By Sandun Jayawardana
Less than a month into its five-year term, the Ninth Parliament of Sri Lanka achieved world-wide notoriety this week when a murder convict on death row was sworn in as a member of the august assembly, amid jeers and a walkout from Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MPs.
The swearing-in of Ratnapura district Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP-elect Premalal Jayasekara was the first item on the agenda when sittings began on Tuesday (8). He was sentenced to death by the Ratnapura High Court on July 31 for the 2015 murder of an opposition activist, but was elected to Parliament at the August 5 election.
In response to a writ petition filed by Mr Jayasekara’s lawyers, the Court of Appeal had issued an interim order the day before directing the Commissioner General of Prisons to allow him to attend Parliament sessions. Mr Jayasekara was escorted before the Speaker by Parliament’s Serjeant-at-Arms. He then took oaths as an MP, pledging to uphold and defend the Constitution, amid vocal protests from the SJB. After being sworn in, Mr Jayasekara took his seat in the back row of the Government ranks. Both front row Government MPs and backbenchers were seen congratulating him, while he was also seen speaking to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa later in the day.
The SJB MPs led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa wore black shawls to protest Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s decision to swear in Mr Jayasekara.
Chief Opposition Whip and Kandy district SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella was on his feet to object to Mr Jayasekara taking oaths even as the latter was being led to the Speaker’s Chair. Yet Mr Jayasekara was sworn in as an MP, leading to furious protests and cries of “Shame” from the SJB ranks directed at the Speaker.
After being allowed to express his views by the Speaker, Mr Kiriella pointed out that in 2010, parliamentarian and war-winning Army Commander Sarath Fonseka was prevented from attending Parliamentary sessions in similar circumstances. “Speaking on behalf of the Government then, Prof. G.L. Peiris claimed that under Article 89 of the Constitution, a person convicted by a high court automatically loses his seat. He stated that the Speaker had no discretion on the matter,” Mr. Kiriella said.
House Leader Dinesh Gunawardena noted that Mr Jayasekara had been brought to the House to take oaths following a court order, and insisted that under Parliament’s Standing Orders, another member’s presence can only be questioned via a substantive motion. In justifying his decision to allow Mr Jayasekara to take oaths and in response to opposition queries, Speaker Abeywardena took refuge in the interim order delivered by the Court of Appeal bench comprising its President A.H.M.D. Nawaz and Justice Sobitha Rajakaruna.
He read out a section from the court’s 11-page judgment, which noted that “it is the view of this Court that the Petitioner would be clothed with all the rights of an elected Member of Parliament.” He then insisted that he would have to adhere to this judgment.
Yet, the Speaker was only reading out a section of the judgment, argued SJB National List MP Harin Fernando. He pointed out that in its judgment, the Court noted that “the question of sitting and voting does not arise before us and as the passage clearly indicates, it is the province of the Speaker to deal with that matter or any other competent body.” As such, the SJB argued that the Speaker should not have allowed Mr Jayasekara to take oaths.
In the end, furious SJB MPs walked out of the Chamber after throwing their black shawls into the well of the House.
The Government, on its part, accused the SJB of using Mr Jayasekara’s matter as cover to escape the debate on the Annual Report on the Central Bank that had been presented to Parliament.
The controversy over the swearing-in reverberated throughout the week, with the matter being brought up on all three subsequent sitting days, leading to heated exchanges in the House.
The issue was raised even on Friday, which had been set aside for the Vote of Condolence on late Minister Arumugam Thondaman. Before the Vote of Condolence was taken up, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa raised a point of order stating that the Speaker had set a wrong precedent by allowing Premalal Jayasekara to take oaths.
“In 1982, Selvarajah Yogachandran, also known as Kuttimani, one of the leaders of TELO, was nominated to Parliament by the TULF. His name was gazetted to become an MP, but he had been sentenced to death under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Though he had appealed against his sentence, the then Speaker Bakeer Markar did not allow Mr Yogachandran to take oaths citing Sections 89 and 91 of the Constitution. This was the precedent that was set. You have violated this precedent by allowing Mr Jayasekara to take oaths and acted in violation of Sections 89 and 91,” Mr. Premadasa told the Speaker.
Speaker Abeywardena, though, said the point should have been raised at the Court of Appeal during the case. “This is not the forum to raise this matter. The Court informed us of its decision and we will abide by it,” he noted.
SJB MPs then pointed out that previous Speakers had ruled Parliament to be supreme and had even ruled that it was not bound to follow orders from the court. “When the court gave an order for the impeachment of former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake to be stopped, the then Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa ignored the court order and took a different decision,” Chief Opposition Whip Kiriella reminded.
“That is a separate issue,” the Speaker asserted.
House Leader Gunawardena accused the Opposition of canvassing to deprive a Member of Parliament of his rights. He called for all references made against Mr Jayasekara’s swearing-in to be removed from the Hansard. The Speaker will take a decision on the matter later.
With Premalal Jayasekara now allowed to attend Parliamentary sessions whenever they are held, the controversy is unlikely to die down anytime soon.