South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Simmering tensions between President Maithripala Sirisena and the Constitutional Council (CC) chaired by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya came to the fore this week, in Parliament, while the United National Front (UNF) abruptly put-off its controversial motion to establish a ‘National Government’ with the sole MP representing the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

Ending his more than three months’ absence from Parliament, the President, on Wednesday, made an unannounced visit to the House and made it an occasion to air his frustrations about the conduct of the CC and independent commissions, particularly the Human Rights Commission (HRC).

The President claimed that the CC had rejected without explanation the names of 12 judges he had forwarded for promotion. He said the CC, in a letter, had notified him that the seniority of judges was “not a factor” when selecting judges for promotion. If this was so, on what criteria did the CC select judges for promotion? the President asked.

Accusing the the HRC of standing up for “criminals”, he hit out at the HRC for questioning the deployment of the Special Task Force (STF) to the Angunukolapelessa Prison.

In another broadside at the HRC, the President blamed the independent body for the deaths of two Sri Lankan peace keeping soldiers in Mali. The President said the deaths could have been avoided if the HRC had not delayed the vetting process to send reinforcement to Mali. The soldiers would have returned home six months ago, if the HRC had not dragged its feet on the vetting process, he said.

“Not only the CC, but also the other independent commissions that were formed under the 19th Amendment had no approved guidelines. As such, these institutions work without being subjected to any limitations,” he complained.

The President’s statement prompted Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to come back strongly the following day against what he said were “erroneous statements” and “unjustified allegations” the President had made in his speech.

Noting that the guidelines followed by the CC when making appointments had been tabled in Parliament as far back as 2016, the Speaker stressed that the President had made an erroneous statement that seniority had not been counted by the CC in selecting suitable persons as judges. “What we stated was that seniority was not the only yardstick that we had adopted,” the Speaker insisted.

The Speaker also noted that the CC had only chosen names from the lists forwarded by the President and had not recommended any names outside the lists for promotion.

He also challenged the President’s claims that the CC had rejected 12 names forwarded by the President to be appointed as judges to the superior courts.

“Only one name was selected by us in the instances where three to four names had been proposed for one vacancy, the Speaker said, adding that depicting the procedure as rejections of the President’s nominees was not fair by the Constitutional Council.

Mr. Jayasuriya said that levelling severe criticism against independent commissions such as the HRC, without first seeking clarifications, would cause long-term damage to the country.

Opposition MPs strongly protested against the Speaker’s statement, with Chief Opposition Whip Mahinda Amaraweera calling for an immediate debate on the conduct of the CC.

House Leader Lakshman Kiriella pointed out that the Government had already agreed to debate it on another day this month. His retorted that the Government would not grant even that debate if the Opposition insisted on a debate immediately. This prompted heated arguments between the two sides, forcing the Speaker to temporarily halt proceedings to hold a party leaders’ meeting. Party leaders later agreed to hold the debate as scheduled later this month.

Thursday’s Parliamentary sessions were expected to be far more heated however, as the UNF was due to present its controversial proposal to establish a ‘national Government’. This proved to be a non-event when the party suddenly reversed course and deferred the motion to a future sitting.

The 11th hour decision was taken despite Chief Government Whip Gayantha Karunathilake sending letters to Government MPs informing them that it was mandatory for them to be present in the House throughout Thursday to vote for the motion. The UNP claimed that the reason to put off the motion was because it did not wish to suspend the Standing Orders of Parliament to debate it. The Opposition pooh-poohed the claim, saying that the real reason was due to the UNF being unable to muster the simple majority to pass the motion.

Opposition MPs could not contain their glee at the humiliating backtracking of a Government that had been so bullish less than 24 hours ago, when it decided to take up the motion ignoring opposition from all other parties. National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader Wimal Weerawansa quipped that they had risked their very lives to be in the chamber to fight against the motion, only to learn that it would not be presented. He was referring to an incident just before noon on Thursday when he and 11 other MPs, mostly from the Opposition, became trapped for about 15 minutes inside a Parliament lift.

On Friday (8), Parliament debated the preliminary report of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) (From 01.07.2017 to 30.09.2017).

Unsurprisingly, the debt-laden national carrier, SriLankan Airlines, figured prominently. Speaking during the debate, COPE Chairman and JVP frontliner Sunil Handunnetti made some startling revelations regarding the salaries of senior officials of the airline. He noted that, according to the latest documents the COPE had received, up until December 31, 2018, the airline’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) had been getting as his monthly salary a staggering Rs. 3 million, which was equivalent to Rs 100,000 a day. Seven officials who were part of the airline’s senior management earned upwards of Rs 2 million a month. He queried how such colossal salaries could be awarded to those at the management level when the airline was losing millions of rupees on a daily basis.

Mr. Handunnetti then came up with another revelation: He claimed the airline’s directors held a crucial board meeting regarding the purchase of eight wide-body aircraft on March 1, 2013 at the then Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa’s official residence in Battaramulla. The airline’s Director Board usually meets at its World Trade Centre office or in the head office meeting room. In his observations, the Auditor General had observed that holding such a meeting at the Speaker’s residence was “highly unusual,” the JVP member said.

In response, former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa claimed he had no knowledge of such meeting and asked that the minutes from the said Director Board meeting be tabled. He, however, acknowledged that one of his sons was also on the airline’s director board at the time. “If he had held the meeting at the Speaker’s official residence, then I accept that it is wrong,” he said.


Updated On: 19.02.10