I believe that the current minister of justice must resign – Ashu

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By 2017-08-21

BY RATHINDRA KURUWITA AND UMESH MORAMUDALI

United National Party (UNP) MP Ashu Marasinghe was one of the architects of the proposal to remove the Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, which was discussed at the party's working committee meeting last week. Ceylon Today spoke to Marasinghe to find out why he took such a step.

?You were one of the key figures clamouring for the eviction of the Justice Minister. What made you initiate this step after two years?

A: In our election manifesto in 2015 the United National Party (UNP) promised to eradicate corruption and bribery and ensure that those responsible for massive financial crimes are punished. To make this happen the Ministry of Justice has to play a pivotal role.

We needed to bring in new laws and we needed a new court to expedite cases of massive financial fraud which occurred during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration.

These things have been done in other countries; Singapore has such courts, so does Hong Kong. There are plenty of other countries who have expedited court hearings. Even in Sri Lanka we have set up trials at bar when it comes to serious cases to expedite hearings, for example, the High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya and Jaffna student S. Vithiya murders. So you can't say there are no provisions in our legal system to expedite court cases. We have been discussing this for the last two years within the party.

During these discussions Minister of Justice, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe insisted that this can't be done and that if we needed to set up courts to expedite hearings we will have to change the Constitution. But that is an utter lie and we were patient with him for two years because we thought he would change his mind eventually. But it became increasingly clear that he was not doing justice to his ministerial portfolio. He wasn't doing what the government or the people expected of him.

So my proposal was to show him that the party does not trust him anymore. In my proposal I said because the Justice Minister has not fulfilled his duties, the UNP has become greatly unpopular among the people. I added that he has also failed to bring in new laws to punish the corrupt, as we promised in our 2015 General Election Manifesto and that the people of the country are upset about the extended time that takes for a court case to be finalized. Then I proposed that because of these factors the UNP Working Committee and the UNP MPs have lost their faith in the Minister of Justice. My proposal was seconded by MP Sidney Jayarathne, however before he could second it Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe also made a speech repeating what he had been saying over the last two years, i.e. we need to amend the Constitution to expedite court hearings. At this point Deputy Minister Ajith P. Perera and a number of others pointed to him that there is no need to change the Constitution for this.

?It was said that the UNP Working Committee and the Parliament Group was unanimous against Rajapakshe?

A: Yes, and a lot of MPs also criticized him for breaching the collective responsibility of the Cabinet by criticizing the Concessionary Agreement on Hambantota Port. I questioned him as to why he was giving the impression that the port was being sold when in reality it was being leased. When asked him why he used the word 'sold' he stated that he did not use the word sold and we had to point that this is the word he used in his Facebook page's 'sponsored ads'. I saw one of these promoted posts has reached over 323,000 people and it was also obvious that he was spending close to US $ 100 a day to promote his posts on Facebook. A person could make a slip of the tongue or use the wrong word or statement but he or she will not keep on promoting the same statement if it was not what he or she wanted to say, would they?

When this was pointed out Rajapakshe said that he was not in charge of his Facebook page and that he is not aware of what is being promoted on Facebook. Now this is a blatant lie, almost everyone knows that his son is the administrator of his Facebook page. I doubt that Rajapakshe's son would promote something he doesn't want on Facebook because people consider what is promoted on a politician's Facebook page as a reflection of what he feels.

Another disconcerting aspect of his character is that he can't take legitimate criticism against him without resorting to personal attacks. For example when Deputy Minister Ajith P Perera criticized the delay in corruption hearings, Rajapakshe called him a Ké wattaya (a stooge). But he calls himself a Maha Pragnaya (a great wise man). Who calls himself that? Does the President give himself such elevated titles? Does the Prime Minister do that?

If he is such a wise man, how can he not be able to take criticism in his stride? A wise man will listen to constructive criticism and change his ways. Then he accuses me of joining the UNP recently. What does that have had to do with anything? What matters is whether someone is attempting to protect the policies of a party and its reputation.

We have no personal problems with Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. Our problem is a matter of conscience and principles. It's obvious that Rajapakshe is not in line with the policies of the party or the government. Minister Mangala Samaraweera said this during the working committee meeting; Minister Samaraweera said that Minister Rajapakshe is not on the same wavelength as other MPs of the UNP.

?During the Working Committee meeting it was agreed to give Rajapakshe until Monday to clarify his stance publicly. Do you think that he would accept that he has made a mistake and return to the UNP fold?

A: He was given time till today and today there is also a meeting of all government MPs. We hope this matter will be discussed in depth during this meeting which will be attended by United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) MPs and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs.

But I don't think that Rajapakshe is the kind of person who admits to mistakes or would change his ways. For example as I said the Minister said that he does not know what is being promoted by his Facebook Page, but now he knows because we showed him, however he has not yet changed the sponsored posts which contain wrong information about the Concessionary Agreement on Hambantota Port. Thus he still is violating collective responsibility of Parliament. If you monitor his Facebook feed, you will know what his statement will be like.

I think most people have an idea of what to do and the AG's Department is also acting with great professionalism. The AG also knows what needs to be done, but the only thing is that as long as Rajapakshe remains the Minister of Justice nothing is going to happen.

?So, does that mean that there is nothing wrong with the AG's Department, is it? In the recent past the AG's Department was widely criticized for the delays in corruption cases?

A: The only problem in the AG's Department is that it has limited resources and they are stretched. This is something we should look at and I don't think the government will hesitate to provide the necessary funding if the Minister of Justice ever asked. But he has never asked for additional funding to strengthen the AG's Department. We heard that some AG's Department officers don't even have a desk. Whose fault is this? Isn't the Minister of Justice supposed to look into these matters and address them? This is the problem we have with Rajapakshe, he does not do what he is supposed to do.

?A number of Ministers and MPs have pointed out that while corruption cases against the Rajapaksa family proceeds slowly, legal action against members of the current administration has been swift. Do you believe that Rajapakshe is behind this?

A: We asked him why are some cases finalized in a rapid manner and others get delayed. For example, the case against UNP MP Hirunika Premachandra was completed within months while there are only about two court dates a year to hear a case against a Rajapaksa family member. What we said was that if we had a separate court for serious corruption cases there would not be any delays, and we have also spoken to the AG about it. We suggested reserving two High Courts in Colombo for this so that cases are expedited. We have discussed this at the oversight committee in Parliament about the time taken to finalize cases in Sri Lanka. According to the AG, on average it takes 10 years and two months to settle a law suit and this is bad for so many reasons. One is that people get angry at the slow pace of justice and can lose faith in institutions. Another is that if an innocent person is accused of a serious crime, it will take a decade for him to clear his or her name and by that time his or her future prospects would have been damaged beyond repair.

But according to international standards, the legal experts recommend to finalize a case before two years. We also feel that the maximum time that should be taken to finalize a court case must be two years and we need to have such a system soon.
I hope that the next Minister of Justice will have the commitment to ensure that the will of the people is implemented. And I believe that the current Minister of justice must resign so that we will be able to fulfil the promises we gave the people.

?Who do you think will be the next Minister of Justice?

A: I can't say who will be appointed to the post yet but there are plenty of MPs who have vast experience in the legal field. I think there are a number of such experts in the UNP and I hope someone like that will be appointed. But that person also needs to have a strong will to make the necessary changes.

?As you stated there are a number of issues in the current legal and judicial system. What are the most pressing areas that need to be addressed according to you?

A: The legal and judicial system is important for everything, from equality to development. We need to have the necessary laws and institutions so that people of this country keep their trust in the judiciary. And this trust is vital for everything. I hope that the next Minister of Justice holds wide consultations and make the necessary steps to address areas that are of great concern.

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