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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Fluctuating Fortunes of Good Governance)in Sri Lanka

(By Rasika Jayakody)

Yahapalanaya, in Sri Lanka, is a thing of fluctuating fortunes.

Soon after the new Government came to power in January, it established the Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) to probe into alleged acts of bribery and corruption under the previous administration.

On the other hand, the Bribery Commission was strengthened under the provisions of the 19th Amendment, making it more independent and empowering its functioning.

At the same time, a Presidential Commission was established to investigate into large-scale corruption and abuse of power. The commission was entrusted with the task of probing into some of the much-talked-about cases in the recent past. That was the brighter side of yahapalanaya, which made almost every citizen of the country happy.

However, the same yahapalanaya has a darker side too. Although institutions have been set up, many who campaigned to bring the current administration to power, 16 months ago, are utterly dissatisfied with the progress of the inquiries. They claim that those who were responsible for acts of large-scale corruption have ‘dodged’ law enforcement authorities, with the blessings of some top-notch members of the present Government. The public at large view the Government’s anti-corruption drive with a modicum of suspicion.

This lethargic approach compelled four ministers of the national unity Government to present a joint-Cabinet paper to the weekly meeting of ministers, requesting a report on the progress of the ongoing anti-corruption investigations.

The joint-Cabinet paper, presented by Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Sarath Fonseka and Arjuna Ranatunga, put forward the following requests:

* The Cabinet of ministers requests details and follow-up action on every complaint lodged by the civil society groups with various government bodies looking into bribery and corruption. We also wish to know the legal status and background relating to the progress of those investigations.

* The Cabinet of ministers also requests details about the progress of the work carried out by the institutions attached to the Sri Lanka Police and other commissions, including the Presidential Commission.

* The Cabinet requests details about action taken by the Attorney General’s Department in relation to the said investigations.

We also propose to take a collective action to expedite and fast-track the functioning of the law enforcement process in this regard.”

President Maithripala Sirisena, however, vetoed this Cabinet paper, saying the Cabinet meeting was not the appropriate place to discuss such things.

The President further clarified his position saying any ‘Cabinet discussion’ on anti-corruption investigations would allow their opponents to dub the government’s anti-corruption drive as a political witch-hunt. The President, however, assured that he would give a separate discussion to the four ministers who wished to discuss the issue.

Six days after the presentation of the joint-Cabinet paper, the government made an unprecedented move by appointing former Telecommunication Regulatory Commission’s Director General Anusha Palpita as the Additional Secretary of the Home Affairs Ministry. The appointment drew the attention of many as Palpita was known to be a close associate of the former first family and his name mentioned in connection with many controversies.

Interestingly, both Palpita and former Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga had been indicted by the Attorney General (AG) in connection with the misappropriation of Rs 600 million from the SLTRC, between the period October 30, 2014 and January 5, 2015. It was alleged that the money was used to distribute ‘sil redi’ among Buddhist devotees in the run up to the last Presidential election.

FCID investigations revealed that the two officials had transferred the money to a personal account belonging to the former President’s Secretary.

According to the indictment filed by the AG, the accused were charged under Section 21 Public Property Act of 1982 and the SLTRC Act no 25 of 1991. What requires emphasis is the fact that Palpita is an accused in a criminal case involving Rs. 600 million.

Palpita also found himself in hot water over a court case involving a 14-year old child who appeared in a news item during the last Presidential election.

In the news item aired on state- run ITN at the time, the child claimed that Maithripala Sirisena, who was the Common Candidate of the Opposition at the time, was detaining his mother.

This incident led to legal action involving eight suspects including some high profile officials such as former diplomat Sepala Ratnayake, former Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Director-General Palpita, former Deputy General Manager of ITN Sudharman Radaliyagoda and ASP Sarachchandra Gunathilaka.

The Police reported that the suspects had allegedly used the child for a news item during the last Presidential election without his guardian’s consent.

It was also revealed during the case that Palpita was heavily involved in the election campaign of the former President, deviating from the standard practices followed by government servants.

Palpita’s appointment, however, sent shockwaves across the ‘Yahapalanaya’ camp. Many expressed surprise as to how an accused in a criminal case obtained a senior appointment in the government sector, while the Public Services Commission (PSC) was functioning. If the appointment has been done without the knowledge of the PSC, it indicates that the high-powered commission is in a drugged slumber!

“The appointment is absolutely illegal and cannot be justified under any circumstances,” said senior lawyer J.C. Weliamuwa, a stalwart of the Lawyers’ Collective as well as the Purawesi Balaya Organisation.

“It is common knowledge that Palpita is an accused in a criminal case. According to the law of the country, an accused in a criminal case cannot hold a position in the government. On the other hand, there were various allegations leveled against him, when he was a senior official under the previous administration,” he added.

“This appointment sends a wrong message to investigators and prosecutors. It shows certain individuals, currently under investigation, show strong links with the present government. It indicates they have ‘muscle’ to overpower or to circumvent the law enforcement mechanism of the country. This, needless to say, hampers the ongoing anti-corruption investigations,” Weliamuna said. It was also revealed on Tuesday, that the Lawyers’ Collective was planning to issue a strongly worded statement against the appointment.

Quite surprisingly, Palpita was appointed to a ministry placed under the UNP, a party that strongly campaigned for good governance before the last Presidential election. Our multiple attempts to contact Home Affairs Minister Vajira Abeywardena to get a comment on this appointment did not bear fruit due to the minister’s busy schedule.

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