President Maithri gets tough by rocking the ‘rock star’

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President Maithripala Sirisena is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York next Tuesday 19 September. The Head of Sri Lankan State is attending the UNGA at a time when United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, during his opening statement at the 36th session of the UNHRC on Monday (11) expressed his frustration over delays the Sri Lanka Government has thus far displayed in implementing the USA co-sponsored resolution.

He urged the Sri Lanka Government to swiftly operationalize the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and to move faster on other essential confidence building measures.

However, this should not be a "box-ticking exercise to placate the Council", Hussein said adding that the Government must consider it as an essential undertaking to address the rights of all Sri Lankans. He added that the absence of credible action in Sri Lanka, to ensure accountability for alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, makes the exercise of universal jurisdiction even more necessary.

"In Sri Lanka, I urge the Government to swiftly operationalize the Office of Missing Persons and to move faster on other essential confidence building measures, such as release of land occupied by the military, and resolving long-pending cases registered under the Prevention of Terrorism Act," he said.

The Commissioner reiterates his earlier request to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with a new law in line with international human rights standards.

"In the North, protests by victims indicate their growing frustration over the slow pace of reforms. I encourage the Government to act on its commitment in Resolution 30/1 to establish transitional justice mechanisms and to establish a clear timeline and benchmarks for the implementation of these and other commitments," he said.

Within 48 hours, President Sirisena on Tuesday night (12) authorized the Gazette notification which brought the Office of Missing Persons operational with effect from Friday (15). However, this move seems to be in question as well with several parties questioning the legality of the President holding the portfolio under which the OMP falls.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) has raised serious concerns over the issuing of a Gazette notification, signed by President Maithripala Sirisena, as Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation, last Tuesday (12) operationalizing the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), saying that it was in violation of the Constitution.

The CPA added that it is disappointed by what seems a complete disregard of the constitutional framework in Sri Lanka and commitments made in 2015 to usher in good governance, rule of law, democracy and reconciliation.

It is also a sad reflection of a process that has been flawed from the outset, resulting in numerous delays and obstacles in the enactment of the legislation, establishment and operationalizing of the OMP, the CPA said.

Elaborating further the press communiqué released by the CPA indicated:

"Prior to the 19th Amendment the President could assign to himself any subject or function not assigned to any other Cabinet Minister. This provision was repealed by the 19th Amendment. However, a special exception was made for the person holding office as President on the date of commencement of the 19th Amendment. After the General Election of August 2015, the President, in terms of Article 43 (2) of the Constitution, issued two Gazette notifications appointing Members of Parliament in charge of Ministries.

Thereafter, in terms of Article 43 (1) of the Constitution, the President issued Gazette (Extraordinary) 1933/13 dated 21st September 2015 which, assigned subjects and functions to the previously allocated Ministries. Furthermore, this Gazette of (1933/13 dated 21 September 2015) established a "Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation" which had not been allocated to any Member of Parliament. However, the President does not have the power to assign to himself any subjects and functions outside those specified in section 51 of the 19th Amendment. As such the parts of Gazette (Extraordinary) 1933/13 dated 21st September 2015, which assigned to the President powers, as the Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation, are unconstitutional."

As a result, CPA noted that the legality of the act to operationalize the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), as provided under Section (1) 2 of the Office on Missing Persons Act is now in question.

Rock Star in trouble

Dubbed as 'rock star' for being vociferous about rocking the foundation of Yahapalanaya, former Deputy Minister Arundika Fernando was in for a shock with President Sirisena sacking him from his portfolio overnight.

President Sirisena seems to have taken old words 'Kill one, frighten a thousand' of Chinese Communist Chairman Mao Tse-Tung seriously. This, along with the unexpected fate of the most powerful administrative officer during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime Lalith Weeratunga having to go behind bars seems to have send a 'strong' message across a certain section who lived in a bubble that the hand of the law is not long enough to reach them.

Sacked Deputy Minister of Tourism and Christian Affairs Fernando met President Maithripala Sirisena on Wednesday (13) seeking reinstatement, but was told no way and that there may be more sackings.

"President had a meeting with SLFP ministers and deputies on Tuesday night and mapped out a plan to restructure the party organization," Co-cabinet Spokesman Dayasiri Jayasekera said.

He said several ministers who had been identified as those hoping to quit the government had made it clear on Tuesday night they were committed to backing President Sirisena.

The position of two SLFP ministers is however, still in danger with two seniors from Rajapaksa camp vying to join the government.

Fernando was sacked, though it was not immediately known as to what triggered the sudden decision to strip Fernando from his portfolio, sources claimed because of his attempts to get the best deal from the Rajapaksa camp, President Maithri or the UNP that went wrong and boomeranged on him.

He had apparently reportedly demanded millions of rupees to continue supporting the President.

Co-Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told reporters at the post-cabinet press conference in Colombo that the President made it clear to Fernando that he will not pay any ransom money to keep anyone in the government.

"I don't have the kind of money you are asking, but even if I had, I won't give you," Senaratne quoted the President as saying.

MR disturbed

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that the recently convicted former Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga and the former Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) Anusha Palpita had merely carried out presidential orders with regard to the Silredi issue.

With what appears like a self-admission, Co-cabinet Spokesman, Minister Senaratne said yesterday anyone interested can take former President Rajapaksa to Court regarding the Silredi case as he has openly declared that Weeratunga and Palpita were arrested for carrying out his orders.

"Rajapaksa has waited all this time to say this. He could have gone to Court, when the Silredi case was being heard and said that it was his fault. But he didn't, this is the extent of his 'bravery'," he said.

Senaratne quoted a number of directives issued by the Commissioner of Elections, during the 2014 Uva Provincial Council Election and the 2015 Presidential Election, regarding the distribution of Silredi. In September 2014 the Commissioner had written to the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) stating that he had received information that the UPFA candidates for the Uva Provincial Council Election were distributing Silredi, along with election propaganda material.

"In the letter, the Commissioner said that this was a violation of election laws and if someone went to Court over the matter, he would be compelled to support the allegations and provide all the evidence he had. The Commissioner also warned that this was a grave violation that can easily lead to a Councillor being stripped of his position. The Commissioner sent a series of letters to the UPFA in January 2015 about the Silredi distribution to which Weeratunge and Palpita were found guilty of, stating that it is a blatant election law violation. So this is an indefensible act," he said.

Senaratne added that this is similar to the incident where former President Chandrika Bandaranaike was taken to Court over the Waters Edge case.

The following are excerpts of the statement issued by former President Rajapaksa:

"The former Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga and the former Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) Anusha Palpita were declared guilty by the High Court under Section 386 of the Penal Code of 'dishonestly misappropriating' a sum of Rs 600 million belonging to the TRC by remitting the said sum to a bank account of the Presidential Secretariat to be used for the purpose of distributing Silredi during the last Presidential Election.

To say that this conviction and sentence has shocked the country would be an understatement. The judgment itself states that neither Lalith Weeratunga nor Anusha Palpita had appropriated for their personal use any of the money used to purchase Silredi.

From my point of view, they only carried out legitimate instructions issued to them by the President of the country. The verbal instructions given by me in this regard have been recorded in the form of minutes placed by Weeratunga on correspondence with officials of the Presidential Secretariat. On 20 March 2014, Weeratunga wrote a minute to the Senior Assistant Secretary of the Presidential Secretariat outlining eight projects that I had ordered funded through the President's Special Development Fund during the year 2014.

"The sixth item on this list was providing 'material aid' to the devotees observing Sil at temples on Poya days. The other projects on the list included funding for the IT section of the Kotelawala Defence University and assistance to construct houses for low income earners in the former 'border villages' etc. On 12 May 2014, in yet another minute to the Senior Assistant Secretary Weeratunga had stated that I had given instructions that Silredi be distributed to devotees observing Sil on Poya days. This was long before the declaration of the Presidential Election. The purpose of the President's Special Development Fund which had an annual budget of Rs 1,000 million, and was started in 2012, was to fill the gaps left by other ministries and to meet requests made directly to the President. The Coordinating Secretary for Religious Affairs of the Presidential Secretariat Ven. Watinapaha Somananda Thera was in charge of implementing the Silredi project.

At the latter's request, the Economic Affairs Ministry carried out a survey through Samurdhi Niladharis to identify the requirements of Silredi at temples countrywide. The suppliers were instructed to hand over the Silredi to a main temple in each Divisional Secretariat area from where they would be distributed to other temples. This was a project implemented countrywide, involving 11,021 temples. This was aid supplied to the temples, not to voters. After the Silredi reached the temples, the Chief Incumbent monk became the sole authority who could decide when, how, and to whom the Silredi would be distributed. No time frame was imposed on the temples to carry out the distribution. They could have been distributed either immediately or even a year later at the discretion of the Chief Incumbent of the temple.

Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita were never charged for election related offences even though this is being portrayed as a case relating to the misuse of public property during election time. Under Section 164 (4) of the Criminal Procedure Code, the charges brought against the accused have to clearly state the law under which the offence said to have been committed, is punishable.

This has very serious implications for State employees at all levels. If for example an employee of the Customs Department is taken to Courts for allegedly violating procedure, the only way to prove or disprove that such a violation took place is through written and verbal evidence from within the Customs Department itself. If in such cases, even the testimony of witnesses brought by the prosecution is not taken into account on the grounds that they had worked with the accused and were therefore partial, the accused government servant will have no defence at all. Another matter of grave concern in the case of Lalith Weeratunga, is that the handwritten instructions given by the highest State official in the land to his subordinates have not been considered by the Court.

If this becomes a precedent, no State employee charged in a Court of law will ever be able to prove his innocence.



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