COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court has ruled that four sections of a controversial proposed bill are “inconsistent” with the country’s constitution, parliamentary Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said on Tuesday. Judges said that if the contentious sections are not amended, they must be approved by the public in a national referendum.
The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (People’s Front) party introduced the Draft Bill of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution on Sept. 22, arguing that it will facilitate development of the island nation.
However, critics say that it hands greater powers not to MPs but to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. If the bill passes as it stands, he would no longer be accountable to the parliament, would be granted the ability to dissolve the legislature a year after an election, and receive full immunity from prosecution. Currently, the president can be taken to court to answer for his actions, and he can only dissolve the parliament during the final six months of its five-year term.
The Supreme Court, which received 39 petitions against the bill, delivered its final verdict to parliament on Tuesday. The bill will be debated by MPs on Wednesday and Thursday.
In its verdict, the five-judge bench said that the “constitutional inconsistency” created by granting certain powers to the president would be resolved if the bill is amended in line with the court’s recommendations. Otherwise, a referendum would be required.
The judges dismissed the idea that presidential “immunity is essential for the unimpeded and efficient discharge of functions,” stating that the arguments they heard “failed to establish a cogent and rational nexus between the non-justiciability of the president’s acts and the effective discharge of functions and duties.”
However, they allowed a number of other contentious proposals contained in the amendment, including giving the president the power to hold any number of ministries, appoint and sack ministers, and appoint top judges and officials to key institutions.
Mathiaparanam Abraham Sumanthiran, an MP and senior lawyer from northern Sri Lanka, said: “This is a regressive piece of legislation that would push the country into the dark ages. Time and again, the people of this country were keen on the abolition of the executive president. This will make the president a superman.”
Veteran journalist and political analyst N. M. Ameen echoed the concerns, and praised the judges for their ruling.
“The Supreme Court has made the right observations to be followed, and it is up to the parliament now to go ahead according to (the court’s) determination,” he said. “The present constitution ensures the democratic privileges of both the citizens and the state.”
Some critics suggest that the government is using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to rush through approval of the bill.
“It’s very clear that the constitutional amendment is being made in a hurry when the whole country is suffering from a pandemic,” said Muheed Jeeran, an international political lobbyist. “People have gone through such unbearable hardships (this year) with COVID-19, let us not rush these things — haste makes waste.”
Sri Lanka has had a powerful executive presidential system since 1978, but a reformist government elected in 2015 reined in presidential powers, instead handing them to the parliament and independent commissions.
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