A fierce debate raged over the fate of opposition lawmaker Rishard Bathiudeen in parliament on Wednesday (5), after the Public Security Minister and Viyathmaga frontliner rear admiral Sarath Weerasekera told the Speaker to prevent the MP from attending sittings on the basis of “national security”.
Bathiudeen was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act on April 24, as the Government was coming under heavy criticism for failing to act against the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday bombings after putting the bombings at the center of its 2019 presidential election platform.
President’s Counsel and TNA Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran flagged the unprecedented nature of Weerasekera’s demand before the Speaker. For the first time ever, a Minister had stated that someone who is detained by an administrative detention order cannot be brought to Parliament, the TNA legislator said.
“This has never happened in the history of this House. Before a person is at least judicially pronounced to be a convict, he has never lost his seat in Parliament. If what the Hon Minister says is the rule, then for three months somebody can be administratively detained on suspicion and lose his parliamentary seat. That cannot be the rule,” Sumanthiran charged.
The TNA lawmaker refers to Bathiudeen’s detention as “administrative” because PTA detainees are ordered into custody by the Defence Minister and not a court of law. President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ordered Bathiudeen’s detention and interrogation under the draconian anti-terror law for 90 days.
Addressing the President and the Prime Minister, who were both present in Parliament on Wednesday, Sumanthiran said they were nodding in agreement with him and urged them to speak up.
“Otherwise, a wholly unprecedented thing will happen where any political opponent can be arrested and administratively detained even without being found guilty judicially and lose his parliamentary seat,” the Jaffna District MP charged.
The Speaker of Parliament has the sole jurisdiction over the rights and privileges of members of the legislature and ordered the CID last week to make arrangements to allow Bathiudeen to attend sittings of the House. However, citing different reasons, the Leader of the ACMC and former Industries Minister was never brought to Parliament by the CID.
Opposition Lawmakers charged that the Government of President Nandasena Rajapaksa was using the PTA to muzzle outspoken members of the opposition and were setting out to make them lose their parliamentary seats. Main opposition SJB MPs said there were similar efforts to arrest Harin Fernando under the PTA and subject him to a lengthy detention order. Fernando petitioned the Supreme Court against his imminent arrest. The SJB claimed that this was a violation of the rights and privileges of MPs and urged the Speaker of Parliament to defend legislators.
A member of Parliament who does not attend sessions for three consecutive months is deemed to have vacated his seat. Under the PTA, detainees can be held without charge for 180 days (six months).
Rear Admiral Weerasekera, the hawkish and Sinhala hardline Public Security Minister who once served as head of the Civil Defence Force, told the Speaker that no MP arrested under the PTA should be allowed to attend Parliament until the investigations are complete. He claimed the MP could use parliamentary privilege to reveal certain facts about the investigation that could obstruct the work of the CID.
“So I am requesting you, Hon. Speaker not to bring Bathiudeen to parliament until the investigations are complete. The CID does not simply arrest MPs arbitrarily. They will do so only with good reason. Only if they have grounds to detain him. We are not ready to function the way MPs Sumanthiran and Sarath Fonseka want us to,” Weerasekera charged.
Field Marshall and former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka charged that CID officials could not simply “catch a MP” and detain him for three months to make sure he loses his parliamentary seat. “If that is the law according to you, that is not only unjust, it is completely worthless to the people of this country. Rishard Bathiudeen is a representative of his people,” Fonseka said, taking a swipe again at the Public Security Minister with whom he had a fierce exchange of words previously that day over the presidential pardon granted to convicted mass murderer, Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake.
Weerasekera’s statement to the House was extremely serious, SJB MP Mujibur Rahuman said addressing Parliament about Bathiudeen’s attendance.
He said: “The Public Security minister has just stood up in this House and said that an elected member of parliament is under a detention order and he has ordered that he cannot be brought to parliament. As Speaker you need to make a statement about who gave this minister the power to prevent an elected representative from attending Parliamentary sittings,” the Colombo District SJB MP said.
Rahuman also revealed that Bathiudeen had been subjected to a PCR test at 3PM on Monday, but by Wednesday afternoon the results had not yet been released. The detained MP had also received a vaccination against Covid-19, Rahuman emphasized.
SJB MP Harsha De Silva said that the country’s laws were governed by the constitution, and charged that a minister of the Government cannot determine the law.
SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella said that the opposition had been given three separate excuses over the course of 24 hours for why Rishard Bathiudeen was not being permitted to attend parliamentary sittings this week.
“When his family had inquired about it, they were told he could not be released because the Speaker had not signed some documents. At the party leaders meeting the Speaker said his absence was related to the Covid-19 outbreak. Now the Minister is claiming he is not here because it is a national security issue. So what is the real reason? This is obfuscation,” Kiriella charged.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa backed Kiriella’s claim. Premadasa said the Speaker had never mentioned national security when Bathiudeen’s attendance was brought up in a business committee. “They said Rishard Bathiudeen had come into contact with a person who had tested positive for Covid-19. It is his right to be able to attend Parliament,” Premadasa said.
A clearly uncomfortable Speaker of Parliament said he would reach a decision in due course after the matters raised had been studied at length.
Rishard Bathuideen, a politician from Mannar and a former IDP, who leads Sri Lanka’s second largest Muslim party, was cleared by the Easter Sunday Commission which found no evidence of wrongdoing on the former Minister’s part. However the Government has continued to hold the sword of damocles over his head, as fodder for its rabidly racist electoral base, which has been baying for Bathiudeen’s blood for several years. Bathiudeen and his brother are often arrested when the Government’s popularity is plummeting, in a clear attempt to shore up support among its hardline base. (By Chinthika de Silva)