ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 13

Courting a constitutional crisis - Parliament

By Nadia Fazlulhaq

An unprecedented crisis or confrontation between parliament and the Supreme Court emerged this week with Speaker W.J.M Lokubandara having to use all his skills in a balancing act between breaches of privilege of parliament and any contempt or insult to the Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, while Education Ministry Secretary Ariyaratna Hewage was in the Supreme Courts to respond to questions regarding the latest petition on Grade One admissions, in parliament Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe stated that the secretary could not be questioned in the Supreme Courts, especially if he was following instructions given by the Education Minister on the implementation of the latest circular which was based on a parliamentary consensus.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said since the ministry secretary was implementing a decision of parliament, summoning him to court on that issue could be a breach of parliamentary privilege. Hitting out hard, Mr. Wickremesinghe said two judges of the Supreme Court had no right to overturn a decision approved by 225 MPs elected by the people. He urged the Speaker to convey this to the Supreme Court.

But the dispute did not end there. On Thursday, the petition came up in the Supreme Court again and some comments made by the Chief Justice provoked a noisy debate in parliament.Amidst charges and countercharges, an apparently helpless Education Minister Susil Premajayantha said he saw no option but to wait for the new order by the Supreme Court tomorrow.

UNP frontliner Lakshman Kiriella charged that the government was dependent on the Supreme Court for its survival and that was the reason why the government leaders were silent on what he saw as a clear breach of parliament’s powers and privileges. Another controversial issue last week related to the All-Party Representative Committee and its reported report on the devolution of power.

Picking up on an earlier onslaught by the JHU, which had slammed the APRC chairman, Tissa Vitharana, as an LTTE conspirator, the JVP warned the government that a move towards federalism had brought down the Ranil Wickremesinghe government and the same fate would befall this government if it went the same way.

Amidst a babel of views and interpretations on what will be given and what won’t or can’t be given, the government’s chief whip or whipper Jeyaraj Fernandopulle vowed the government would not go beyond its stand on a unitary state. The UNP and the TNA scoffed at the unitary state proposals, saying it would take Sri Lanka into a bigger muddle.

Then came a thunderbolt from the sky, when Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera brought up the alleged frauds in the multi-million dollar MiG-27 deal. He said the huge deal had been worked out by a ghost company which had a London call centre as its address and the whole sordid transaction was being probed by the Ukrainian government.

Both Mr. Perera and JVP parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa called for the setting up of a parliamentary select committee to probe the MiG racket. On behalf of the government Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake agreed to this proposal. Another explosive issue was on the COPE, its reports and the alleged inaction or back-pedalling on allegations of frauds amounting to billions of rupees in some 46 state institutions.

COPE Chairman and SLFP MP Wijedasa Rajapakse – widely reported to be among those on a possible crossover course – criticised the government, saying that he believed the decision to appoint 26 select committees to probe the 26 state institutions which faced corruption charges was a violation of the constitution, standing orders and privileges of COPE.

The JVP also was furious. Mr. Weerawansa said that instead of pulling out and punishing the culprits, the government was putting committees on committees with reports on reports and eventually little or no action would be taken. Finally Mr. Rajapakse said parliament should approve a motion for the Bribery Commission to probe 16 of the 26 cases spotlighted in the first COPE report.

On Thursday, the government introduced a controversial bill -- the Code of Criminal Procedure (special Provisions) Bill – allowing the detention period of suspects in murder, abduction, rape and robbery cases to be extended from 24 hours to 48 hours. The UNP and significantly the JVP voted against this amendment to the Code on the basis that extra power could be misused.

As sittings ended on Friday, the focus was on the Supreme Court order tomorrow and whether it would be a case of courting a constitutional crisis on a key issue for tens of thousands of children and parents.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.