supreme Court itself! Where the Authority determines that a person is guilty of an offense of contempt against the Authority, the Authority may transmit to the Supreme Court, a certificate setting out such determination. Any document purporting to be such a certificate shall be received in evidence, and be deemed to be such a certificate without further proof, unless the contrary is proved. In any proceeding for the punishment of any alleged offense of contempt against the Authority, no member of the Authority shall, except with his own consent be summoned or examined as a witness even by the Supreme Court!
The National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses is not the only institution that has been set up to look after the interests of victims and witnesses. Act No. 4 of 2015 further states that the Inspector General of Police shall, in consultation with and following such guidelines as shall be issued by the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses establish and maintain a special police Division to be called the ‘Victims of Crime and Witnesses Assistance and Protection Division’ for the purpose of providing assistance and protection to victims of crime and witnesses. A Senior Superintendent of Police, who comes under the supervision of the nominee of the Inspector General of Police appointed as a member of the Board of Management of the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses shall be placed in charge of the Division.
The duties of this special police Division shall be to provide protection to victims of crime and witnesses and to investigate by itself or with the assistance of any other police officer, into complaints, allegations or information pertaining to threats, reprisals, intimidation, retaliations or any harm, harassment, coercion or violation being committed on victims of crime and witnesses and their property. The Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 4 of 2015 will only serve to skew the course of justice and to give interested foreign parties a handle on selected cases being heard in Sri Lankan courts.
The Island of 26/10 carried a news item, on the visit of Pompeo’s to Sri Lanka while also covering India and the Maldives. With just eight days for Presidential Elections in the US, there must be great urgency for the visit with respect to the Maldives. One possibility is to try and get Maldives to recognise Israel, a foreign policy triump for a beleaguered Trump. This will add to, UAE, Bahrain and Sudan which are already in the quiver. The US has no borders in the Indian Ocean. The visits to India and Sri Lanka could only be side-shows.
The US says it is concerned about “a strong, independent and democratic Sri Lanka”. So is Sri Lanka about a democratic US, the first democratic country in the modern world. The US could justify its commitment to democracy by accepting a peaceful transfer of power to the elected one, after the elections. Seeing the emerging chaos in the US election, the US may like to get technical assistance from our Election Commission on how to run elections.
The Foreign Minister could take this opportunity, to canvass the US for her approval of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This would make Sri Lanka, The Mouse that Roared.
Silent death of constitutional holy cows
by C.A. Chandraprema
That the 20th Amendment was passed does not come as a surprise. That some opposition MPs voted with the government also does not come as a surprise and neither does the fact that the unity of the governing coalition held during the voting despite the sparring between constituent sections of the government that had been going on for weeks over some provisions of the Amendment. What was surprising however was the manner in which some constitutional shibboleths of the past went into oblivion silently and almost unnoticed. The carcasses of several constitutional holy cows of the past can literally be seen lying dead on the streets.
When the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was first Gazetted as a Bill, this writer stated that some of the changes envisaged in that Amendment were urgent and could not wait until a new Constitution was drafted. Foremost among these was the abolition of the Constitutional Council which had the final say in making important appointments to high state positions like the Attorney General, the IGP and the Judges of the higher judiciary as well as the bodies like the Elections Commission, the Public Services Commission, and the Police Commission. Even after a presidential election and a parliamentary election, and the complete rout of the yahapalana political parties, five of the eight remaining members of the Constitutional Council (after the resignation of one member and the defeat of yet another member at the parliamentary elections) were yahapalanites who would have the final say in making all important state appointments until October 2021.
Getting rid of this Constitutional Council was what imbued the 20th Amendment with urgency. Yet this was one of the most cherished holy cows of the yahapalana camp. The 20th Amendment gave rise to a great deal of controversy and discussion, but one of the matters that was almost never mentioned was the abolition of the Constitutional Council. Back in 2001, when the 17th Amendment was introduced, it was all about the Constitutional Council and the need to take the power to make important state appointments out of the hands of the President and to give it not to Parliament and not to any elected representative of the people, but to unelected persons nominated by the political parties in Parliament. The first Constitutional Council created by the 17th Amendment had only three Parliamentarians but had seven outsiders.
The tautological absurdity of taking the power to make appointments to important state positions away from the President and away from Parliament and giving it to outsiders who however were appointed by the political parties in Parliament was lost on the proponents of the 17th Amendment – so firmly held was the view that elected politicians should not have a say in making important appointments to state positions. The prejudice seemed to be against elected representatives of the people. So long as you were not an elected representative it did not matter even if the members of the Constitutional Council were hangers on and nominees of political parties! When the 19th Amendment reintroduced the Constitutional Council in 2015, the proportion of parliamentarians to outsiders was reversed and it had seven Parliamentarians and only three outsiders, thanks to the furious resistance of the UPFA and its allies. If the yahapalanites had had their way, the Constitutional Council established by the 19th amendment would also have had only three Parliamentarians as against seven unelected outsiders.
When the 20th Amendment finally did away with the Constitutional Council that was introduced by the 19th Amendment, this yahapalana holy cow went into oblivion silently, and unnoticed. Even the remaining yahapalanites in Parliament did not agitate for its retention or even mention it by name during the weeks of public debate over the 20th Amendment. If they did mention the Constitutional Council, the media did not pick it up. What sealed the fate of the whole concept of the Constitutional Council was the manner in which the yahapalana political parties divided up the positions in the government and the opposition among themselves and stuffed the Constitutional Council full of yahapalanites without a single member to represent the real opposition in the country. The entire concept of the Constitutional Council was perverted and destroyed so completely, that not a single yahapalanite stood up to defend the Constitutional Council and to agitate for its continuation.
Even Karu Jayasuriya who Chaired the yahapalana Constitutional Council in his capacity as the Speaker and who obviously reveled in that role, did seem not come to the defence of the Constitutional Council in a major way, choosing instead according to some news reports, to oppose the 20th Amendment on the slogan of preventing dual citizens from becoming elected representatives of the people. Thus died a misconceived institution. On the one hand we talk of democracy and free and a fair elections, but try to argue that somehow, those who are democratically elected to positions of power should not be trusted with making appointments to important state positions and the power to make such appointments should as far as possible be given to unelected persons. Hopefully this is the last we hear of harebrained mechanisms like the Constitutional Council.
The defence portfolio issue
The other urgent matter that needed to be cleared up by the 20th Amendment was whether the President could hold the defence portfolio or not. The 19th Amendment had sought to bar the President from holding any portfolio by the repeal of the old Article 44(2) which said that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister. President Sirisena was allowed to hold the defence portfolio and the environmental portfolio by means of a transitional provision in the 19th Amendment. The repeal of old Article 44(2) and this transitional provision was supposed to imply that the President could not hold any portfolio, not even the defence portfolio even though the President was a member and the head of the Cabinet and Article 4 of the Constitution said that the executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President.
This was a matter that needed to be cleared up urgently one way or another without waiting for the new Constitution which could take up to another year or more. The 20th Amendment sought to clear this up by reinstating the old Article 44(2). The restoration of the President’s power to hold portfolios was passed without any controversy or anybody seeming even to notice it. In the past, reducing the powers of the Presidency was the pivot around which the entire constitutional reform exercise revolved. The attempt to block the President from holding ministerial portfolios was a measure taken to reduce the power of the presidency introduced by the 19th Amendment. The absurdity of designating the President as the head of State, head of the government, head of the Executive, head of the Cabinet and then trying to prohibit the holder of that office from holding a ministerial portfolio was lost on the drafters of the 19th Amendment. Now this inconsistency too has been put right by the 20th Amendment. Thus the two most urgent provisions in the 20th Amendment have been passed with little or no controversy or even discussion. The former yahapalana hegemons who are now in the opposition in fact did not really defend the specific provisions of the 19th Amendment. They only expressed opposition to the 20th Amendment as a whole.
The vital elements in Article 70(1)
Another important issue that needed to be corrected even though it was not perhaps as urgent as the previously mentioned issues was the prohibition brought by the 19th Amendment on the dissolution of Parliament before the lapse of four and half years from the date of its first meeting, unless Parliament passes a resolution requesting dissolution with a two thirds majority. The rectification of this issue was not considered to be as urgent as the two issues mentioned earlier only because the present government has an overwhelming majority in Parliament. Had a government with only a slim majority in Parliament been in power, this issue would have been right at the top of the priority list. When the 19th Amendment repealed and replaced old article 70(1), the provisions that existed from the inception of the 1978 Constitution providing for the dissolution of Parliament in the event of the defeat of the government at a vote on the budget, or the statement of government policy or a no-confidence motion, were also dropped.
Thus, the Article 70(1) introduced by the 19th Amendment constituted a total prohibition on the dissolution of Parliament until the lapse of four and a half years quite irrespective of whether the government in power had enough support in Parliament to get the budget or a statement of government policy passed and to survive a no-confidence motion. What the 20th Amendment sought to do was to repeal the 19th Amendment’s Article 70(1) and to replace it with the pre-19th Amendment Article 70(1). In making this switch, only one aspect of the pre-19th Amendment Article 70(1) came to the attention of the Supreme Court. That was the period of one year during which the President could not dissolve Parliament if the previous Parliament had been dissolved by the President at his discretion.
The Supreme Court quoting a previous SC determination stated that if this period during which the President is barred from dissolving Parliament is too long, it may be contended that the President’s power of dissolution which operates as a check to sustain the balance of power is denuded of its efficacy. But, if we strike middle ground, the balance of power itself being the overall objective, and decide on a period of two years and six months, that sufficiently addresses concerns with regard to this provision and it could be passed with only a two thirds majority in Parliament and will not require a referendum. Now after the 20th Amendment, the President can dissolve Parliament after two and a half years instead of the one year period in the old article 70(1) which existed before the 19th Amendment. This however was not the issue with regard to the post 19th Amendment Article 70(1). It would not have mattered even if the period during which the President could not dissolve Parliament was retained at four and a half years if the President’s power to dissolve Parliament in the event the parliamentary government loses a budget, a vote of no confidence, or a statement of government policy was restored. The 20th Amendment has restored the President’s ability to dissolve parliament if the Parliamentary government is showing signs of collapse by being unable to get a budget passed or to survive a no confidence motion etc. and that’s what really matters.
SC on the provisions that raised controversy
The provisions relating to Urgent Bills which were to be reintroduced into the Constitution by the 20th Amendment raised some controversy. When the Cabinet is of the view that a particular Bill is urgent in the national interest and makes an endorsement to that effect, the President shall require the special determination of the Supreme Court on the
consistency or inconsistency of any provisions of the Bill by a reference addressed to the Chief Justice. The Supreme Court should make its determination in twenty-four hours or such longer period not exceeding three days as the President may specify. Petitioners against the 20th Amendment contended that this provision impacts on the People’s judicial power as well as legislative power and that the restrictive time period set out not only hinders but also unfairly curtails the exercise of judicial power. Furthermore they claimed that giving the Executive discretion in deciding the time period within which the determination should be made encroaches into the judicial power of the Courts.
The Supreme Court’s reaction to such contentions was to observe that the 20th Amendment Bill amends Article 123 of the Constitution by the insertion of a new paragraph which states that if the Supreme Court entertains a doubt whether the Bill or any provision thereof is inconsistent with the Constitution, it shall be deemed to have been determined that the Bill or such provision of the Bill is inconsistent with the Constitution. The required nature of the determination is thereby limited to the expression of “entertaining a doubt” rather than a specific determination on the Constitutionality of the Bill or any of its provisions. As for the President fixing the timeframe within which the SC has to respond, the SC observed that Article 129(1) of the Constitution also empowers the President to refer a question to the Supreme Court to obtain its opinion within a time specified by the President.
Therefore, empowering the Executive to set a time period within which a Court should provide its determination per se does not infringe on the Sovereignty of the People. The SC further observed that the relevant provision does not exclude or prohibit an interested party intervening in proceedings relating to a hearing on such Bill. Furthermore the provision concerned makes it mandatory that such Bill be submitted to judicial review through the prescribed process. Therefore the provisions relating to urgent Bills in the 20th Amendment does not require a referendum and can be passed with a two thirds majority in Parliament.
When it came to Dual Citizenship, Petitioners against the 20th Amendment contended that the removal of this disqualification infringes Articles 1 and 3 of the Constitution. They contended that persons who hold a dual citizenship have split loyalties. When they pledge allegiance to two sovereign nations, their capacity to take decisions with the sole idea of protecting and preserving the Sovereignty of one country would be compromised; specially, in situations of conflict of interests between the two countries. Such situations can always arise in many areas of concern including, commerce, trade, defence and in addition on bi-lateral and multi-lateral relations when both countries become relevant parties.
The Attorney-General’s contention was that even a dual citizen has the right to be treated equally and enjoys all the rights of a person who is a citizen of Sri Lanka, only. He further stated that Article 26(2) and (3) of the Constitution prohibit making any distinction on the manner on which citizenship was acquired, Citizens by descent and citizens by registration will have same rights. It was further contended that under the provisions of the Citizenship Act it is only a person who had had been a citizen of Sri Lanka who could gain the dual citizenship. The AG argued that the Petitioners’ claim of “split loyalties” and “conflicts of interests” are mere surmise and conjecture. The SC was of the view that a decision on the inconsistency or consistency with a Constitutional provision cannot be based on surmise and conjecture and further that in the exercise of jurisdiction in relation to an amendment to the Constitution, does not extend to consideration of the desirability of a provision or to delve into policy matters. The SC’s sole consideration would be the constitutionality of the provision.
Only one really important provision of the 20th Amendment was shot down by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it would require a referendum in addition to a two thirds majority in Parliament. This was the restoration of the immunity of the President from suit as it existed before the 19th Amendment. The Supreme Court held that the removal of the existing right guaranteed through the Constitution to the People to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 126 in relation to acts of the President is inconsistent with Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution and therefore would require a referendum in addition to a two thirds majority in Parliament.
Drafting of new constitution begins
The drafting of the new constitution to replace the 1978 constitution has begun even before the 20th Amendment has been through the committee stage in Parliament. The Special Experts Committee to Draft a New Constitution headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva has been allocated offices in the BMICH, and three senior officers of the Ministry of Justice have been appointed to the Secretariat of the Committee. Sittings of the committee have already commenced with meetings being held every Friday. Two formal weekly meetings have already been held.
The other members of the committee are President’s Counsel Manohara De Silva, President’s Counsel Sanjeewa Jayawardena, President’s Counsel Naveen Marapana, Prof. Nazeema Kamardeen, Dr. A. Sarveswaran, President’s Counsel Samantha Ratwatte, Prof.Wasantha Senevirathne and Prof.G.H.Peiris. The fact that this Committee has commenced work would have been headline news in normal circumstances but it has been completely overshadowed by the latest Covid-19 outbreak.
For that matter, Covid-19 has drowned out the noise generated over the 20th Amendment as well. The government can be seen to be taking a very cautious approach to this Covid-19 cluster with whole villages and individual establishments being shut down at the slightest suspicion that an infected person may have visited the place concerned. Quite a number of false alarms have been reported but the government is proceeding on the basis that it’s better to be safe than sorry. There seems to be little doubt that the government agencies concerned will be able to get over this latest Covid crisis as well.
Even though yahapalana theorists have raised a mighty caterwaul of protest claiming that the 20th Amendment will give rise to authoritarian rule, the 20A only restores the constitutional provisions that existed before the 19th Amendment, which essentially means that after the 20th Amendment, the President will have the approximately the same power that past Presidents J.R.Jayewardene, R.Premadasa, D.B.Wijetunga, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and even Maithripala Sirisena had. Even though the 19th Amendment removed some of the powers of the President, the yahapalana President Sirisena continued to enjoy those powers through other means and it’s only the incumbent President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who has had to bear the full brunt of the 19th Amendment.
Yahapalana sleight of hand
One significant way in which the 19th Amendment sought to truncate the President’s powers was by establishing the Constitutional Council which would have the final say in making appointments to important state positions. After the establishment of the Constitutional Council, the President cannot appoint members and Chairmen of Commissions set up by the 19th Amendment such as the Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, the Election Commission, and several other such commissions without the individuals to be appointed being recommended by the Constitutional Council. Likewise when it came to the appointment of Judges to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, the Attorney-General, the Auditor-General and Inspector-General of Police and other such high state positions, any person appointed by the President to such positions had to be approved by the Constitutional Council. Thus either way, it’s the Constitutional Council that has the final say in making such appointments and not the President.
Even though these provisions in the 19th Amendment were supposed to limit the powers of the President, they did not limit President Sirisena’s or the yahapalana government’s powers because the yahapalana political parties working in concert divided up the parliamentary government and the parliamentary opposition among themselves and established a complete hegemony over the Constitutional Council. It goes without saying that if the political backers and promoters of the President have complete and total control over the Constitutional Council, it’s the same as the President exercising those powers and that was the situation during the Sirisena Presidency. President Sirisena’s political setup enjoyed the same powers over high appointments that the political setups of his predecessors did.
Another way in which the 19th Amendment sought to limit the powers of the President was by not allowing the President to hold any ministerial portfolios. Hence the pre-19th Amendment Article 44(2) of the Constitution which said that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister was repealed. Even though the 19th Amendment never expressly said that the President could not hold a portfolio, the repeal of Article 44(2) was supposed to mean that despite the fact that even under the 19th Amendment, the President continued to be the Head of the Government and the Head of the Cabinet he could not hold a ministerial portfolio. President Sirisena was not affected by this limitation because a transitional provision in the 19th Amendment allowed him not only to assign to himself the subjects and functions of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment so long as he holds the Office of President but also to determine the Ministries to be in his charge for that purpose. So all that President Sirisena had to do was to decide upfront which ministries he wanted. All Presidents do in fact decide upfront which ministries he would hold, so President Sirisena despite the 19th Amendment was able to do what all his predecessors did in this regard.
The genuine changes
To be fair, there were in fact a few genuine ways in which President Sirisena’s powers differed from those of his predecessors. The first and foremost of these was that the tenure of the presidency was shortened from six years to five years by changes made to Article 30(2). This was a genuine change and the 20th Amendment seeks to retain this without alteration. Another genuine change was the effective removal of presidential immunity by the 19th Amendment by means of changes made to Article 35(1) of the Constitution. Article 35(1) as amended by the 19th Amendment states that no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against the President in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, either in his official or private capacity, provided that this shall not be construed as restricting the right of any person to make a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court under Article 126 against the Attorney-General, in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, in his official capacity.
Making the President subject to fundamental rights litigation basically makes it possible to challenge any action that the President takes. In fact the 19th Amendment specifically stated that the Supreme Court shall have no jurisdiction to pronounce upon the exercise of the powers of the President only when it comes to declaring war and peace – which establishes that the Supreme Court can pronounce judgments on virtually everything else other than that one exception. President Sirisena was subject to this provision during his tenure and this was a genuine change made by the 19th Amendment. But it’s an unusual, and arguably counter-productive change. Even under the 1972 Constitution, the ceremonial President was designated the head of the Executive who was required to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. Article 23 of the 1972 Constitution stated that while any person holds office as president, no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him in his official or private capacity.
If one takes the Ceylon Constitution Order in Council of 1946, the Executive power was exercised on behalf of the British crown by the Governor-General who was required by convention as mentioned in Article 4(2) of that Constitution to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Even though the Governor General was the representative of a titular head of state, even he was protected from litigation with the proviso that no act or omission on the part of the Governor-General shall be called in question in any court of law. We see the same protection accorded to the President of India. Article
53(1) of the Indian constitution says that the executive power of the Indian Union shall be vested in the President. Article 77(1) states that all executive action of the Government of India shall be expressed to be taken in the name of the President. Article 74(1) requires the Indian President to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers and the question whether any, and if so what, advice was tendered by Ministers to the President cannot be inquired into in any court. Under Article 77(2) of the Indian constitution, orders and other instruments made and executed in the name of the President shall not be called in question on the ground that it is not an order or instrument made or executed by the President.
Thus we see that in the 1946 Ceylon Constitution Order in Council, the first Republican Constitution of 1972 and the second Republican Constitution of 1978, and even in the Indian Constitution, the actions of the head of the executive had always been given immunity from litigation. If the actions of the executive can be subject to litigation, then it can be argued that the final arbiter if not the wielder of executive power will be the judiciary and not the executive. The immunity of the President from suit was removed on the argument of limiting the President’s executive power. That gives the impression that before the 19th Amendment was passed there were no limits on the President’s executive power.
President never had unlimited power
Two Supreme Court cases presided over by former Chief Justice Sarath N.Silva indicate otherwise. The 2006 landmark judgment in Nallaratnam Singarasa vs the Attorney General stated as follows:
“The President exercises the executive power of the People and is empowered to act for the Republic under Customary International Law and enter into treaties and accede to international covenants However,… such acts cannot be inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law. This limitation is imposed since the President is not the repository of the legislative power of the People…. such a treaty or a covenant has to be implemented by the exercise of legislative power by Parliament and where found to be necessary by the People at a Referendum to have internal effect…where the President enters into a treaty or accedes to a Covenant which is “inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law”… such act of the President would not bind the Republic qua state….”
Then there was the famous Waters Edge judgment of 2008 (Sugathapala Mendis and Another vs Chandrika Kumaratunga and Others) where it was stated as follows:
“The principle that those charged with upholding the Constitution – be it a police officer of the lowest rank or the President – are to do so in a way that does not “violate the Doctrine of Public Trust” by state action/inaction is a basic tenet of the Constitution which upholds the legitimacy of Government and the Sovereignty of the People. The “Public Trust Doctrine” is based on the concept that the powers held by organs of government are, in fact, powers that originate with the People, and are entrusted to the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary only as a means of exercising governance and with the sole objective that such powers will be exercised in good faith for the benefit of the People of Sri Lanka. Public power is not for personal gain or favour, but always to be used to optimize the benefit of the People. To do otherwise would be to betray the trust reposed by the People within whom, in terms of the Constitution, the Sovereignty reposes. Power exercised contrary to the Public Trust Doctrine would be an abuse of such power and in contravention of the Rule of Law.”
The Water’s Edge judgment also quoted a previous 1998 judgment by Justice Mark Fernando, Karunathilaka v Dissanayake which stated as follows: “The immunity conferred by Article 35 is neither absolute not perpetual….Article 35 only prohibits the institution (or continuation) of legal proceedings against the President while in office; it imposes no bar whatsoever on proceedings against him when he is no longer in office…To hold otherwise would suggest that the President is, in essence, above the law and beyond the reach of its restrictions. Such a monarchical/dictatorial position is at variance with (1) the Democratic Socialist Republic that the preamble of the Constitution defines Sri Lanka to be, and (ii) the spirit implicit in the Constitution that sovereignty reposes in the People and not in any single person.”
Keeping yahapalana overkill in check
All these cases were heard long before the 19th Amendment. Thus the proviso to article 35(1) introduced by the 19th amendment enabling fundamental rights cases to be filed against the AG over actions taken by the President was clearly a case of yahapalana overkill. The removal of this proviso and the restoration of the pre-19th Amendment Article 35 does not turn the President into an autocrat. It just provides the executive branch of the government the leeway to exercise the powers vested in the executive. While it’s true that former presidents in Sri Lanka have been accused of being authoritarian, the same accusation has been levelled at former Prime Ministers like Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. Much the same thing was said about Mrs. Indira Gandhi as well.
The person holding the title and functions of head of the government can be as authoritarian or as liberal as he or she is inclined to be. In fact it may be argued by some that Prime Ministers have even greater potential and incentive to be authoritarian because no Prime Minister in the world seems to have term limits whereas almost all presidential systems do have term limits. Even the 20th Amendment will retain the two term limit for the President. Lee Kuan Yew was a Prime Minister but he too was accused of being authoritarian. It just so happens that Presidents tend to attract more charges of authoritarianism than Prime Ministers even though everyone knows at the back of their minds that Prime Ministers who are heads of government can be as every bit as authoritarian as any President holding the position of head of government.
It’s interesting to speculate on why this is so. Is it because the President sits and does his work in grand isolation whereas the Prime Minister sits in Parliament with everyone else and is available to be heckled and booed at? Is it because the President once elected, is very difficult to remove whereas the Prime Minister (at least theoretically) can be thrown out at any moment through a Parliamentary revolt? It has to be noted that under the presidential system introduced by the 1978 Constitution, the President cannot rule without the support of Parliament. In 2001, at a time when President Chandrika Kumaratunga possessed all the powers of J.R. Jayewardene’s presidency, her party lost a parliamentary election and lost her majority in Parliament. She gave all powers to the newly elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasnghe and took a back seat for a while. Despite all the hype about authoritarian Presidents, the fact is that both Presidential heads of government and Prime Ministerial heads of government that this country has had in the past, have been completely dependent on Parliamentary majorities to govern. No President can override Parliament even under the pre-19th Amendment 1978 Constitution.
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