When he took oaths before Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena on Wednesday, former Prime Minister and United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe finally filled the lone National List seat secured by his party at the 2020 parliamentary election. The fact that the seat had been left vacant for 10 long months is a reflection of [...]


Ranil returns with a bang; SJB holds protest over fuel hike


When he took oaths before Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena on Wednesday, former Prime Minister and United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe finally filled the lone National List seat secured by his party at the 2020 parliamentary election.

The fact that the seat had been left vacant for 10 long months is a reflection of just how the once formidable party struggled to come to terms with its drubbing at the last election and the difficulties in reaching consensus regarding who would fill the seat.

Being a party leader, Mr. Wickremesinghe  has been allocated a front row seat on the Opposition benches, next to Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader R. Sampanthan. On Wednesday, Mr Wickremesinghe seemed to be far more warmly welcomed by those on the Government benches than the Opposition, with MPs thumping their desks as he walked to his seat after taking oaths. He acknowledged the welcome, saying “Jaya Wewa,” before taking his seat.

Speaking a day after the Government tabled a supplementary estimate amounting to Rs 200 billion for Government expenditure and controlling COVID-19, Mr Wickremesinghe used his first parliamentary speech to launch a scathing attack on the Government’s handling of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Government gave tax concessions, but they were for the wealthy. The poor got only hunger,” he said.

He pointed out that the country’s foreign reserves had fallen from USD 7 billion in 2019 to USD 4 billion today. “We have to pay off a loan of about USD 1 billion at the end of this month. We have about USD 2 billion more to pay. How are we going to pay for these?” the UNP leader queried, adding the only option he saw was for the country to re-engage with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

He also blasted the Government’s handling of the pandemic, saying that its ‘Task Force’ on COVID prevention was a total failure. He also noted that under the Constitution, the responsibility for tackling the pandemic was vested with the Cabinet and the Parliament, to which Cabinet is accountable.

He sharply criticised the decision to give the military the lead role in fighting the pandemic, warning that vesting such powers with the military instead of the democratically elected political authority was taking the country towards militarisation.

Before his speech, MPs from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), consisting of those who broke away from the UNP prior to the 2020 parliamentary election, held a protest in the Well of the House over the Government’s decision to raise fuel prices.

The protest began after a sharp exchange of words between SJB Kurunegala District MP Nalin Bandara and Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila.

Mr Bandara accused the minister of giving “koheda yanne malle pol” answers to questions on the fuel price hike, while Minister Gammanpila said it was not his fault if Opposition MPs “lacked the brains” to understand his answers. The SJB this week also handed over a No-Confidence Motion on Minister Gammanpila over the fuel price hike.

On Wednesday, SJB MPs came ready with handwritten posters with various slogans. They first stood up and protested from their seats before making their way to the Well of the House, with some holding a sit-in protest in the middle.

Speaker Abeywardena continued proceedings despite the protest. At one point, a group of SJB MPs held a parallel parliamentary session in the Well of the House, with some making their own speeches. The protest lasted about 30 minutes, during which time, speakers from the Government had to shout in a bid to make their voices heard.

Meanwhile, the Government this week indicated that it was prepared to address the plight of LTTE suspects held in remand custody for years under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Making a statement on Tuesday, Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Namal Rajapaksa told Parliament that he managed to see the situation of the country’s prisons first-hand after being briefly imprisoned under the Yahapalana Government along with many other MPs who were then in the Opposition.

There are currently 35 prisoners who were serving sentences after being convicted under the PTA, but many had been in remand custody for far longer than the periods for which they had ultimately been sentenced. A further 38 had their cases pending in High Court after spending a lengthy period in remand. Some of these cases have been pending for more than 20 years, and these suspects have been in remand custody throughout, while no case has been filed against 13 of them. Indictments are also yet to be filed against 116 suspects, though investigations on them have been concluded, Mr Rajapaksa revealed.

“I have met many of these detainees held under the PTA. Some of them have been in remand longer than I’ve been alive, but no charges have been filed against them up to now,” the minister said. “Either charges should be filed against them, or they should be rehabilitated and released.”

While welcoming the Government’s announcement, Opposition MPs said many issues still remain regarding the PTA.

The PTA was being misused by the Government to take revenge on political opponents and even those who are completely innocent, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader Rauff Hakeem charged, citing the cases of detained lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah and former Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Director Shani Abeysekara. “Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said the Government was committing grave injustices using the PTA,” he noted.

The Government was not interested in taking revenge on anyone and was taking steps to resolve the issue irrespective of the race and religion of detainees, Justice Minister Ali Sabry stated. “We are implementing a programme to conclude these cases speedily. I have discussed the matter with the Attorney General. We also agree that all those who won’t be charged in court should be released. We won’t limit ourselves to just talk. You will see soon how we are going to do justice to these persons,” the minister added.

The issue of Tamil political prisoners is not one that the Government should be allowed to decide on “whims and fancies,” Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) Leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam said. He charged that the Government was now taking it up in the background of the Geneva sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council which began this week and the threat of losing the GSP Plus facility from the European Union.

“The systemic problem here is the PTA. It is the PTA that allows room for arbitrary decisions to take place. Unless you repeal the PTA and unless you make sure that you do not bring any other law that even resembles the PTA, this systematic, arbitrary action will continue and injustice will continue,” he asserted.

While the Government talks about long term detainees held under the PTA, it continues to use it to arrest more people, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Batticaloa District MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam said. “Nearly 100 young people have been arrested over the past year under the PTA, including several detained over Facebook posts,” he revealed, asking that steps be taken to grant bail to these suspects.

Parliament will reconvene at 10 a.m. on July 6.

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