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.