The Political Column

24th August 1997

Batalanda blow to package

By Our Political Correspondent

The Supreme Court in what was seen as a major legal blow to the credibility of the government ordered the immediate release of former UNP strongman Sirisena Cooray who was in detention for nearly two months.

Mr. Cooray had been detained under Emergency Regulations for more than two months on allegations of conspiring to assassinate or harm President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The Supreme Court which delivered its order to a packed Court house on Tuesday unanimously held that Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva had violated the fundamental rights of Mr. Cooray by his order.

The bench comprising Justices A.R.B. Amerasinghe, A.S. Wijetunge and Asoka de Z. Gunawardene also ordered the State to pay Rs. 200,000 as compensation and costs to Mr. Cooray.

Giving reasons, the Supreme Court in a 48-page judgment said it was unable to accept the view of the Defence Secretary and the Police that they need not give specific reasons for the arrest of a person under Emergency Regulations.

It would not be possible to charge a person with the commission of an offence if no offence had been committed, but it is both possible and necessary to inform him of the nature of the allegation against him, the Court said.

In other words, the Court was severely critical of the role played by the Defence Secretary in making an illegal order.

In the light of the judgment, how Mr. de Silva will act henceforth is a valid question.

But nobody is likely to demand the resignation of Mr. de Silva on the strength of the Supreme Court judgment since the tradition on such occasions is to continue in the same position or go to a higher level with more blessings from the government.

In Mr. de Silva’s case there is no promotion he could expect since he is holding one of the few highest and important posts for a civil servant.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, too, made her observations on the Sirisena Cooray case during her widely-publicised TV interview to mark the third anniversary of the government.

She observed that posters had appeared in Colombo predicting the release of Mr. Cooray even before the judgment was delivered.

The President said the judges should take note of such instances. The question that arises from her remark is whether some information had been leaked from Hulftsdorp before the judgment was delivered.

But it is also true that any person who studied the Cooray case carefully would have felt he would be released. So predictions of his release were therefore not surprising.

Mr. Cooray also had few comments to make after his release. He said, “the government had been totally misled by its officials.”

He told this column his sincere aim was to raise funds for the Premadasa Centre.

It was genuine effort to propagate Mr. Premadasa’s commitment to the people and his work.

If some people thought that it was an effort to get personal political benefits, they are mistaken, because people know me as Bulathsinhalage Sirisena Cooray and not as Premadasage Sirisena Cooray, he said.

Finally the whole episode involving Mr. Cooray and the alleged conspiracy to cause harm to the President appears to have turned out to be a false alarm, with the government being unable to substantiate its claims before the Supreme Court.

Hence it is an important case where the Supreme Court has interpreted the constitutional provisions and subordinate laws to uphold fundamental freedoms of individual.

So Mr. Cooray’s arrest is not only unfair but appeared to be unreasonable too and now it is time for the State to think and act democratically before restricting and depriving individuals of their fundamental freedoms.

Soon after the Court order, many people gathered at the C-38 Keppetipola Mawatha flat, where Mr. Cooray had been detained to receive him and others had gathered at his Lake Drive residence.

It was around 2.30 in the afternoon when Police Superintendent Sisira Mendis came to the C-38 flat and told Mr. Cooray of the order to release him.

Mr. Cooray had a pleasant surprise when UNP top-rung member Anura Bandaranaike telephoned him from Tokyo.

“I haven’t helped him or done anything other than taking him in to the UNP... and how nice of him to ring me from Tokyo,” Mr. Cooray told friends.

Not only Mr. Bandaranaike, Minister M.H.M. Ashraff and Mr. Cooray’s senior counsel K.N. Choksy who was in the United States also called him.

Most of Mr. Cooray’s lawyers were not present in Court when the judgment was delivered. Hemantha Warnakulasuriya was also on a visit to the US while Sarath Kongahage was at the UNP group meeting since the UNP hierarchy had made it compulsory for all the UNP MPs to be present there. The only lawyers present in Court were Lakshman Ranasinghe and Sunil Rodrigo former chairman of Lake House who had filed the petition on behalf of Mr. Cooray.

In the Courthouse among others were Mrs. Cooray and her close associates. Shanthini Kongahage, wife of UNP MP, Sarath Kongahage too was present. As soon as the judgment was delivered and Mrs. Cooray was walking out of the Court Mrs. Kongahage paid what she thought as a fitting tribute to Mrs. Cooray by garlanding her on Mr. Cooray’s victory in the legal battle.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told a news conference the same evening that the Supreme Court order on Mr. Cooray was no surprise as the detention order was obviously bad in law with no specific charges being made while the arrest itself was arbitrary.

A day after his release Mr. Cooray was warded in a private hospital to be treated for an infection. Several tests were taken by his physician and he is on heavy antibiotics at present. Mr. Cooray is likely to go abroad shortly for a full check up.

Mr. Cooray has now emerged as a hero among the Premadasa loyalists and a section of the UNP who feel he should be back in the UNP’s fold.

Their main argument is that Mr. Cooray is the only Minister of the previous regime who became a subject of several inquiries initiated by the government and that nobody had found incriminating evidence against him to pursue any of the charges.

In the circumstances they argue that the UNP cannot keep him out of the party any more and that the leadership should consider these matters carefully.

Though there are few people who are against the re-entry of Mr. Cooray their views should not be held against him since they are a minority in the party, they argue.

The UNP parliamentary group met in the same morning the Supreme Court delivered the Cooray judgment.

The MPs had come back from their constituencies after having had their meetings on the 16th in their areas to protest against what the UNP sees as the PA’s three year poor performance. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe thanked the members for the co-operation and effort to carry out the one-day protest meetings all over the country and said it had the desired impact though some meetings were not well attended.

The first issue discussed was the controversy over the education reforms. Karunasena Kodituwakku said the Education Ministry was pursuing the A/L proposals and the UNP should press for a debate. A.C.S. Hameed said the reply given by the Minister to his adjournment question was not complete.

The main discussion was on the fresh wave of violence that had erupted in the country as a result of the UNP’s organisation of a series of meetings. Several members felt agitated and participated in the discussions. Gamini Jayawickrema Perera said the UNP should seek a full probe on the killing of Beliatta UNP Pradeshiya Sabha member Kalyanadasa Gunaratne. He said it was a big blow to the UNP and such trends must be halted. Ronnie de Mel proposed four specific measures, one of which was that a delegation from the UNP should meet the IGP and ask for definite action. A. C. S. Hameed said the UNP should give notice of an adjournment motion and request a full day’s debate. If the government was not willing, he said 20 members must stand up and support the motion.

As the group meeting went on Mr. Wickremesinghe was considering the idea whether some extra action was necessary in Parliament on this day to remind the government of its failure to fulfil its promises. He consulted A. C. S. Hameed and it was decided that the UNP MPs should go into Parliament and walk out after making a short statement and the question of No Quorum be raised. Since Mr. Wickremesinghe had a throat infection, he asked Opposition Whip Wijeyapala Mendis to make the statement. The government had not bargained for a strategy of this nature. They could not muster the required quorum. Thus Parliament adjourned without any business being concluded.

Tuesday’s furore in Parliament had many implications. Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana who boldly said he had informed all party leaders in the PA to take disciplinary action against errant MPs who were not present in Parliament on Tuesday, was asked by the President to deny it.

The dejected Mr. Pathirana carried out the orders coming from the top and said that they should follow some other strategy to meet the Opposition’s threat.

An angry Minister Pathirana called a journalist to his Parliamentary chamber on the following day and came out strongly against the story published in a vernacular media newspaper quoting him.

However Minister Pathirana had repeatedly told President Kumaratunga about the need to emphasise on attendance in Parliament since the goverment could fall into serious trouble if this was not adhered to strictly.

On many such occasions, Mr. Pathirana had opted to resign as the Chief Government Whip but was prevented by the President, but now the government has decided to give way to this at least temporarily since Mr. Pathirana is hoping to leave for the United States for medical treatment which might take about two months. In the circumstances, it has been decided that Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle should replace Mr. Pathirana as Acting Government Whip until the latter returns.

Mr. Fernandopulle represented the government as the Acting Government Whip at the party leaders’ meeting last week.

This new development took place when the UNP decided to walk out of Parliament in protest on Tuesday.

As soon as Parliament began sittings on Tuesday with Speaker K.B. Ratnayake presiding, Chief Opposition Whip Wijeyapala Mendis sounded the battle-cry saying they had decided to walk out in protest against the government that had done little or nothing to curb the crime rate and corruption.

As soon as Mr. Mendis finished his statement, the UNP group walked out of the Chamber shouting slogans and jeering at times. They stood near the doors of the House while the badly depleted government group comprising 18 members found itself in a helpless situation.

The opposition UNP MPs shouted “murderers where are your promises, where are your agreements” and UNP MP A.H.M. Azwer who came back to the House pointed out that there was no quorum for the sittings to continue.

Though the quorum bell rang for a long time it could not produce anymore MPs and the Speaker moved to suspend sittings.

Though the UNP was successful on Tuesday in Parliament, its countrywide campaign to protest against government’s inaction was a flop.

The response was poor and in some places there were not more than 25 people. However, a determined leader is now planning to revive and restructure the UNP and to raise funds to meet the expenses for the next election.

The man who is assigned with this task is Ananda Atukorale, the Chief Executive at Mashreq Bank. His main responsibility is to re-organize and restructure the party’s financial system along with the new Treasurer Milroy Perera, a Chartered Architect.

Interestingly Mr. Perera, a senior architect working with veteran Jeffry Bawa, is involved in designing the Presidential Palace to be built in Kotte. Mr. Perera like Ananda Atukorale, has some UNP roots. Mr. Atukorale is a nephew of the late President J.R. Jayewardene. Mr. Perera is also a close relative of former UNP power broker Dr. Wickrema Weerasooriya. After the Gamini Dissanayake presidential campaign, Dr. Weerasooriya was seen again in Sri Lanka recently during the felicitation ceremonies to mark Anura Bandaranaike’s 20 years in politics.

The most important matter for the UNPers during the week was the decision taken by the Commission probing the Batalanda incidents to issue summons on Mr. Wickremesinghe. The UNP leader has been ordered to appear before the Commission on September 3, 4 and 5.

He had already consulted former Attorney General Tilak Marapana, who is likely to appear for Mr. Wickremesinghe.

Of all the government leaders, Minister G.L. Peiris was most purturbed over this development since it could jeopardise his efforts to push the package.

At present he is maintaining a healthy dialogue with Mr. Wickremesinghe and he arranged a dinner on his 51st birthday in a bid to bring the President and the Leader of the Opposition together to have an informal discussion on the proposed constitutional reforms. But the President could not arrive on time since she was busy meeting an American delegation to discuss the phosphate project in Eppawala.

However, the government is prepared to make another attempt to test the UNP’s flexibility on the package before it moves on to set up a Constituent Assembly to push new constitutional reforms.

In the meantime, the government is scheduled to launch a new programme to introduce the political package from Anuradhapura on Monday.

The programme called “Thavalama” (caravan) will go into six provinces carrying the message of the new political reforms to end the ethnic crisis.

Whilst introducing the political package, the President is equally keen to embark on several development projects which would help the government to prop up its image. For this, the President is scheduled to sign deals for five development projects with Renoung Group of Malaysia which will bring nearly 500 million US dollars into the country.

The projects which will include the Colombo-Katunayake, Colombo-Kandy highways and a water purification plant, will last for the next 14 years, are capable of producing many job opportunities for the youth.

BOI chief Thilan Wijesinghe who was in Malaysia recently had finalised these projects and the President is likely to visit Malaysia to sign the agreement with the Malaysian Ministers on September 16. But there is a matter to ponder for the Malaysian investor, since the Sri Lankan government has requested the investor to look for another representative in Sri Lanka since the current representative is branded as an UNPer.

As it stands today, the Renoung Group is represented in Sri Lanka by Milinda Moragoda adviser to the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Mercantile Merchant Bank.

The Renoung Group has already spoken to the Sri Lankan representative about this matter and is trying to work out an acceptable solution.

In the meantime Justice Minister G. L. Peiris was due to leave for Malaysia and his office had asked for an appointment with Prime Minister Mahathir. Having got a negative response from Sri Lanka’s envoy in Kuala Lumpur for this appointment, Prof. Peiris’ office then tried to get the appointment through Mahathir’s son Mirzan Mahathir who was in Colombo recently with the Malaysian investor group.

It was Milinda Moragoda who helped Prof. Peiris in this task by getting in touch with Mirzan Mahathir through fax and made the request for an appointment with father Mahathir for Prof. Peiris.

However, that too seemed to have failed with High Commissioner Dr. Warnasena Rasaputra having to inform Prof. Peiris that his appointment with the Malaysian premier was not on, particularly in view of the fact that Mahathir would be meeting Prof. Peiris’ boss President Kumaratunga in September, just next month.

Young Mirzan is reported to have asked the Malaysian Foreign Ministry to get the appointment with his father, rather than have asked his father himself.

The usual protocol is for a Prime Minister to meet another Head of Government or a special envoy of a Head of Government.

The talking point in political circles here is not so much about why Prof. Peiris tried to meet the Malaysian Prime Minister just a few weeks before his President was to meet him, but how the government has had to rely on the UNP leader’s adviser to clinche a major business deal with the Malaysians and thereby prop up its own shaky record on foreign investment and at the same time suggest to the Renoung Group to ditch Milinda Moragoda as their agent in Colombo. It clearly shows how the government in its desperation to get Malaysian investments got Milinda Moragoda’s help and then after clinching the deal tried to ditch him.

Neither the UNP leadership nor its rank-and-file could be happy with its adviser’s role either. Here is a man supposedly advising the leader of the opposition how to bring down the government and at the same time breaking bread with them. But others ask is it not the business of business to do business?

No doubt efforts will be made by the Mercantile Merchant Bank to iron out the problems with the government and those with an ear to the Palace believe that the problem will be sorted out by the Malaysian investor been given a list of government approved businessmen with whom they can do business - and the guess is Milinda Moragoda and his Mercantile Merchant Bank will also have a share in the cake.

Meanwhile in the Cabinet, the President had a lengthy argument with Minister Mahinda Rajapakse over the purchase of three motor vehicles, using EPF funds.

The Minister said he had bought only one car with the approval of the Treasury. “If you had a problem at that stage you could have stopped it,” he said.

“There is a talk that you bought three cars,” the President said.

“All that is part of mud-slinging campaign,” the Minister replied.

At this stage the new Labour Minister John Seneviratne said actually the Minister had bought one car but he was not loud enough to reach the President’s ears.

Though Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle wanted him to repeat it, Minister Seneviratne kept quiet and the dialogue came to an end.

Another interesting development in the government was the clash between Minister Mangala Samaraweera and LSSP MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara in the lobby of Parliament.

The verbal clash ensued following a question asked by Mr. Nanayakkara from the Minister on the alleged waste of public funds by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.

Mr. Nanayakkara asked as to why the Ministry was shifted to the World Trade Centre paying a large rental when the present building was spacious enough to house the Ministry.

The Minister originally intended to ask for 18 month’s time to reply the question but later reduced it to six months thus attracting criticism from Mr. Nanayakkara.

The duo later took their verbal battle to the lobby where further strong words were exchanged.

Finally, it was Ministers Mahinda Rajapakse and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who intervened to avert a near exchange of blows, when the government was celebrating its third anniversary in office.

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