Sri Lanka minister claims constitutional changes meet people’s aspirations

Justice Minister Ali Sabry. (Supplied)
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Updated 19 September 2020

Sri Lanka minister claims constitutional changes meet people’s aspirations

  • Concern over separation of powers and free elections

COLOMBO: Constitutional changes giving Sri Lanka’s president immunity from prosecution and the power to dissolve parliament will meet the “aspirations of the people” and help “push the country to become a developed nation,” the country’s justice minister told Arab News in an exclusive interview.

The widely criticized 20th amendment, which will be voted on by lawmakers in October, will roll back the 19th amendment of 2015 that curtailed presidential powers. It would empower him to dissolve parliament at will a year after the election of new lawmakers, appoint ministers and remove the prime minister.

Last month President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he would overturn the legislation during a speech inaugurating the country’s new parliament after his family-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Party claimed a landslide electoral victory.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry said the 20th amendment would give people what they wanted.

“People voted for peace, security, the nation’s development and peaceful coexistence among all communities on the island,” Sabry told Arab News on Thursday.

“The proposed amendments would ensure the aspirations of the people, who lacked confidence during the previous regime between 2015 to 2020.”

The minister referred to a series of suicide bombings in Colombo in 2019 as well as the Central Bank of Sri Lanka bond scandal in 2015, saying the 2015 legislation was not accepted by people as it brought no sense of security.

Sabry, quoting Rajapaksa’s words from the last cabinet meeting, said: “The government does not want impediments and obstacles to achieve the nation’s goals, what people want is results on the ground. A country like Sri Lanka needs a strong leader, clean leader and an independent man, who can run the nation free of corruption and nepotism, coupled with his innovative ideas to push the country to become a developed nation.”

According to Article 35 of the 20th amendment's draft, which was published earlier this month, no proceedings can be instituted against someone who holds presidential office “in any court or tribunal in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him either in his official or private capacity.”

Under the 20th amendment, appointment of members to the country's three independent commissions — the Judicial Service Commission, Election Commission, Public Service Commission — will be in the hands of the president himself.

The proposed clauses have caused concern over the separation of powers and whether the new constitution will guarantee free elections. But, said Sabry, there were no moves to jeopardize the commission's accepted functions. “There will be timely intervention if there is any breach in the discharge of its regular functions.”

The minister, who is a Bar Association of Sri Lanka lawyer and for years has been Rajapaksa’s legal adviser, said the 20th amendment would strengthen the powers of the president and remove some of the clauses from the 19th amendment to “ensure the rule of law and democracy” in the country.

“Actually, we want to go back to the pre-19th amendment period where the country witnessed developments, prosperity and the required security,” he said, referring to the period before 2015 when the country witnessed growth and security after a 26-year military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that ended the country’s civil war. “We need a peaceful Sri Lanka, where people can live in harmony, happiness, with prosperity and developments to take us to a new height.”

While Attorney General Dappula de Livera said earlier this month that the draft of the 20th amendment could be passed in parliament and did not require a referendum, Sabry said that people's opinions would be respected “at all costs.”

“Separation of powers will be enshrined and the proposed amendment will be discussed at all levels before it is enacted,” he added.


Venezuelans ‘dying slowly’ in rat- and roach-infested homes

Updated 26 min 42 sec ago

Venezuelans ‘dying slowly’ in rat- and roach-infested homes

CARACAS: Sunlight cannot penetrate, the air is fetid and fellow residents include rats and cockroaches — but that’s how 14 families are “dying slowly” in government accommodation in Venezuela’s capital Caracas.
They live on the ground floor of a ministry building a stone’s throw from the Miraflores presidential palace.
“Here, we’re dying slowly. It’s shameful that humans” have to live this way, resident Johan Medina told AFP, as his skinny arms rested on the wheelchair he’s used since an accident seven years ago damaged his spine.
There are hundreds of families living in state-supplied shelters in crisis-wracked Venezuela.
Many lost their homes to flood damage, although six years of economic meltdown under President Nicolas Maduro has also left millions in abject poverty, while basic services have been paralyzed.
They’re hoping for state aid from the socialist government that boasts of having delivered three million homes since launching a massive housing plan in 2011 under the late president Hugo Chavez — figures disputed by the opposition.
At the entrance to the building that houses the women’s ministry, among other state institutions, there are pictures of Chavez and his successor Maduro.
Signs on the walls read: “No more Trump,” and “Vote Chavez.”
With no services such as running water, residents like Medina are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic — but that’s the least of the 31-year-old’s worries.
“Why bother using a mask?” he said bitterly, pointing to filth and stagnant water around him.
It’s mandatory to wear face masks in the country of 30 million that has registered 86,000 cases and 736 deaths, according to official figures.
The first residents were brought to the ministry building by a socialist organization called the Popular Organized Anti-Corruption Interpellation that has an agreement allowing it to use state facilities for free.
The group, which did not reply to AFP requests for comment, organizes assemblies and then puts up participants that have come from afar for the night on mats.
At some point, “people started living” there after being told they would be rehoused, said Norelis, a 40-year-old teacher living with her daughter.
Conditions worsened, and now “it’s like a sewer;” but Norelis, who declined to give her surname, still hopes to be moved to “a dignified site.”
Government officials come and go in the 11-story building constructed in 1956.
“They pass in front of your face all day long,” said Medina, who arrived five years ago after a friend told him he could get help there.
He was run over by a motorcycle in April 2013 just hours after voting in Maduro’s first presidential election.
With no alternative housing options materializing, Medina and Norelis fear they will be turned out onto the streets. Their accommodation was never meant to be permanent.
“We feel marginalized,” said Norelis.
Lacking ventilation, the building can provoke respiratory problems among inhabitants.
“My daughter completely lost her sense of smell about a year ago,” Carla, who declined to give her full name, told AFP.
“We live in a room that was meant to be a bathroom. When the plumbing is flushed, imagine the smell,” added the agroecology expert, who currently works as a waitress.
She’s put up blinds and mosquito nets to try to keep out the cockroaches. She also has to deal with rats.
Carlos, who has lived in the shelter the longest, insists that everyone there is waiting to be rehoused as part of the “Housing Mission” launched almost a decade ago.
A strict curfew is imposed by authorities.
“At 7:00 p.m. they close it up with a padlock and if you’re outside, you stay outside. At 6:00 am, they reopen,” said Carlos, 49, who also withheld his surname.
“It’s like a day release prison.”