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President prepares for campaign, but doubts still continue over his candidature

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  • Champika meets Basil to urge SLPP to ally with his URF and back him as presidential candidate
  • SLPP strategist disfavours move, but says he too awaits President’s decision
  • Another major blow to Sirisena; SC says he abused presidential powers in granting pardon to a murder convict; Rathana Thera’s role is also revealed

 

By Our Political Editor

Believe it or not, it’s true. Some sections of the country’s political spectrum do not believe even now that Ranil Wickremesinghe will be a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections.

One such personality is Patali Champika Ranawaka, a former Cabinet minister and now leader of the newly formed United Republic Front (URF). Barely 48 hours after holding his party’s first annual convention at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium, he appealed to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to accept him as their presidential candidate.

Champika-Basil talks

It came during a meeting on May 27 with the SLPP founder and its main strategist, Basil Rajapaksa, at his residence in Battaramulla. Ranawaka told him that it was still his understanding that Wickremesinghe would not be a presidential candidate. Therefore, Ranawaka asserted that his URF could join in an alliance with the SLPP if he is accepted as the presidential candidate. That is based on an arranged programme of work. However, Rajapaksa, the Sunday Times learned, explained that his party, too, had no formal confirmation yet about Wickremesinghe’s candidature but was awaiting it. Yet, he disfavoured the request. As previously reported in these columns, Wickremesinghe will contest as an independent candidate. In terms of a broad understanding reached with the SLPP, he will write to all registered political parties (including the SLPP) and newly formed groups, informing them of his “independent candidature” and inviting them to extend support. First to Champika Ranawaka’s conclusions, which appear to lack a strong basis.

These pictures supplied by the Presidential Media Division show the opening of the President Wickremesinghe’s political office in Colombo on Thursday. The Sunday Times photographer was denied permission to cover the event.

Contrary to his claims, the recent weeks have seen increased political activity by Wickremesinghe. Just last Thursday, he declared open his first political office, for which invitations were sent out by Vajira Abeywardena, the only United National Party (UNP) member in Parliament after Wickremesinghe became the president. Abeywardena was cautious in the wording of the card he sent out to select invitees and placed a line that said, “As intimated to you by the President verbally…” Though it is election time and such offices are springboards for propaganda activity, men from the presidential security division debarred Information-Department-accredited journalists from pictorial coverage of the event. They had to be content with the pictures distributed by the presidential media division.

The caption story for the pictures was also carefully worded to say, “President Ranil Wickremesinghe inaugurated his new political office in Colombo today (06) at an auspicious moment.” The office, located on Sir Ernest de Silva Mawatha (former Flower Road), will serve as the centre for future political operations. The ceremony included religious rites and blessings performed by prominent religious leaders, including the Western Province’s Chief Sanghanayake, the Venerable Dr. Murutthettuwe Ananda Nayaka Thera, who is also the Chancellor of the University of Colombo and the Chief Sanghanayake of the Uva-Wellassa and Colombo, the Venerable Maharagama Nanda Nayaka Thero, who is also the head of five major temples, including the Kollupitiya Valukarama Maha Viharaya.” The President’s wife, Professor Maithree Wickramasinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, other government ministers, the Senior Advisor to the President on National Security and Chief of Presidential Staff, Sagala Ratnayaka, and numerous UNP activists.

There were some rumblings at the highest levels of the SLPP, the would-be main backer, over the opening of the first political office. Sections were perturbed that it was Vajira Abeywardena, the UNP Chairman, who had sent out invitations—a move that made clear to them that the office was an initiative of the UNP. This section feared that SLPP members would thus be hesitant to work from that office. More so when Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes an independent presidential candidate. On the other hand, those with Abeywardena hit back, saying there was no UNP name board.

Last Monday, President Wickremesinghe chaired a UNP Working Committee meeting where election-related matters were discussed at length. A string of appointments were made. That included Ravi Karunanayake as National Secretary, Harin Fernando as Election Organiser, Ronald Perera as Deputy General Secretary for Elections, Firdouse Farook as treasurer, Misbah Sattar as Deputy Chairman, and Krishan Theodore as Deputy General Secretary.

In an unrelated event, UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara turned up at a news conference at party headquarters, Sri Kotha, to defend his position over a proposal he made two weeks earlier. That was for Parliament to adopt a resolution to extend the term of office of President Ranil Wickremesinghe by two more years and approve it at a referendum. This time, Range Bandara argued that he only referred to matters that were enshrined in the Constitution. However, as pointed out last week, such provision does not deal with any resolution regarding his proposal.

Why has Ranil Wickremesinghe not declared his candidature for the presidency so far? As previously reported in these columns, he explained this during informal talks with SLPP founder Basil Rajapaksa. As president, he was executing several measures. Examples included the grant of land to the landless, wage increases for plantation workers, and salary hikes for some in the state sector. Such measures, he pointed out, would have been construed as inducements for votes if he had announced his candidature earlier. A week ago, he was in the North handing over deeds of ownership to the landless. The grant of houses to the homeless is now in the pipeline. He is due to visit the North for this purpose.

The informal dialogue between President Wickremesinghe and Basil Rajapaksa has now led to the formation of a Joint Strategic Affairs Committee. This committee meets every Monday evening. Last Monday, they met at an informal hopper dinner at the president’s official residence at Mahagam Sekera Mawatha (former Paget Road). Taking part, besides President Wickremesinghe, were  Sagala Ratnayake, Manusha Nanayakkara, Nimal Siripala de Silva, President’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake, Basil Rajapaksa, and Kanchana Wijesekera. Minister Prasanna Ranatunga was absent since he was away in Japan. Also absent was Minister Nalin Fernando.

Now, back to the meeting between Champika Ranawaka and Basil Rajapaksa. How the dialogue came about is interesting. The first approaches were made by trade unionists in the engineering sector who were linked to Champika Ranawaka. It first led to a meeting with Chamal Rajapaksa, a one-time Speaker of Parliament. He in turn directed the URF leader to discuss matters with Mahinda Rajapaksa, who heads the SLPP. The former president had explained to Ranawaka that the matters he raised should be discussed with his brother Basil Rajapaksa. That was how an appointment was made for 1.30 p.m. on May 27 at the Battaramulla residence.

Basil Rajapaksa told Champika Ranawaka that the SLPP had not yet decided on a presidential candidate. He was candid enough to explain that they were awaiting word from President Wickremesinghe. In any case, the SLPP founder explained that his party sought a person who had served as president to be the candidate and would not consider others. Until now, he pointed out that no decision had been made by the party. They had many presidential aspirants already. He also declared that the SLPP’s aim was to seek an early general election. Hence, he pointed out that whoever would be contesting the presidency on behalf of the party should be a one-time president, thus clearing the way for other issues to be addressed. Ranawaka, who has been a strong critic of the Rajapaksas, had taken the opportunity of the meeting with Basil Rajapaksa to clarify what was described as “past issues.” His idea was to have his URF, which is yet to be recognised by the Election Commission, form an alliance with the SLPP. However, such a move is not expected to materialize. Nevertheless, the URF has written to Basil Rajapaksa, expressing its willingness to continue the dialogue with the SLPP.

In another development that is less significant, SLPP National Organiser Namal Rajapaksa was invited to a meeting in Maharagama by close relatives of Justice and Prison Reforms Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. They were canvassing for the presidential candidature of Rajapakshe and have claimed that they were doing so because Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be a candidate. This has also been conveyed to Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksas.

It seems interesting that there are two presidential aspirants in the present Cabinet of Ministers. There also appear to be two political party leaders, though one has been rendered non-functional due to a court order. One is Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the other is Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. During a recent conversation, Rajapakshe is learnt to have told Wickremesinghe that he had still not made a firm decision about his candidature. When he does, he has assured him that he will keep him informed.

It is interesting to note that Ranawaka’s URF held its first annual convention only a day before his meeting with Basil Rajapaksa. Earlier, he was associated with other organisations and parties. That included Janatha Mithuro,

National Movement Against Terrorism, Sihala Urumaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya and the 43 Brigade (so named since that was the year free education was granted by the late C.W.W. Kannangara). Many who followed his last week’s address to the crowd, including invitees from other political parties and diplomats, were unable to gauge the URF’s direction. Some highlights:

“Within one year, we have spread our network to 20 districts. Thereby our party has become a reality on the ground. Our party faced criticism that although we had the vision and had professionals with us, we did not have the required network country-wide. What we have experienced is that political parties that hold their annual conventions offer liquor and food parcels to get down supporters. But I welcome those who have come here voluntarily.

Our country declared bankruptcy two years ago. Some countries have gone through bankruptcy for several decades. Our challenge is to get over bankruptcy and regain the sovereignty that we lost, and re-establish a republic. That is our goal. We should learn from the experiences of other countries. Some give flimsy promises and mislead the country.

“We have temporarily gained some relief by putting off the repayment of debt. Whoever the next president is or whoever takes over the next government will be forced to take over the burden. It is by not paying up the loans that our foreign reserves have increased. We cannot delay debt payments continuously. Before June 15, we must come to an agreement on how we plan to reschedule our debt payments. In 2026 or 2027, we must restart repaying the debt. Don’t be carried away by the present situation. In February, we presented the sustainable way forward for a collective effort.

“Some believe that it is through an economic programme that we should overcome the issues. They say there is no other way, but the President’s programme presented is the only way. While acknowledging that the President has been able to do something, we also should say that he has heaped the burdens on those who are not responsible for the crisis and let go of those who should have been held responsible. The crisis has only temporarily been resolved. Taxes have not been collected from those who evaded taxes. The Finance Ministry has given tax relief to the wealthy. Those responsible for the crisis should shoulder some of the burden. Our programme presented in February addressed these issues.

“Some say it is the political change that should take place in the country. Some say that the upcoming election is not an election to change the government, but to change the class. They are spreading the idea that it is going to be a revolutionary change, irrespective of whether the economy is rebuilt or not.

“In South American countries where the drug mafia operates, there is a similar situation where there is a state developing within the state. What the country wants is not to appoint another class. They want a common political change. That was the direct message from those involved in the protests, or ‘Aragalaya’. This party is developed on talents. What the country needs is a programme with a mix of political and economic changes.

Some undervalue the protests or the ‘Aragalaya’. Who does not take to the streets when there are power cuts and no fuel? For the first time, through direct action, the President and the Prime Minister were changed. The future leaders should keep this in mind. If they cannot provide fuel and medicines or pay back the foreign debt, definitely there will be an ‘Aragalaya’. Also, they cannot keep hope of a ‘guerilla marketing’ campaign. Today there is a debate about holding a debate. We have presented a programme. It is an open programme. We have presented it to all parties other than those responsible for making the country bankrupt. We are ready for any discussion about the programme.

“We are ready to discuss our programme with anybody. There are various surveys coming up. They speak to 500 people and are trying to find out who the president is or go to the village fair and ask who the president will be. These surveys have no scientific basis. We should say about 40 percent of the voters are undecided. To address that silent majority, there needs to be a social programme…  We appeal to the public not to bring back to power those who made the country bankrupt and not to get caught for ‘guerilla marketing’ tactics.  Do not gamble with the lives of your children. Some parties show that they are democrats, liberals, and multi-party, but they have Bolshevik ideas. Do not get caught to them…”

In another development, former President Maithripala Sirisena’s travails do not seem to end. Weeks earlier, on a directive from the courts, he had to shed his title as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The case is ongoing. This week, the Supreme Court, the country’s apex court, issued some severe indictments against him for granting a pardon to a murder convict and releasing him from jail. Here is an account based on their ruling:

A three-judge Supreme Court bench ruled on Thursday that two consecutive pardons granted by former President Maithripala Sirisena to Shramantha Jude Anthony, a murder convict serving a death sentence commuted to life, violated the Constitution.

The first pardon came when a sentence of death imposed on him was commuted to life in May 2016. The second was granted in November 2019 in what the Supreme Court described as “a purported exercise of his powers under Article 34 of the Constitution and was released from prison.” He has since left Sri Lanka.

Jude Shramantha Anthony Jayamaha was indicted before the Colombo High Court for the murder of Yvonne Johnson, who was 19 years old at the time of her death. On July 1, 2005, her body was discovered lying in a pool of her own blood on the 19th-floor stairway of the Royal Park Apartment Complex. The Colombo High Court found him guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced him to a term not exceeding 12 years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 300,000. Aggrieved by the conviction, the Attorney General appealed in favour of a conviction of murder. The AG’s principal position was that the accused had harboured the most conspicuous murderous intention towards the deceased, and the evidence led at the trial was more than sufficient to establish his criminal liability for the offence of murder beyond reasonable doubt. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal of the accused while allowing the appeal of the AG. The Court of Appeal quashed the High Court decision and found Jude Shramantha guilty of murder. They sentenced him to death.

Justice Janaka de Silva, Justice S. Thurairajah and Justice Yasantha Kodagoda, in a 306-page judgement, however, differed on the reasons based on which they arrived at the same conclusions. They gave detailed reasons.

Justice Janak De Silva dealt, among other matters, with the effect of a pardon under the Constitution, referring also to the United States and India. He also dealt with judicial review of the grant of a pardon under the Constitution and its legality.

“I make the following further declarations and orders,” he declared.

“(1)          I declare that by the grant of the impugned purported first and second pardons, the former President Maithripala Sirisena has infringed the fundamental rights guaranteed to the Petitioner by Article 12(1) of the Constitution.

(2) In consideration of the grievously abusive, irresponsible, callous, and unlawful way former President Sirisena (the 11th Respondent) has exercised power vested in the President by Article 34 (1) of the Constitution on the occasion of the grant of the purported second pardon, as a deterrence measure to him and to all those holding public office, and is vested with power to exercise for specific purposes which shall be overall in public interest, he is directed to pay a sum of Rupees One Million to the Petitioner. The Petitioner shall hold such money in trust and spend it for purposes that are in the best interests of female victims of crime. (Note: The petitioner is the Women’s and Media Collective). This sum of money shall be paid within one month of this judgment.

(3)  The Attorney-General shall forthwith, with the assistance of the relevant

competent authorities, set in motion a procedure aimed at locating  Jude Shramantha, the 2nd Respondent and in terms of the applicable law and agreements with foreign countries, to have him located, brought back to Sri Lanka, apprehended and be placed back in prison to serve life imprisonment (This order is made in view of information placed before this Court sequel to the filing of this Application, immediately preceding this Court having made an interim order on 29th November 2019 restraining Jude Shramantha from leaving the country, he had left the country, and since not returned). It is to be noted that, though this Court has declared the impugned first pardon unlawful and therefore void, given the lapse in time since the grant of such pardon and the fact that it applied to 69 prisoners who were being detained.”

Justice S. Thurairajah noted that “I cannot rule out an extraordinarily abhorrent and bizarre act in a purported exercise of this power from potentially interfering with the functions of the judiciary under appropriately deplorable circumstances. Apart from such instances of absolute misrule, the exercise of the power of pardon ordinarily does not interfere with the judicial function, even where such exercise has been simply and plainly imprudent and/or ultra vires.”

He added, “This cardinal Doctrine of Public Trust, which is well established in our law as protector of the Rule of Law itself, extends as it is to any and all such power vested in public authorities by law. To conceive the power of pardon under Article 34 as an exception to this general principle would be manifestly illogical, given the Constitution itself does nothing to so set it apart.”

Justice Yasantha Kodagoda observed that “Upon a consideration of the documents, minutes and entries contained in the afore-stated file (where documents relating to presidential pardons were located at the Presidential Secretariat), it transpired that by handwritten letter dated July 30, 2017 (transmitted via facsimile), the mother of the Shramantha, Sandra Jayamaha, has presented an appeal to President Sirisena, seeking an appointment, enabling her to meet with His Excellency the President to explain ‘the suffering faced by her as a mother for the last 12 years and to state related facts’. The file also contains an undated, unsigned letter addressed to the President by Member of Parliament (MP) Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero, which seems to have been received by the office of the Private Secretary to the President on February 7, 2019.

The venerable Thero alleges in the letter that the imprisonment of Shramantha (the 2nd Respondent) was a sequel to a ‘wrong judgment’ and has requested that he ‘be granted full freedom’ and that doing so would be ‘justifiable and humane’. This letter contains an endorsement by President Sirisena (the then President) requiring the Additional Secretary (Legal) to the President to discuss the matter with him…

“This Court will not venture to list out other instances where the grant of a pardon may be in the public interest, as the list is unlikely to be exhaustive.

Nor can it be an afterthought crafted by the decision-maker or his competent counsel to justify the impugned decision. The decision-maker being the President, he should have formed the view objectively, on an application of rational and intelligible criteria, which should be manifest to court as being conferred, and in the public interest.

“The use of the power to grant pardon to a convict for any extraneous purpose which is not in the public interest would amount to an abuse of the power, and an act which violates the public trust vested in the Presidency. Thus, the exercise of the power to grant a pardon under such circumstances would be unlawful, as it would amount to an abuse of power. It is necessary to point out that, given the circumstances under which the power was exercised, the exercise of the power to grant a pardon for a purpose that is not in the public interest may amount to an intentional violation of the Constitution by the President and or an act of corruption.”

Among matters of importance that have been in focus this week, greater public attention has been focused on matters relating to the upcoming presidential elections. In that context, the serious strictures on former President Maithripala Sirisena, who is fighting a legal battle to gain control of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), would be a big blow. Already, the rival faction, laying claims to the party, including two ministers—Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Ameraweera—will hold a joint rally in Ambalantota with the newly formed New Alliance of Nimal Lanza, Gampaha district MP. This is the first time they are moving into Rajapaksa heartland, and the question remains whether they could make inroads.

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