Members of Parliament (MP) being the privileged class that they are, usually encounter a few stumbling blocks to their almost unfettered right to freedom of expression within the chambers of the Legislature, along with the cloak of Parliamentary privilege to protect them against anyone from the outside who may want to challenge their utterances.
The sub judice rule which prohibits an MP from referring to any matter on which a judicial decision is pending or is under adjudication of a Court of Law, is one such stumbling block, which for the moment, Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa cleared last week by allowing Democratic National Congress (DNA) MP Anura Dissanayaka to make a statement to the House on the “Hedging” deal, a matter now before an Appellate court in the United Kingdom.
The Speaker’s ruling came after Government members objected to Mr. Dissanayake’s statement on the ground that an appeal is pending against the ruling given by a British court, which recently ruled that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) owed up to US$ 162 million to a foreign bank over the Hedging deal. Hence, Leader of the House Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva argued that discussion of the issue in Parliament would be in violation of the sub judice rule.
For the Speaker however, it was not only a matter of balancing the interests of the Government side, but of also of protecting the right of all MPs to speak within the Legislature, and hence, he gave a ruling which probably left both sides feeling they had won.
He allowed Mr. Dissanayake to make a slightly amended statement to the House, but overruled the argument by Opposition members, including the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe, that the sub judice rule did not pertain to civil cases. He also did not agree with Mr. Dissanayake’s contention that the sub judice rule does not cover cases pending in courts abroad, but only in Sri Lanka.
The Speaker said that, “Standing Orders does not specify any such limitations on the application of the sub judice rule, and with the development of communication technology such as the internet, what takes place in one country can have a bearing on another thousands of miles away. One of the parties to the hedging deal is in this country and hence, we have to take that fact into account,” he ruled.
In his statement, Mr. Dissanayake queried as to who was really responsible for the Hedging deal which has now put the country on the brink of a massive loss. He also outlined the details of the various Cabinet decisions and memoranda that he had compiled on how the deal was done. “The Government must tell us as to who is going to pay for the losses incurred by the country due to this deal,” he queried.
If he was looking for answers, he, like everyone else who listened to Petroleum Resources Minister Susil Premajayantha, must have been sorely disappointed. What the Minister did was give a briefing on the historical background as to how the country began buying oil from way back in 1960, with the Hedging deal as one such method, which he made a passing reference to.
He had no answers, but plenty of excuses, as to why the Government had to make some hard decisions, which later turned bad, to keep the country’s economy going. “We were engaged in the humanitarian operations which were incurring huge amounts of money.Oil prices in the world market had hit a record high and we had to keep our economy steady,” the Minister said.
He said that Hedging was one of the accepted forms of purchasing oil, and the Government had resorted to it in the interests of the country. “We have appealed against the London court ruling and are awaiting its verdict,” he said.
One cannot blame Minister Premajayantha for his evasive reply, because he was Education Minister when the Hedging deal was done, and is now being forced to defend those who were the brains behind the decision.
Additionally, the Opposition Leader asked the Government to ensure that the local government polls in the north are held in a free and fair manner without intimidation.
What he got was a tongue-in-cheek reply. “It won’t be a repeat of the District Development Council (DDC) elections held under the UNP. The end result of that was the burning of the Jaffna Public Library,” Minister De Silva said.