UNP power struggle ends in Ranil’s favour;Sajith missing at crucial meeting

= Six-year term makes Wickremesinghe undisputed UNP leader till 2018; but election results will show party's acceptance among the masses
= Rishad Bathiudeen faces contempt of court charges, puts Government in major crisis; CID probe seen as a move to save the minister

It was a week studded with events that qualified for a major chapter in Sri Lanka’s political history for both the main opposition and the ruling UPFA government. That it came against the backdrop of elections to three provincial councils – the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and the Eastern – on September 8 added more significance and greater relevance.

In the opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe, 62, became the undisputed leader of the United National Party (UNP) until 2018. This was after the party’s main policy making body, the working committee, decided unanimously to do away with annual elections for the post of leader and that he or she would be elected every six years.

Protesting crowds opposite Mannar Courts

Such a leader would thereafter appoint the party’s general secretary, chairman and treasurer. The decision could mean that Wickremesinghe could remain as UNP leader even after President Mahinda Rajapaksa has finished his six-year term in November 2016, unless, of course, he defeats him at the next presidential election. Rajapaksa began his second term in November 2010.
In the government, Rishad Bathiudeen, Minister of Industry and Commerce, telephoned the Mannar Magistrate cum District Judge Anthonypillai Judeson twice and allegedly abused him and demanded that he change a judicial order he had delivered. It was an order to maintain the status quo until a dispute over fishing rights — a dispute between two communities — was resolved. In what appeared to be clearly a politically backed exercise, enraged members of one community stoned the police, hurled objects at the courthouse and chanted abusive slogans against the judge. The Judicial Officers Association called for contempt charges to be filed against Minister Bathiudeen for this audacious conduct which amounted to interference in the work of the judiciary.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) met in emergency session and decided its members would not attend courts in protest on Friday. As a result the functioning of courts countrywide was crippled. In Colombo, the Supreme Court did not sit and the Registrar re-scheduled dates for cases. In the Court of Appeal, judges who sat, fixed all cases for different dates. Some lawyers walked out of the court premises carrying placards calling for the independence of the judiciary.

In the case of the UNP, it was Srinath Perera PC — who probed the incidents outside Sri Kotha on December 19 last year — who made the recommendations. He said the party should do away with elections for top posts.

Thursday’s decision was for the party leader to remain for six years. The new draft amendments to the UNP constitution had been made by Tilak Marapana, PC who was a former Attorney General and one-time Defence, Aviation and Highways Minister. In terms of the changes, the party leader would pick the general secretary, chairman, treasurer and nominate a deputy leader, assistant leader and national organiser. However, for the latter three posts, if one third of the working committee puts forward a candidate (other than the name proposed by the leader), there would be an election. One-time minister John Amaratunga moved that the UNP constitution be amended. Marapana explained the amendment. Several persons seconded the motion. Ajit Perera MP called for a shorter term. Malik Samarawickrama, a one-time UNP chairman, wanted to introduce an amendment to reduce the term to three years.

These were not agreed to.UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake told a news conference after the working committee meeting that the decision to extend the term of office of the leader to six years, instead of the present practice of electing the leader annually, was to ensure “stability in the party”. Some sections within the party, were, however, displeased and even angry. Earlier, a committee headed by Senior Assistant Leader Joseph Michael Perera had recommended party reforms last year. This committee said the leader be elected every year. Constitutional amendments were made to pave the way for this. It will now be amended again to fall in line with the new decision.

At Thursday’s working committee meeting, it was first proposed that the term of office of the UNP leader be extended by four years. However, a chorus of voices shouted that a four-year term was inadequate and that it be extended to six. Significant enough, no one raised objections to the extension or to the proposal that it would be the leader who would name the general secretary, chairman and the treasurer. It was carried unanimously, bar the muffled suggestions of reducing the term. There was a more important discussion due and only a few party stalwarts knew it. It was an announcement, ahead of going public, that the party leadership has decided to sink all differences and move as a “united force”. In other words, Leader Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa were to join hands. They were to travel from electorate to electorate in the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provinces talking to the public to demonstrate that they had sunk their differences. This was not through public rallies but meeting up people at public places, and galvanising the party organisers around the country. It was to begin on July 25 and end on 29. This was to be the main thrust in the UNP’s campaign. In fact, the party’s advisory committee, which met a day earlier, on Wednesday, had endorsed the measure – not the measure to do away with elections for the leader’s post, but the announcement that unity had been forged. Sajith Premadasa was at that meeting.

Another meeting of the advisory committee was scheduled for Thursday morning, to be followed by the working committee in the afternoon. But the man who agreed to the détente or the relaxing of strained relations, Premadasa, for some inexplicable reason, was not present at this meeting.
The détente was forged after behind-the-scene negotiations by Malik Samarawickreme, a Wickremesinghe confidant and working committee member. Samarawickreme had long tried to patch up differences earlier working in tandem with Premadasa confidant, the late Bodhi Ranasinghe. This time, he shuttled between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa working out the modalities for a unified approach by the leader and the deputy leader. According to the deal that was finally wrapped up, both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa were to jointly address a news conference on Thursday, just after the working committee meeting. However, Premadasa did not turn up for either the advisory committee or the working committee meetings. It was at the morning meeting that the move to bring in the amendments was first discussed.
When Premadasa did not show up for the afternoon meeting as well, his supporters in the working committee scurried to get in touch with him. His mobile phone was switched off. Premadasa had neither telephoned nor written to the party hierarchy about his inability to be present. Some of his supporters claimed he was sick.

Several working committee members who were relieved that there was going to be unity at last in the party were exasperated when they learnt of Premadasa’s move. At the working committee meeting there were questions on why he had not turned up. “This is clear proof that Premadasa is a puppet in the hands of a few outside the party,” said one angry working committee member. “Now let us see whether he will travel with Leader Wickremesinghe on the campaign trail or just play hide and seek,” another added. Yet another declared “the honourable thing for Sajith to do would be to leave the party instead of causing further internal haemorrhage if he is unable to work with the leader, despite the many promises he makes to the contrary.”

Wickremesinghe had even named party seniors to be in charge of campaigns in the three provinces. However, he said the people had not asked for these polls. There was a clamour for the conduct of elections to the Northern Provincial Council but the government was not paying heed to this. Joseph Michael Perera was appointed to be in charge of the North Central Province. Others appointed were: Vasantha Aluvihare – Polonnaruwa District; Mangala Samaraweera – Ratnapura District; Lakshman Kiriella and Ravi Karunanayake – Eastern Province; John Ameratunga – Batticaloa District and Harin Fernando – Ampara District.

The topic changed when both Ravi Samaraweera and Upali Samaraweera along with Harin Fernando raised issue over the planned visit to the Badulla District by former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. Ravi Samaraweera was to refer to a letter written by General Secretary Tissa Attanayake after Fonseka was convicted by courts. In that he had asked party branches among others to conduct Bodhi Poojas and other religious activities for the release of Fonseka. He had said that they would have to visit all places of worship and ensure this was carried out. Ravi Samaraweera said Fonseka was now planning to visit Badulla on August 12 to go to the same places of worship to offer thanks for his release.
Wickremesinghe: We have a crisis. It is unethical to go to champion causes outside the party. Fonseka has not had the courtesy to even inform me or the party that he intended to travel to these places and sought assistance in the form of asking MPs or others for help.
Harin Fernando (UNP- Badulla District): Sir, we are losing the support of the people if we don’t go.
Dilip Wedaratchchi: Sir, why don’t you invite Fonseka to join the UNP.

Wickremesinghe: That is what I told you. We will give him a 20-rupee membership. He has to come and join us.
Wickremesinghe then went on to explain how the UNP had offered Fonseka to contest on his party’s ticket at the 2010 parliamentary elections. He accused Democratic National Alliance (DNA) MP Tiran Alles of misrepresenting matters regarding this and influencing Fonseka to contest on the DNA ticket. The working committee was to thereafter take a unanimous decision that party members including MPs should not take part in any event connected with Fonseka or his party. That leaves very little choice for MPs like Palitha Range Bandara (Puttalam District), Palitha Thevarepperuma (Kalutara District) and Ashoka Abeysinghe (Kurunegala District). Further involvement in Fonseka events by these MPs would invite disciplinary action against them.

A stone with shattered glass lies on the judgs table inside his chambers

Not surprisingly, four members of the working committee — Harin Fernando, Ravi Samaraweera, Dilip Wedaratchchi and Upali Samaraweera — went direct from the working committee meeting to the nearby residence in Kotte where Fonseka is now living. There they found not only Fonseka but Tiran Alles too. The foursome tried to persuade Fonseka to write a letter to the party about his impending visit to Badulla. That is very fair, noted Fonseka. However, Alles was to interject and remark “no, you cannot do that”.
“If you want, you write to the organisers,” Alles told Fonseka. Fernando was to add that none of the foursome would be able to do anything if their party hierarchy did not approve it. They had, during their interaction, noted a marked divergence in the thinking between Fonseka and Alles. The former was more conciliatory and accommodating whilst Alles was not. They later withdrew after indicating that they would not be present for Fonseka’s tour of the Badulla district.

Meanwhile, two incidents that shocked the Bar and the Bench occurred in Mannar. Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, had returned to Colombo on Thursday afternoon after a flight from Ampara. This was after his party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress which has chosen to go it alone at the PC polls in the Eastern Province, had handed in nominations. He received a telephone call from a Senior Assistant Secretary in the Judicial Services Commission (JSC). Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike, he said, had asked that Hakeem be informed about an incident in Mannar where his cabinet colleague, Rishad Bathiudeen, had allegedly intimidated, threatened and tried to force a judge to change an order he made. Hakeem, who is himself a lawyer, immediately telephoned BASL President and UNP Parliamentarian Wijayadasa Rajapaksha. He proposed that the two of them fly out to Mannar immediately to talk to all concerned parties and resolve the matter. However, Rajapaksha explained that he was at a meeting of the BASL committee and would respond later. After the meeting, the BASL issued the following statement:

“The Executive Committee of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka at an emergency meeting held on 19.07.2012 unanimously expressed its strong condemnation and abhorrence of the incident which took place in Mannar where the Court premises came under attack and the District Judge and Magistrate Hon. A Judeson was threatened and subjected to questioning by Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, Minister of Rehabilitation. In the unanimous view of the Executive Committee, this conduct amounts to a serious and unwarranted interference with the Administration of Justice and the Judicial process and undoubtedly amounts to Contempt of Court.

“The BASL is taking steps to initiate contempt proceedings against the wrong doers, including the Minister, to vindicate the honour, dignity and the respect of the holders of judicial office and of the judicial system. We unreservedly stand behind the judiciary and we will always endeavour to support it whenever any threat to it is perceived.

“The Executive Committee at today’s emergency meeting also decided to call upon every member of the Bar in every court in Sri Lanka to refrain from attending and appearing in court as a sign of solidarity with the Judicial Officers and for the respect we have for the Courts. We call upon the Honourable Attorney General and the other law enforcement authorities, including the Inspector General of Police to forthwith have the investigations commenced and to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

The Sunday Times has learnt that the BASL will now initiate contempt of court proceedings against Minister Bathiudeen and a number of others in the Court of Appeal tomorrow. Police Chief, N.K. Illangakoon, a seasoned stickler for discipline who has on some occasions withstood political pressure unlike some of his predecessors, immediately despatched a CID team to Mannar. A spokesman for the President’s Office said yesterday that it was the President who had asked that a CID team be sent. They will together with the local police conduct a full investigation into the string of incidents including the conduct of Minister Bathiudeein – and probably, the judge. The President’s Office was trying to blame the judge for ordering the police to shoot the mob, something they didn’t do.

This is not the first time that Bathiudeen has figured in a highly controversial incident. In October 2010, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) held a ceremony in Mannar to distribute two-wheel tractors to farmers. They had already identified the most deserving farmers and invited Bathiudeen to be the chief guest and to present the tractors to them. He arrived at the ceremony, ignored the ICRC list and distributed some tractors to his own supporters.

Some two months ago, he caused a gaffe when he turned up at Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday party at the residence of the British High Commissioner. He was the official representative of the government of Sri Lanka. In his speech, he referred to the event as the British “national day.” The fact that there was no national day in the British calendar was lost on him.
He was also involved in a spat with the Bishop of Mannar, Rev. Rayappu Joseph. It was over allegations that people were being settled in private lands which the owners had been forced to give up during the war. In one of the statements he issued, Bathiudeen blamed “certain persons in white cassocks who were mouthpieces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).” When the controversy developed, Rev. Joseph wrote to President Rajapaksa and the re-settlement was stopped immediately. The Bishop had also written to the Pope. During Rajapaksa’s visit to the Vatican last month, Pope Benedict XI raised with him issues relating to Rev. Joseph’s safety. He sought an assurance that he would not be harmed.

The origins of the issue in Mannar go back to 1997. During the separatist war, the second entry/exit point to the Tiger guerrilla controlled Wanni (first being Omanthai) was located at Parayanakulam along the A-14 Medawachchiya-Mannar-Pooneryn highway. Along the coastal stretch, some 12 kilometres from Mannar, lay Vidattaltivu, a fishing hamlet. After the guerrillas set up a Sea Tiger base there, a group of Tamil fishermen were displaced. They left the guerrilla dominated territory to government-held territory in Mannar. The fisher families were allowed to pitch huts or wadiyas in Kohondapitty, a coastal dump where human waste was thrown in the days when drainage systems did not exist. District officials came under pressure, reportedly from Minister Bathiudeen, to return the land to Muslim fishermen and re-settle the Tamil fishermen in Vidattaltivu. However, the move saw the owner of the land at Kohondapitty obtaining a court injunction against this move.

Against this backdrop, the Tamil fishermen had remained in Kohondapitty for over 15 years. According to complaints received by the Mannar Police, supporters of Minister Bathiudeen had allegedly set fire to the fishing huts and boats. A problem had developed since the fishermen had laid an estimated two million rupees worth of fishing nets in the high seas. They complained to police that their families were starving after their livelihood was lost. There were complaints that the police were hesitant to act since a cabinet minister was involved. When a tense situation had developed, police had little choice but to report the matter to the Magistrate cum District Judge Judeson to seek a ruling. For them, it had now become a standard practice to maintain law and order amidst political pressure through court orders. The Magistrate cum Judge ruled that everyone had the right to engage in their profession and asked the police to maintain the status quo until the matter was peacefully resolved.
According to the complaint received by the Judicial Service Commission from Judeson, Minister Bathiudeen had telephoned him on Wednesday. “If you do not listen to me, Mannar will be on fire,” the Industry and Commerce Minister had allegedly told the Magistrate cum Judge in Tamil. The latter had protested that he was interfering in the judiciary and that could not be tolerated. The next day, mobs attacked the newly built High Court premises, scheduled to be opened only next week.

There was partial damage to the building and property. Protestors shouted slogans asking the judge to come out and made other accusations. The Army was called in to help police to maintain law and order. Judge Judeson held a meeting with lawyers of the Mannar private bar to brief them on what happened. Some said they were eyewitness to the developing events and offered to make statements to the police. The court staff had immediately stopped working as a sign of protest. Even an application to be filed by lawyers on behalf of Minister Bathiudeen could not be handed in due to the absence of the staff.

After this incident, according to Judeson’s complaint to the Judicial Service Commission, Minister Bathiudeen had telephoned Judge Judeson again. This time, he had allegedly reminded the judicial officer that he (the Minister) had done what he said. “If you don’t act now, you will know,” the judge has quoted the Minister as telling him. He had asked whether the judge would now change his mind and revoke the order already made. Lawyers at the Mannar Bar complained that the two calls made by Minister Bathiudeen were not only threatening but highly intimidatory. Yesterday, CID detectives helped by the Mannar Police were recording their statements.

Judicial Service Commission (JSC) sources told the Sunday Times Minister Bathiuddin had also made a complaint after he met the secretary to the JSC, Manjula Tilakaratne. He had claimed that the judge in question was a sympathiser of the LTTE – a charge which a JSC official dismissed as ludicrous. Thereafter, the minister had wanted the judge transferred out from Mannar. “Even someone in the judiciary whom they dislike for doing the right thing is branded terrorists,” the official who spoke on grounds of anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media said. It was after a clearer picture emerged that both the JSC as well as the Bar Association of Sri Lanka had embarked on their course of action. The Sunday Times learnt political pressure was brought to bear on some BASL officials not to proceed with their protests but they strongly resisted it.
BASL President Rajapaksha told the Sunday Times the protest by lawyers had paralysed the functioning of courts countrywide and was “a complete success”. He said that the Bar Association representatives met the Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Appeal, the representatives of the Judges of the District Courts and the Magistrate Courts to inform them of the association’s executive committee decision to refrain from appearing in cases.

He said the executive committee of the BASL in an emergency meeting on Thursday strongly condemned the attack on the Mannar court premises. He said Judge Anthonypillai Judeson was threatened and was subject to questioning by Minister Bathiueen.
“The executive committee is unanimous on the view that this conduct of the minister amounts to a serious and unwarranted interference with the administration of justice and the judicial process of the country,” he noted. He opined that this would “undoubtedly amount to “Contempt of Court” and would file contempt charges against the minister soon. He also added that after the attack on the Mannar court the minister had gone to the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) and told the official there to immediately transfer the magistrate. “No politician has a right to give such instructions to the JSC because it is an independent body. “They were all appreciative of the action taken by the BASL,” he said.

Rajapaksha had also met with the newly appointed Attorney General Palitha Fernando PC, to take action against the offenders. He stressed that the action of the BASL is taken in the national interest. “This is not a trade union action. We would not benefit from this”, he pointed out. “Because, if the independence of the judiciary is lost, the general public would be the ultimate victims,” he added. Independent of today’s action they would initiate contempt of court charges against the cabinet minister who is involved in the incident, he said.

Muslim groups held demonstrations in some parts of the country after the Friday’s jummah prayers. The protestors claimed that the incidents in Mannar were being used by Tamil politicians to get rid of the Muslims from the area. The protests were held in Puttalam, Maradana, Kompanna Veediya, Eravur, Kandy and Maradana. The protests were widely seen as support extended to Bathiudeen.

Mohideen Ariff, a Trustee of the Maradana Jumma Mosque said yesterday that groups had arrived in buses outside their premises to express solidarity for Bathudeen. He said he learnt that two buses were from Mannar and two others were from Puttalam.

As far as the UNP goes, one might say that leadership battles are not altogether new. For that matter, such issues have equally plagued the other main political party in the country, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike broke away from the UNP because the late D.S. Senanayake was promoting his son, Dudley. When D.S. Senanayake died, Dudley became the leader. It was Sir John Kotelawala who opposed him later. When Sir John wore the mantle, it was Dudley who opposed him. Thereafter, the late J.R. Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake had a tussle and Ranasinghe Premadasa also broke away from the party in disagreement with Dudley Senanayake, the then leader. When the late Premadasa took over the leadership, both late Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali became opponents, and broke away crippling the party. Later, Gamini Dissanayake and Ranil Wickremesinghe contested for the UNP leadership when President Dingiri Banda Wijetunge was to retire. This year, Wickremesinghe’s then Deputy, Karu Jayasuriya contested him for the leadership.

Whatever portends from the changes that have taken place in the UNP, some indication of its acceptance at grassroots level will emerge during the upcoming provincial council elections. It does not take a political genius to say that the bottom line is the yardstick by which a political party’s strength and popularity is measured. It is from the voters. How they react does matter. The more elections are held, the more proof will emerge.

Like in many of the other incidents, for example the Katunayake export processing zone incident or the murders at Katuwana, the CID is called upon to investigate and the matter ends there. What is relevant in the Mannar incident is not fishing rights and who should fish where. The issue could easily have been resolved if it was left in the hands of district officials. The fact that they have become mere tools at the hands of politicians has made matters worse. Besides the question of fishing, such matters have also triggered, quite unnecessarily, racial tensions on which politicians looking for votes with their goons on all sides thrive. But what is outrageous is the temerity of a politician, a Cabinet Minister in this instance, threatening a judicial officer and ordering that his judgment be changed. Many believe such people will go scot free because of the unbridled power and influence they wield. It is a huge test for the judiciary as well because what happened in Mannar can happen anywhere.

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