Major corruption cases: Wheels of justice begin to grind following President’s outburst

Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe under heavy fire; UNP takes unanimous decision for his removal, but minister remains defiant

Sirisena seeks former AG Marapana’s advice on how to expedite cases; Consultation with CJ and AG proposed

President takes more control of economy by setting up NEC; SLFP ministers meet business community

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ministers launched their own drive last Wednesday to woo the business community as they moved for an increased role in economic development.

It came just 24 hours after the Cabinet of Ministers approved a recommendation by President Maithripala Sirisena to establish a National Economic Council (NEC) of Sri Lanka. For more than two weeks, Sirisena’s Cabinet Note had been on hold until Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who chairs the Cabinet Committee on Economic Development (CCEM), discussed the matter with Sirisena.

With that over now, ministers decided that the Secretary to the President and the Secretary to the Prime Minister would meet to formulate how the CCEM will function vis-à-vis the National Economic Council, which will become the supreme body for formulating economic policies and development. The two senior officials are expected to define how CCEM discussions and decisions would finally be channelled through the new Council.

As exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) on July 30, the NEC “will be a professionally-managed, high level, national advisory institution reporting directly to the President…” It will consist of various divisions in charge of the key economic areas related to development plans and priorities of the Government. “The NEC will make recommendations to the Cabinet of Ministers on economic policy,” Sirisena noted. Chaired by the President it will include the Premier, their respective Secretaries, the Finance Minister, Secretary to the Cabinet, Governor of the Central Bank, Treasury Secretary and Secretary to the Ministry of National Policy and Economic Affairs. Ahead of the presidential election in January 2015, Sirisena pledged to “establish a National Economic Planning Council.” He then said “it would not act on pecuniary considerations but out of love for the country.” Later, during his visit to Bangladesh in July, in his talks with Prime Minister,Sheikh Hasina, he studied their model of the NEC and how it functioned.

The new drive of the SLFP ministers was launched when each of them invited their own “stakeholders” to take part in what was termed an “evening of fellowship” for two hours at the Galle Face Hotel. The invitations were in the name of Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva as Senior Vice President of the SLFP. The idea, as one SLFP minister explained, was to have a sizeable segment of the business community backing them, much the same way they supported the United National Party. He said the President hoped to have an ongoing dialogue with them.

President Sirisena told those present that in the past he had not got directly involved in economic development activities. As a result, even the SLFP ministers were not fully involved. He said now that the NEC was being set up, the position would change. Both the SLFP and the UNP, he said, would be able to work together and move in one direction. The meeting with select invitees of the business community comes ahead of next week’s SLFP 66th anniversary sessions. After the ministerial meeting last Tuesday, Sirisena chaired a discussion with senior SLFP ministers on plans for these sessions. Also taking part was former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It came amidst speculation that some MPs now backing former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would attend. However, ‘Joint Opposition’ leaders dismissed the report saying there was no truth.

Corruption debate
If the move to set up a National Economic Council was one of the important decisions last Tuesday, the ministerial session was not devoid of the controversy over corruption that is plaguing the ruling coalition. That the election pledges to deal with those of the previous regime were delayed, the Ravi Karunanayake saga had turned the searchlight inwards. When it came to “Any other business”, it was Sustainable Development and Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, a senior UNPer, who set the ball rolling. He said it was very embarrassing for everyone to face the public. So many promises were made to deal with corruption and now they could not go back to their electorate. His speech was to trigger off a lengthy discussion.

Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake said there were 87 cases related to corruption pending whilst action had been taken in courts in respect of 12. He said in the coming weeks, more prosecutions would be carried out. Ravi Karunanayake, who resigned last week from the post of Foreign Minister, said he set a new political culture by quitting. There are people in the UNP whose feelings are with the Opposition. The delays in prosecuting those in the Opposition, particularly those connected to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and members of his family, some ministers noted, were inordinately delayed. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, in a bid to ward off suggestions that it was his Ministry that was responsible for inaction, was to make clear that the Attorney General’s Department was not under his control. Moreover, setting up of Courts dedicated to dealing with only cases related to corruption, required a constitutional amendment. Both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe remained silent as the discussion continued.

Sirisena then intervened to say that he should ask Tilak Marapana, who had been a former Attorney General, for his views. It was only this week that Marapala, Minister of Development Assignments was named the Minister of Foreign Affairs replacing Ravi Karunanayake, who resigned last week amidst an alleged bribery scandal. He opined that if the Government takes up with the Chief Justice and the Attorney General the need for a High Court to devote its attention to cases involving corruption, the process could be speedier. He cited an instance where the accused in the VAT fraud case were tried before a High Court which sat daily. That was how that case was concluded in two years, he pointed out. The VAT scam case was the result of one of the biggest fraud inquiries in Sri Lanka and the documents ran into more than 4,000 pages. Senior State Counsel Bhuvanaka Aluvihare (now Judge of the Supreme Court) prosecuted whilst Tilak Marapana PC (now Foreign Minister) defended the suspects. Sirisena declared that steps should be taken towards adopting the same method.

Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka warned that the allegations of corruption were very serious and had come at a time when the Government was to face local and provincial elections. He said the Government would learn a big lesson if serious attention is not paid to the issues arising from the situation. By delaying or ignoring high profile cases, Ranawaka said, they were strengthening “unnecessary forces.” To make matters worse, the people were now thinking that they were being victimised to cover up the Government’s own shortcomings.

Are Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe heading in different directions? Both are seen at the Heta Dakina Ranil exhibition being held at the BMICH. Pic by Indika Handuwela

In fact, former President Rajapaksa said in a statement this week that “the corruption of what he called the the ‘Yamapalana government’ comes to light in dramatic and unexpected ways. “T hey are engaged in a desperate attempt to deflect public attention by hauling members of my family to the CID and FCID. The extent of the panic in the ‘Yamapalana government’ is evident in the shrill announcement that special courts will be established to hear cases involving the Rajapaksas. This is in complete violation of the constitutional provisions relating to the equality of all persons before the law and the presumption of innocence. Even if such a special court is set up, what is the evidence that can be placed before this court? The government claims that properties worth Rs. five billion belonging to members of my family had been seized by the state or courts of law. This is a complete falsehood…..”.

Minister Ranawaka told the Sunday Times yesterday that the Commission of Inquiry now probing the Central Bank bond scam did not have teeth, was a misconception. They (the Commission) could recommend to the Attorney General to take legal action if anyone was found to have violated the law. In such a situation, it was up to the AG to seek the help of state investigative agencies if necessary. The AG should file civil cases for the revenue loss and also recommend proper guidelines for the future, he said.

PM meets AG
Wednesday’s news briefing following the Cabinet meeting saw Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, the official spokesperson, announcing that there would be Trial-at-Bar at the High Courts to try cases related to corruption. His own ministerial colleagues were to later contradict his assertions. He said, “If we converted one or two High Courts into Trial-at-Bar, we can have one Trial-at-Bar in the morning and the other in the evening. So, four cases could go on simultaneously. This has happened before. This, and increasing the number of High Courts don’t need any amending of the Constitution. All it needs is the approval of the Chief Justice. If the Attorney General and the Chief Justice can agree to this, it can be done. This will clear up the doubts people have as to when the thieves will be caught.”

On Wednesday, Premier Wickremesinghe held a meeting with Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya at ‘Temple Trees’ to discuss follow-up action on the ministerial discussions. Present on the occasion was Minister Rajitha Senaratne. The Premier also sought from the AG a schedule of the pending cases and how his department chose to proceed with them.

The snowballing effect of President Sirisena’s remarks at a Cabinet meeting last month that the UNP leadership stalled high profile cases involving the former President, members of his family and associates continues to reverberate. There appears to have been considerable soul searching by the party hierarchy over those responsible and what form of action should be initiated against them. It is in this backdrop that a group of UNP back-benchers supported by seniors collected signatures for a Vote of No-Confidence in Parliament on Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. It was not only over his remarks against the Hambantota Port project with the Chinese, which he vowed to take back one day, but also covered other reasons. As revealed in these columns last week, Premier Wickremesinghe persuaded those sponsoring the Vote of No Confidence not to proceed. He said that it required approval of the Working Committee and himself as the leader of the party.

When the Working Committee, the main policy making body of the party, and the Parliamentary Group met at a joint session at UNP headquarters Sirikotha on Thursday morning, moves against Rajapakshe dominated the discussion. This time, Ashu Marasinghe MP proposed and Sydney Jayaratne MP seconded a motion to remove Rajapakshe from his portfolio as Minister of Justice. The accusations listed against him in the motion were:

  • He failed to introduce new laws to prevent bribery and corruption in keeping with the United National Front manifesto.
  • He failed to introduce new laws to re-acquire monies illegally gained by persons.
  • The Minister has been criticised by the public for the failure to ensure justice to them due to the delay in hearing criminal cases.
  • The actions of the Minister of Justice have eroded the popularity of the United National Party among the public.

Hence, the motion said, the UNP Working Committee and the UNP MPs have lost confidence in Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe.
There is little doubt that it was Rajapakshe’s responsibility, as the Minister of Justice, to have enforced some of the promises in President Sirisena’s pledge for a “Compassionate Government and a Stable Country” during the presidential election. One promise was to make Constitutional provisions for the “establishment of a powerful Anti–Corruption Commission which is capable of finding out technical, managerial and financial corruption without any political interference in its activities.” Another was to strengthen and activate the Commission to Inquire into Allegations of Bribery and Corruption by making it an independent Commission recognised by the Constitution. Sirisena pledged that action would be taken to reinforce corruption prevention structures in accordance with the Anti-Corruption Charter of the United Nations to which Sri Lanka is a signatory.

Follow up measures on such matters, no doubt, fell on the Ministry of Justice. That there has been no such action for the past two and half years is one thing. On the other hand, Minister Rajapakshe ran into a storm of controversy over his personal friendship with businessman Nissanka Senadipathi when controversies over his firm Avant Garde Maritime Services cropped up, something the Minister initially denied till Minister Sarath Fonseka released some damning photographs of the Minister and the wealthy businessman on holiday together overseas. The Minister also kept saying he had no powers to have the Rajapaksas arrested, which though factually correct, fuelled speculation that he was protecting them.

The question that begs answer is why Government leaders paid no attention to Rajapakshe’s ‘serious lapses’ in the past two and half years. Despite ministers raising issue at Cabinet meetings and MPs shouting in Parliament against delays in cases against Avant Garde amassing wealth through a sole monopoly for maritime security, which Rajapakshe stoutly defended, action was not forthcoming in the past. Moreover, civil society groups which backed the present government at the polls, also demanded last year that Rajapakshe be removed. It fell on deaf ears then. It is clear the wheels of justice or the troubleshooting has begun to move only after Sirisena admonished the UNP leadership.

At the joint UNP Working Committee–Parliamentary Group meeting on Thursday, speaker after speaker was bitterly critical about Minister Rajapakshe. It began with Deputy Minister Ajith Perera, one of the principal movers of the earlier No-Confidence Motion planned in Parliament against the Minister. He was critical about Rajapakshe’s contradictory views which brought embarrassment to the party. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who made clear, it was not a personal issue, was emphatic that it concerned the party and the well-being of the Government. Other speakers included, Sarath Fonseka, John Ameratunga, Nalin Bandara, Ruwan Wijewardene, Sydney Jayaratne, Harsha de Silva, Ranjan Ramanayake, Ananda Aluthgamage, Ashoka Abeysinghe, Chandima Gamage and Eran Wickremeratne. The only support for Rajapakshe came from Minister Daya Gamage who pleaded that his colleague’s case be considered sympathetically.

Rajapakshe to fight back
When it came to the end of the discussion, leader Wickremesinghe wanted to know whether there were any persons against the motion. Wickremesinghe made no move to lay-by the motion. Amidst the silence, the motion was carried unanimously. In a move that surprised many of those who attended the joint Working Committee-Parliamentary Group meeting, Wickremesinghe named a three-member Committee to forward to him a report on the discussions, including the resolution, and recommend what action should be taken. The Committee is headed by Mangala Samaraweera and includes party general secretary Kabir Hashim and Ravi Samaraweera. He has sought the report to be handed over to him as early as tomorrow (Monday) since he is expected to discuss the issue with President Sirisena. Should the Committee recommend Rajapakshe’s removal as Justice Minister, a position which has become somewhat irreversible after the resolution adopted at the joint meeting, such a course of action can only be taken by the President. This again is based on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.

During Thursday’s joint meeting, Rajapakshe was on the back foot, denying he told newspapers in interviews that he would take back the Hambantota Port.

Retorting to the response was Ashu Marasinghe, who moved the resolution against him. He asked the Justice Minister why he had posted the full text of the interview in the Lankadeepa in his Facebook account. Rajapakshe did not answer. In an interview with our sister newspaper Lankadeepa , Rajapakshe declared he would not stop short of taking back the Hambantota Port through legal means. Noting that it cannot be done by force, he declared, when asked whether he would quit the Government, Hitiyath Ekai, Nethath Ekai or no matter whether he remains or not. He has said elsewhere, that the country was bigger than the government to him.

When the joint meeting at Sirikotha ended, Wickremesinghe had a one-on-one meeting with Rajapakshe. No details of what they discussed were available. According to a well-informed UNP source, leader Wickremesinghe could take a conciliatory approach to the issue only if Rajapakshe would publicly express his regrets and apologize for his lapses. “That way, it will become clear that the party as a whole was not responsible for scuttling or slowing down any probes and the public will get a clearer picture,” the source said.

However, Rajapakshe, a source close to him said, was in a defiant mood. “He is neither going to resign nor offer apologies, for he has done no wrong,” the source said. He would, of course, not want to be equated with Ravi Karunanayake who also took up a similar position, before he eventually resigned last week. Rajapakshe has taken up the position that if he, as a President’s Counsel, was not fit to be a Justice Minister, who then would be suitable. He will choose his next step only after the form of action that would be taken against him was known to him, the source disclosed.

Rajapakshe yesterday attended religious ceremonies at the Malwate Temple in Kandy. In a Video posted later on his Facebook, he said he had no intention of quitting the Cabinet and declared the allegations against him were false. He said it was only the President who can decide whether he could be removed.

PC elections
Contrary to expectations, Tuesday’s weekly meeting of ministers did not discuss matters relating to elections to three Provincial Councils (PC) whose terms end this year. It was only the previous week the Cabinet decided on a recommendation by Premier Wickremesinghe to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to hold all PC elections on the same day. For this purpose a 20th amendment has been formulated. However, thereafter the SLFP Central Committee decided unanimously not to put off PC polls. Some Central Committee members, who are Ministers and MPs, even declared that they would vote against such amendments.

Official Government spokesperson (representing the SLFP), Dayasiri Jayasekera told Wednesday’s post Cabinet news briefing that “no one should misinterpret” the 20th Amendment as an attempt to postpone PC polls. “That is our stand as a Government,” he said. Jayasekera added: “No proposal was presented to the Cabinet on postponing Provincial Council elections. That has to be stated very clearly. The proposal was regarding holding all PC Elections on a single day. That is something all of us have been discussing. The Elections Commissioner has stated that holding a single PC Election costs Rs. 800 million. As such, holding such elections on a staggered basis is an enormous problem and also causes issues for Government officials. On the other hand, all political parties have to set up camp in these areas during election time. This causes rifts and even clashes in some cases. It was as a solution to all these issues that a proposal was made to hold all PC Elections on one day. This was brought as a separate proposal. At no point did we envisage to postpone an election. Decisions regarding this matter can be taken in future.

“At the same time, it must be pointed out that we changed the electoral system for the local council elections. As such, it is our stand that these changes must also be effected for the PC elections before they are held. The SLFP voted for the 19th Amendment to the Constitution expecting the passage of the 20th Amendment later on. Therefore, it isn’t enough that the system is amended for the local council polls. They must be effected for the PC polls as well. No one should misinterpret this as an attempt to postpone PC elections. We discussed this at our Central Committee meeting and we agreed unanimously that this amendment should not be used to postpone elections. That is our stand. As a Government, we also didn’t bring this amendment (20A) to postpone elections, but to ensure that they are held on a single day.”

Last week’s reference in these columns about the Chairman of the Elections Commission (erroneously referred to as Commissioner of Elections) Mahinda Deshapriya writing to President Sirisena has drawn a response. Rajan Hoole, a member of the Elections Commission in a letter to the Sunday Times says; “The post of Election Commissioner (Commissioner of Elections) was abolished by the Nineteenth Amendment and replaced by the Election Commission consisting of its Chairman and two members of whom I am one. We function as a team, most of the time with full unanimity. We are the Election Commission but are often mistakenly referred to as the Elections Commission because, presumably, we replaced the Commissioner of Elections. The letter you refer to was drafted together by all three of us sitting down at a Commission Meeting and signed by all three of us, not just the Chairman. We said a lot more in our two page letter…….”

Election Commission Chairman Deshapriya this week told a gathering at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute for the awarding of its National Diploma in Politics and Political leadership that “The Election Commission’s position is that the postponement of elections or extension of the term is not healthy for a good democracy. If you are a good leader take responsibility and give the praise to others.”
On Tuesday, the Memorandum of Understanding between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) will come to an end.

Nevertheless, the two sides will continue as a coalition. President Sirisena is on record saying the matter would be reviewed by December 31. With their relations taking a downward trend, how the two sides will fare until the deadline remains a focal question.

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