COVID-19 infections and deaths might be on a downward trend thanks to a month-long islandwide lockdown, but scandals plaguing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government only seem to be going up. Parliamentary sessions held over two days this week descended into shouting matches at times as the government defended itself against opposition attacks over [...]


‘You stole, they stole’ … accusations fly thick and fast as shouting matches reach fever pitch


COVID-19 infections and deaths might be on a downward trend thanks to a month-long islandwide lockdown, but scandals plaguing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government only seem to be going up. Parliamentary sessions held over two days this week descended into shouting matches at times as the government defended itself against opposition attacks over a host of allegations directed its way.

Accusations flew thick and fast when State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals Prof. Channa Jayasumana answered questions raised by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa regarding the disappearance of terabytes of information from the database of the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA).

The state minister denied that the loss of the data could result in the release of low quality medicines and those that have been blacklisted into the market and insisted that information related to registration certificates and other sensitive data were secure since they had been entered manually and had physical files.

Prof. Jayasumana claimed that he had been made aware of issues with the e-NMRA database soon after he assumed his ministerial portfolio but that despite his instructions, the previous NMRA Board had not taken measures to rectify the matter.

The state minister said that the missing data included information related to medicines purchased from 2015-2019 during the previous government at far higher prices than their actual cost, resulting in billion of rupees in losses. This included one particular syrup which was purchased at Rs 55, 185 per unit, though the current government purchased it at Rs 385 per unit. He said the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was already conducting a probe into these unusual purchases and that efforts are being taken to restore the data and find those who deleted them.

Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Kalutara District MP Dr Rajitha Senaratne, who was the former Health Minister under the Yahapalana government, hit back the following day. “We weren’t mad to purchase a syrup bottle at Rs 55, 000. What the state minister said was the quoted price by a bidder. There are 10-15 price quotations for any medicine. That doesn’t mean it was purchased at that price. In reality, we purchased the syrup at Rs 475. The reason for the small price difference is that we purchased 1500 bottles while they purchased 2500, entitling them to a quantity discount.”

He claimed the state minister has no credibility. “It is they who stole state funds when purchasing medicines. They purchased Sinopharm vaccines given at USD 10 per dose to Bangladesh for USD 15 here. They refused to purchase AstraZeneca vaccines given at USD 3 per dose and Pfizer at Rs 5 per dose. In the end, thanks to ministers like him, the President had to instruct Lalith Weeratunga to purchase AstraZeneca vaccines at any price,” the SJB MP charged.

The government also had to face uncomfortable questions regarding State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Lohan Ratwatte, who is accused of barging into both the Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons while heavily intoxicated.

All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) Jaffna District MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam raised the matter on Wednesday, stating in detail the disturbing scenes that allegedly unfolded at the Anuradhapura Prison when an inebriated Mr Ratwatte, brandishing a firearm, made Tamil inmates held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) kneel before him and threatened to shoot them. He had even gone so far as to place the firearm on the heads and bodies of two inmates before his security detail and prison officers intervened, the MP claimed.

While Mr Ratwatte subsequently resigned from his portfolio of Prison Management and Prisoner Rehabilitation after his alleged actions were publicly exposed, he continues to retain his other portfolio as State Minister of Gem and Jewellery Related Industries, eliciting much criticism. “Given the nature of the criminal conduct of the individual concerned, not only can he no longer be the subject minister in charge of prisons and prisoners’ affairs, but in fact, he should not be holding any portfolio in government and be a Member of Parliament itself,” Mr Ponnambalam stressed. He asked the government if it will ensure that he will no longer hold any portfolios and be removed from Parliament and whether the Attorney General will be unhindered in taking whatever steps that he sees fit, including the arrest of the MP and subsequent prosecution in court. He further asked that the Tamil political prisoners at the Anuradhapura Prison be moved to prisons in Vavuniya and Jaffna for their safety. Mr Ponnambalam also asked whether the government would at least now release inmates held under the PTA.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry said he “unequivocally and unconditionally condemns” the incident which had taken place. “It should never have happened and it was a disgrace,” he emphasized. He also expressed his apologies to the victims and their family members for the difficulties they had to undergo. He however, appealed to MPs not to give a political or ethnic angle to the incident because it was not motivated in such a way. The CID had already commenced an inquiry into the matter while the Human Rights Commission has initiated its own probe, he added.

Mr Sabry said Cabinet had also decided to appoint a retired judge to inquire into the incident independently and report back. He said “appropriate action” will be taken once the probes conclude.

The government’s moves to introduce new regulations under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance supposedly for the welfare of tamed elephants also came under attack by opposition MPs who claimed it was trying to legitimise the illegal trade of captive elephants.

The gazette was presented to Parliament on Wednesday by Minister of Wildlife & Forest Conservation C.B. Rathnayake. Minister Rathnayake said that 38 tamed elephants had been placed in the custody of the National Zoological Gardens and the Department of Wildlife Conservation since 2015 after legal action had been taken against their custodians. This had placed severe strain on the conduct of peraheras and economic activities where the use of tamed elephants was necessary, he claimed. He added that it was unlawful to take legal action regarding registration of tamed elephants since earlier regulations that governed the registration and welfare of elephants had not been presented to Parliament for approval.  As such, a policy decision was taken to draft new regulations regarding the registration and welfare of tamed elephants, the minister told Parliament.

National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake disputed the minister’s claims, saying the matter was not about the use of elephants in peraheras or the position of elephants in culture, but about giving legal cover for elephant smuggling. “Through this gazette, you are making it possible to issue licenses so that unregistered elephants can be registered. How can that be? An unregistered elephant is an illegally kept elephant. You are trying to facilitate the illegal elephant trade and give legitimacy to the racketeers,” he charged.

Parliament this week also passed the Consumer Affairs Authority (Amendment) Bill which raises fines that can be levied on errant traders who do not sell goods at controlled prices. The bill was a matter of priority for the government, given the current difficulties experienced due to COVID-19, which has seen some traders hoarding essential food items and selling them at exorbitant prices to consumers.

Parliament will reconvene at 10 a.m. on October 4.

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