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Privilege issue tests parliament's supremacy

By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent

Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa may have been elected unanimously by the House as the custodian of the rights and privileges of all the MPs for the next six years but last week his ability to exercise his duties in an impartial manner was put to the test.

This came when he was asked to rule on the privileges of two detained MPs who were prevented from attending Parliament.

In the first case last Tuesday UNP Kalutara district parliamentarian Palitha Theverapperuma, who is in remand custody over charges relating to an election-related offence, was not brought to Parliament by prison authorities despite a letter from the Parliament Secretary General that he be allowed to attend sittings.

Several opposition members raised issue on Tuesday when Parliament began the two-day debate on the extension of the state of emergency. An affable Speaker assured them that Mr. Theverapperuma would be brought to the House before the end of the day. But this did not happen. The MP was brought to Parliament only on Wednesday in what was seen as a clear breach of his privilege as an elected member to attend legislative sessions.

But more contentious was the case of Retired General Sarath Fonseka, leader of the Democratic National Alliance and Colombo District parliamentarian. He was allowed to attend Parliament on Tuesday morning by military authorities on condition that he should leave parliament by 2 p.m. to face a court martial inquiry against him at Navy headquarters.

The war-winning General brought the issue to the notice of the Speaker and urged him to safeguard his privileges as an MP by allowing him to attend the full day's sittings. The Speaker, after consulting the Attorney General, informed that the DNA leader could attend the full day's sittings.

However the real test for the Speaker came the following day when General Fonseka was not brought to Parliament after the court martial decided to reconvene the same day.

Pointing out that said Gen. Fonseka's rights as an MP had been violated, an angry DNA MP Anura Kumara Dissanayaka asked the Speaker to give an immediate directive to allow the DNA leader to come to the House.

The DNA's call was backed by the UNP. But it also found an unlikely ally in Minister Wimal Weerawansa. To everyone's surprise, he stood up to speak in support of Gen. Fonseka's right to be present in the House. It was the same Mr. Weerawansa who carried out what many saw as a venomous campaign against the General during the presidential race in January.

"It is insignificant on which side of the House we are sitting when it comes to safeguarding the privileges of MPs. Whatever his previous positions may have been, today he is Sarath Fonseka, a Member of Parliament and hence he too has to enjoy those privileges," the minister and National Freedom Front leader said.

He also told a somewhat astonished House that instead of giving daily directives to allow MPs who are in detention to attend sittings, a general directive should be issued to relevant authorities to allow detained MPs to attend Parliament.

Gen. (Retd.) Sarath Fonseka, flanked by DNA MPs, expressing his displeasure over what he saw as violation of his parliamentary privilege during a news conference at the parliamentary complex on Thrusday

Also fighting for Gen. Fonseka's rights was the embattled Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He asked the Speaker to follow the precedent set by former Speaker Anura Bandaranaike who had ruled on the supremacy of the Legislature over the Judiciary when a dispute arose in 2001 with regard to a Supreme Court restraining order that sought to prevent an impeachment motion against the then Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva from being taken up.

Drawing a parallel, the UNP leader, respected as an expert in parliamentary traditions, said: "Speaker Bandaranaike's sister Chandrika Kumaratunga was the President at the time -- like the brother of the present Speaker is the President now."

The Opposition Leader also pointed out that a court marital was not a judicial body and since the laws under which it was convened were passed by Parliament, the Speaker could over-rule its decision to summon an elected member before it on a Parliament sitting day.

But expecting the present Speaker to rule in favour of the former Army Commander-turned-politician may be asking for too much, given the complexities of the case.

Despite assurances of "looking into the matter" by the Speaker, the issue got filibustered till sittings ended for the day, prompting DNA MP Dissanayake to present a motion, which was seconded by the UNP's Dayasiri Jayasekera.

Deputy Speaker Priyankara Jayaratna who was in the chair disallowed the motion on the grounds that no prior notice of it had been given.

Even when more than 20 MPs stood up as provided by Standing Orders, their attempts proved futile. The end result was a walkout by the UNP and the DNA prior to the vote on the extension of the state of emergency on Wednesday evening.

Gen. Fonseka was allowed to attend sittings the following day but by failing to take a firm stand on a privilege issue in the first sitting week of Parliament itself, the Speaker may have set the pace for an erosion of parliamentary powers and privileges which the MPs so jealously guard irrespective of their political differences.

Privilege issues aside, the extension of the state of emergency was taken up for debate but this time several of the harsh regulations were done away with due to the improved security situation. Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratna said while the laws could be scaled down, the government needed to have in place some special laws to check the growing clout of the LTTE elements abroad.

While UNP deputy leader and its Gampaha District MP Karu Jayasuriya opened the debate on behalf of the Opposition, it was First Son Namal Rajapaksa who was given the honour by the government side to speak after the Prime Minister's speech.

It was indeed a rare honour for the 23-year-old Hambantota District MP. The youngest in the present Legislature has his father President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the first citizen and uncle Chamal Rajapaksa as Speaker and another uncle Basil Rajapaksa as a senior minister and frontliner.

"Thousands of young people of my age have lived under emergency laws all their lives. It is a positive sign that some of these laws are being relaxed and soon the day will come when they will all be removed," he said.

The two-day emergency debate also gave the opportunity to a large number of first-timers to make their maiden speeches. A total of 79 new members were elected and nominated to this Parliament.

While the views of the younger set of MPs did give hope that the seventh parliament would fare much better than the acrimonious legislature of the past six years, an attitude change by some of the more experienced members would help Parliament to become a place of meaningful debate and discussion -- and not a place for useless banter.

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