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Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

The transfer of the Director General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (COIBOC), Piyasena Ranasinghe, without any previous notice given to him or the public by President Mahinda Rajapakse raises many questions that need urgent clarification. Cynics may say that a man of such experience on bribery and corruption as Ranasinghe who had served in the post for the past five years may have been urgently required within the Presidential Secretariat itself, but we do not believe that it was the reason for the swift transfer.

Piyasena Ranasinghe was no ordinary investigative cop. He was a judicial officer appointed to the Bribery Commission by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is learnt that he was overseeing investigations into the controversial purchase of MiG aircraft and the report of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), the parliamentary committee that investigated many government owned public enterprises. The public is entitled to know the reasons behind this sudden removal. No reason at all has been given other than a statement made by the President's Secretary Lalith Weeratunga to the effect that the President had the right to appoint, remove or transfer anyone in the Bribery Commission.

The law however does not provide for such arbitrary action though the President and his Secretary maybe under the delusion that their brand of dictatorship provides for such action. It is also a pathetic indictment on the government that the President does not even see it necessary to provide some explanation to the people for the transfer other than in cavalier fashion have his Secretary say it is his right to hire and fire. 

Whether President Rajapakse had that right to transfer the Director General from his post however is being contested with the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe leading the charge. Notwithstanding the opposition's charge, the propriety of the transfer of the bribery Chief entrusted with such responsible duties in a cavalier manner without any reasons given to him is highly questionable. Whether the Chairman of the Commission, Justice Amir Ismail has been informed of the reasons is not known. A copy of the order transfer has however been sent to the Chairman.

Reports said that Ranasinghe had refused to resign when asked to do so by the President's secretary saying that he had done no wrong other than to have investigated impartially matters placed before him. Transparency International Sri Lanka, Executive Director J.C. Weliamuna is on record contending that the President has only the power of appointment to the commission which is an independent body but has no authority to transfer or remove personnel serving in the commission.

The Officer in Charge of the Assets Investigation Branch of the Commission was also transferred last month without a request being made by the commission. The Supreme Court on an application filed by the officer, C.A. Premashantha issued a stay order on the transfer that once again is indicative that something rotten is afoot which the government wants kept hidden.

It is likely that the Director General, Piyasena Ranasinghe, too would be appealing to the Supreme Court against his transfer. Whatever the decision of the court may be, a review of the arbitrary exercise of executive power - even if it be permitted by law - on bodies such as the Bribery Commission needs consideration. The proper authority to exercise such power should be the commission itself and once the President makes appointments he or she should wash their hands off. This is particularly so when investigations are being conducted on top most politicians and officials of the government.

President Rajapakse's actions on this issue are being held suspect because it does appear that he often pays scant regard to the laws of the country, even the foremost law which is the constitution. He no doubt has delusions of grandeur and is acting like a tin pot dictator of a banana republic but it is the people who have to pay the price for his conduct with increasing international isolation, the GSP Plus being a case in point. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted in parliament unanimously by all parties in a rare show of solidarity in an attempt to instill public confidence in the public service, police, judiciary and more importantly democracy itself.

President Rajapakse was never a supporter of the Independent Commissions concept believing the political authority must have the power to make appointments to key institutions such as the police and public service and started undermining the letter and spirit of the 17th Amendment from the very outset. Playing politics with the constitution, the President started appointing persons to the independent commissions will nilly and it was only some eminent persons appointed to the Human Rights Commission who refused to accept office stating it was against the spirit of the constitution. Mind you the constitution provides for the Constitutional Council to be functional at all times, even after a dissolution of parliament to ensure good governance and the President's failure to appoint the Constitutional Council tantamount to an intentional violation of the constitution, which is an impeachable offence.  

The non implementation of the 17th Amendment has now resulted in the severe breakdown of law and order in the country. The IGP, Victor Silva, appointed by President Rajapakse has failed miserably in preventing abductions of innocent civilians not only in the east and other parts of the country but in Colombo as well. These abductions some of which have resulted in the disappearance of civilians cannot be considered as a result of an insurrection but as ordinary crimes well within the ambit of police powers. Abductions at first were confined to Tamil citizens. Then Muslim businessmen were targeted. It could well be that Sinhalese civilians would be next.

The IGP appears to be impotent in this regard and the President has not taken suitable action because it is obvious what he wants is a political lackey as top cop and not an independent officer. All this could be attributed to President Rajapakse's refusal to comply with the supreme law of the land, the constitution.

The public is entitled to question the motives of President Rajapakse in not implementing the laws of the land. There is reason to fear future developments because the breakdown of law and order could lead to total chaos. It could lead to authoritarian rule in the name of establishing law and order in the country and we have many examples under the Rajapakse dispensation to fear such a situation.

The Rajapakse regime is under terrific pressure from many sides. The international community is exerting severe pressure on the issue of human rights violations which include that of abduction of civilians mentioned earlier. There is pressure from these foreign powers also not to proceed with the military offensive in the north for fear of violation of rights of the civilian population. On the other hand the President is committed to a military victory and that is what is on offer to the Sinhalese electorate for want of economic progress.

Now even the President's allies in the JVP are pressing him for the implementation of the 17th Amendment. In such circumstances the temptation may be there to hold an election to get a clear parliamentary majority under conditions where free and fair elections would not be possible. Authoritarian regimes with a strong military and a large servile police force have been making such attempts in other countries but President Rajapakse will do well to learn a lesson from the fate that has befallen his friend, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. A dictatorship can run only so far and the time eventually comes as it will in Sri Lanka when the people rise up and say enough is enough. There is only so much of plunder the people will take and plunder there is plenty today as our investigation into another Telecom deal involving a Rajapakse shows  elsewhere in today's issue.

To dispel all such fears and suspicions, President Rajapakse should begin to implement the law of the land which is his primary obligation. While the daily increase of economic burdens are crushing the people there is the fear that the laws enacted for the protection of their liberties are being shoved aside. The people are between the devil and the deep blue sea.


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