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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Sri Lanka: Of that sinister plan

Nothing is more disconcerting to an unpopular regime than the prospect of losing power. Hence the SLPP-UNP government’s desperate efforts to cling on to power by fair means or foul. The Opposition has let out howls of protests against a government move to extend the term of Attorney General (AG) Sanjay Rajaratnam, who is reaching the mandatory retirement age soon. No AG has ever been granted a service extension since Independence, we are told. It is only natural that all Opposition parties have torn into President Ranil Wickremesinghe, demanding that his plan to extend the AG’s term be abandoned forthwith. Their call has resonated with the public and must be heeded.

The unprecedented and unacceptable course of action President Wickremesinghe has resorted to is bound to be counterproductive in that it has come to be widely considered a foretaste of what is to come in case his efforts to win the next presidential election reach fruition.

The government stands accused of trying to subvert democracy to retain its hold on power. Is the service extension for the AG on the cards a part of its strategy to advance a hidden agenda?

It was with the connivance of the AG’s Department that the Yahapalana government postponed the Provincial Council (PC) elections indefinitely in 2017 by amending the PC Elections Act in the most despicable manner; it incorporated a slew of new sections into the amendment Bill at the committee stage, claiming that they had passed muster with the AG. We pointed out editorially that the AG was not infallible and nothing must be added to the Bill, solely on the basis of his advice, making it vastly different from the original version thereof, which had been gazetted and subjected to judicial review. Worryingly, that bad Bill was passed with the support of more than two-thirds of the members of Parliament representing all political parties. Old habits are said to die hard. UNP General Secretary Range Bandara has reiterated his call for a poll postponement purportedly on account of the ongoing economic recovery efforts.

The AG is vested with power to file nolle prosequis, stating his intent not to proceed with cases, as former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris has pointed out. Not that all AGs in Sri Lanka have been impartial and independent. Their subservience as well as partiality to the political authority has been public knowledge. But a service extension given to an AG at the behest of the President will lead to a far worse situation where the state prosecutor will be under obligation to the Head of State as never before, and it will be inimical to the integrity of not only the AG’s Department but also the legal process.

The reasons given by the government for the proposed service extension to AG Rajaratnam are ludicrous, to say the least. In fact, it amounts to an affront to the intelligence of the public for the government to claim that the term of the incumbent AG has to be extended in view of the ongoing probe into the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the X-Press Pearl issue and the IMF programme. This is an indictment of the AG’s Department personnel, particularly, the official who is eligible to succeed Rajaratnam. Is the government of the opinion that the AG’s Department is without any other official capable of handing the aforesaid matters?

The Opposition has claimed President Wickremesinghe is trying to have the AG’s term extended by the Constitutional Council (CC). Prof. Peiris has rightly pointed out that the CC’s mandate is limited to appointments to high posts, and the CC is not constitutionally empowered to handle service extensions. This argument is tenable, and it behoves the government to refrain from causing a further erosion of public faith in the CC, which has already been reduced to an appendage of the SLPP-UNP combine, as was seen in the despicable manner in which the appointment of the incumbent IGP was made. The government had better abandon its sinister plan.

Editorial, The Island,11.06.24

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