10th December 2000
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Fiery young guns steal the show

By Dilrushi Handunneti, Our Lobby Correspondent
The UNP seems to be growing mischievous. It is yet to be judged whether they have actually got its act together, but the JVP's presence in the House is certainly serving a dual purpose. While the JVP is effectively thrashing out issues with its customary fire, its natural ability to steal the show has finally spurred on the UNP to be pro-active. 

In the week that sped by, the assembly by the Diyawanna lake had fire breathing first time legislators- scandals being unearthed and ministers being categorized as 'mega' and 'buddy' models. Adding to the theatrics of the House, shedding his generally lacklustre conduct was UNP's Jaffna District parliamentarian T. Maheswaran, driving to Parliament in a bullock cart, reminiscent of the Dahanayake days of 'loin cloth' clad MPs. 

Young guns boomed, in a legislature studded with new faces, with a particular face managing to steal the show at every given opportunity- JVP's Wimal Weerawansa, the biggest beneficiary of the adjournment debates who held the House entertained by his spell-binding deliveries.

Law professor G.L. Peiris is certainly not riding a popularity wave in the ruling coalition. The minister, affectionately referred to as the ' kokatath thailaya' had to muster all his eloquence to explain the validity and acceptance of a Vote- on -Account- and reiterate that there was nothing sinister about the practice. The professori made excuses for the non-presentation of a budget "as it was imprudent soon after a poll without adequate time to prepare a budget proper'

For the UNP, Ravindra Randeniya was an unusual choice to open a debate of such economic magnitude. Making his maiden speech sans the usual tremors of a new legislator, Mr. Randeniya called for broader consensus.

Calling for the establishment of the four commissions, he critiqued the PA for getting cold feet about the Police Commission. He raised the vital query that if the people wished for an overhauling of the system, whether it was fair not to introduce such changes because they weren't politically opportune.

The UNP's bullock-cart feeling was given verbal expression in the evening by its new deputy whip Mahinda Samarasinghe who moved an adjournment motion calling for the immediate increase of a Rs. 2,000 salary increase to public servants and Rs. 750 to all pensioners until discrepancies were studied and payments were structured accordingly.

Openly scoffing, Mr. Samarasinghe wanted the 'senior deputy finance minister' to explain the specific functions of the two deputies. 

JVP's Wimal Weerawansa stood up to second the motion.The Che-Guevera look-alike MP in his customary fire-breathing manner explained the cause and effect of unequal distribution of resources. 

Leading the defence, and hence earning the wrath of the opposition was MEP's Bandula Gunawardhane. The former opposition MP who had returned to the House after a lapse of six years- and this time on the ruling side played the role of traditional government MP to the hilt as he waxed eloquent about various economic indicators. 

Minister Maheepala Herath sought to further strengthen the government's argument. But he couldn't resist taking digs at what he saw as the 'Wimal-Ranil camp' to malign the government. 

"Only the PA is truly interested in equal distribution of resources among the people. The UNP carried heavy baggage, and the JVP is no better. Today, these two parties are jointly preaching to a government which re-established the right to life" he thundered. 

But the UNP pulled the rug under the government's feet effectively. Minister S.B. Dissanayake was all poised to reply to the question when a chorus of opposition reverberated with Mahinda Samarasinghe himself refusing to have it answered by the brand new deputy finance minister. And the House immediately went back to the original question- the necessity to demarcate the areas coming under each deputy to avoid confusion. This drew an angry response from the leader of the House Richard Pathirana. He opined that any minister could answer a question and the Opposition immediately shot back as to why there were separate portfolios in that case!

The House immediately transformed itself- to a battle field where the for and against arguments were pitted against each other. But opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe persisted that it was only fair to have a proper statement about the areas coming under each of the deputy finance ministers. "There is a deputy finance minister for the morning, and another for the evening. It is alright if you rely on the shift, but we have to know who handles what," he said, insisting that specific functions should be gazetted. 

Speaker Anura Bandara-naike saw the validity of the point- nonplussed he put the question to the government. As minister Richard Pathirana, furious by the UNP's mischief said to hell with the gazette notification when minister Dissanayake has been entrusted with the task of replying, UNP chief whip smoothly used the confusion to his advantage-by asking the motion be put to a vote.

And there stood UNP's equivalent to Erskine May- cheeky A.H.M. Azwer requesting the motion to be put to a vote with exasperated protestations by the Speaker that there was no proviso for an adjournment motion to be put to a vote!

This drew an angry response from minister Pathirane who thundered that as far as Mr. Azwer was concerned, every ailment merited a quote from Earskine May!

"Erskine May could say anything. But as Speaker you must uphold the traditions of the House," he said, with Azwer pleading his cause. " We cannot depart from tradition" said the exasperated Speaker, but Azwer shot back that according to Erskine May of course, healthy confessions could be created- and amidst chaos, the time lapsed, leaving Minister Dissanayake poised to reply and on his feet- while a jubilant UNP marched out with a sense of victory.

And the spirit of rebellion prevailed among opposition ranks throughout the tri-pronged debate. Thursday saw UNP's Naveen Dissanayake making his maiden speech- when he reminded the House of his illustrious father who held the House spell-bound with his fine oratory. Young Dissanayake argued that the PA was not committed to re-establishing democracy in this land.

"Once we were known as the Asian Switzerland. But today we are certainly Paradise Lost. Where are our values, our past glory and our programs for a better tomorrow?" he queried. But Dissanayake obviously caught deputy minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage on the raw- who sprang to his feet to zealously attack the former leaders of the UNP. 

" There are children of former UNP leaders who then violated fundamental principles of democracy. Mr. Lokubandara spoke like the 'Horiwila Wedamahattaya'. The worst perpetrators who held this country in the grips of terror are today preaching democracy, anti-corruption, virtue and independent poll. Stand before a mirror to get the reflection of the living evil" he sniped, immediately drawing blood- with UNPers springing to their feet in defiance.

"You are a Devadatta" thundered Mr. Sirisena, and Aluthgamage parried" If I am Devadatta, don't forget you are a bunch of Ajasattas".

UNP's Jaffana member Maheswaran captured the front pages of newspapers with his bullock cart ride to the legislature. And the young man locked horns with the EPDP ranks during his speech. 

" We have to speak on their behalf, but nobody knows what happens to them. This is because the Jaffna politicians have accepted the dangling carrots and have bartered their souls for a pot of gold," he said, and EPDP's Thawarasa immediately countered the argument.

"You are all paid by the government to do a dirty job. You have forfeited the right to represent Tamils. Shut up and sit down- all those who have no honour" he thundered. 

The week, which augured healthy debates, drew to a close on Friday- but just before the vote was taken, sparks began to fly anew. This time, MP John Amaratunga informed the chair, that the presidential proclamation calling for the extension of emergency had been issued on the December 4, in Colombo.

" But she was in London Sir. This is a fraudulent document". Dr. Sarath Amunugama, surrounded by a fresh controversy with proposals to introduce a water entitlement deed jumped to the government's defence. With the UNP pacesetting that the proclamation lacked a legal foundation as it was not issued in Colombo as claimed by the proclamation, Dr. Amunugama pinned hopes on the fact that if the signature was not disputed, instead of causing emergency to lapse, to take the vote. With the date of the proclamation playing havoc in the House, and the gentle professori denied his reply- the vote was taken, largely due to Speaker Anura Bandaranaike's effort not to allow the arguments to reduce the House from the sublime to the ridiculous. And Erskine May had a much-deserved rest after a week of exhaustive use!

Focus on Rights

Death penalty won't cure diseased system

In this country, barbarity exists at different levels. At one level, there is, of course, the war. On another level, there is immense barbarity in society with rising rates of crime and physical assaults, murder and rape and its specific manifestations in political and electoral violence. 

On yet another level, there is violence within the family, which as recent studies have highlighted, continues to be one of Sri Lanka's most well kept secrets and thereby the most difficult to come to grips with, given the social stigma of personal shame. All in all, we have fallen victim to a pervasive barbarism. To which, the quick fix answer appears to be that severe punishment will be an adequate deterrent. For the social barbarism at least. Hence the current proposals to resume executions.

If these unashamedly populist proposals are carried through by this government, Sri Lanka would notch for itself another world record for perversity of a different kind. For it so happens that this year marks a record number of countries across the world who are either abolishing the death penalty completely or imposing a moratorium on executions. These countries include Nepal, East Timor and Albania. We, on the other hand, join the minority of countries not only stubbornly resisting such moves but returning to actual implementation of the death penalty such as the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey and Uganda. Indeed, ideally we should go one step further and emulate the United Arab Emirates which passed a new federal environmental protection law in October 1999 that imposes, among other punishments, the death penalty for those who import any banned materials or nuclear waste and dump or store such materials in any form inside the country. This law was enacted, in the most subtle of ironies, after UN experts issued warnings about the level of pollution in the region.

In Sri Lanka, the government first announced a policy change towards the death penalty on March 13, 1999 as part of a larger issue of the presidential prerogative of granting remissions of sentences imposed by the courts. The intention was that death sentences imposed in cases of murder and drug trafficking would be carried out and would not be commuted to life imprisonment if the judge who heard the case, the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice unanimously recommended the execution of such sentence. Reportedly, the last execution to be actually carried out was 26 years ago, in June, 1976.

Responding then, this column pointed out precisely how the whole argument for bringing back the death penalty missed the wood for the trees in a more superb manner than usual. The anomalies were obvious in a country which contemplated resuming executions but was plagued with weaknesses in police investigation procedures and a criminal justice system riddled by politicization, corruption and inefficiency. And the measure of international concern felt at this announcement was aptly summed up by a passionate appeal made soon thereafter by Amnesty International's Secretary General Peirre Sane who expressed deep dismay that Sri Lanka may be on the verge of resuming executions, after 23 years of being a de facto abolitionist country and against an unmistakable international trend towards world wide abolition. Sane urged that the policy change be reconsidered and that an in depth study be carried out to increase understanding of the actual situation of criminality in the country, its causes and the means available for combating it.

"This in turn may help to increase the public understanding of crime prevention and criminal justice and provide more support for anti crime measures which are genuine and not merely a palliative for public cries for law and order," he said.

Instead, one year after this proposal was first put forward by the government, the death penalty issue has been reactivated and continues to be seen as a criminal justice problem rather than as a human rights question. From the standpoint of criminal justice itself, the argument that re imposing the death penalty may deter people from resorting to violent crimes has no substantive basis in fact, as was found by a Commission on Capital Punishment in Sri Lanka as far back as in the late 1950's.

In recent times, this is well illustrated by countries such as South Africa and Russia virtually outlawing the death penalty in spite of having some of the most violent crime rates in the world. 

In 1995 for example, a decision of the South African Constitutional Court declared the death penalty to be incompatible with the prohibition of "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" under the country's interim constitution. The judgment had the effect of abolishing the death penalty for murder. And in Russia last year, then President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree commuting the last death sentence in the country to a prison term, emptying death row and in effect eliminating capital punishment.

More than anything else, one argument against the death penalty has a deadly persuasive historical validity. The present law mandates that the death penalty could be imposed by "an order of a competent court made in accordance with procedure established by law". To what extent however is the order of such a competent court infallible? In February 1998, an Appeal Court in the United Kingdom posthumously overturned the conviction of Mahamood Hussein Mattan, a Somali national who was executed in September 1952 after a trial strongly tainted by racism. Then, of course, we have the classic case of Hanratty, a 25 year old petty criminal who was hanged some 37 years back for the murder of a man and the rape of his girlfriend. New evidence recently revealed however that vital evidence which could have led to his acquittal had been suppressed at the time of his trial by senior police officers. The disclosures led to a wave of public indignation against the execution fuelled by friends and family of the hanged man who had always been convinced that he had nothing to do with the murder and that Hanratty had been used as a scapegoat by the police under public pressure to find the killer.

Other examples abound. In February 1994, authorities in Russia executed Andrei Chikatilo for the highly publicised murders of 52 people. The authorities acknowledged that they had previously executed the wrong man, Alexander Kravchenko, for one of the murders in their desire to stop the killings quickly. Another innocent man suspected by the authorities of the killings committed suicide. On April 21, 1998, the Supreme Court of Uzbehkistan posthumously quashed the conviction of a former Uzbek government minister, Usmanov who was executed in 1986 on charges of corruption. 

A number of countries which retain the death penalty have recently released condemned prisoners who were mistakenly convicted. 

They include the Philippines, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, Malawi, Turkey, the United States of America and Japan. In the latter country, two innocent prisoners were released after each spent 34 years under sentence of death.

For Sri Lanka, one single question remains at issue. Do we really want the actual carrying out of a Presidential signing of the death warrant so that he (she) will be hanged by the neck until he (she) is dead"? For to believe that the mere bringing back of the death penalty would cure a diseased system, one has to be either very simple minded or very political. 

Instead, of course, the horror of human beings deliberately put to death by the State will only heighten unbearably the sense of barbarity that is presently gripping this country.

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