Foiling the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Administration’s plans to prevent serious legal challenges to the Colombo Port City Economic Commission bill, a spate of petitions was filed before the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka on Thursday (15).
Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya has appointed a five-judge bench which will start hearing the petitions on April 19. The bench comprises the Chief Justice and Justices Buwaneka Aluvihare, Priyantha Jayawardane, Murdu Fernando and Janak De Silva.
The Government tabled the controversial draft legislation late last week, restricting the number of days for petitions to be filed before the highest court. Challenges to draft legislation must be filed in court within a week of being tabled in Parliament. Five out of the seven days available to potential challengers were public holidays.
But with lightning speed, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka not only appointed a special committee to study the draft legislation, but it joined several other petitioners to work through the New Year holidays to meet the filing deadline, sources told Colombo Telegraph.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) the United National Party (UNP), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), Samagi Janabalawegaya (SJB), a group of engineers were among the petitioners who filed by the April 15 deadline.
Significantly, Ven. Muruttetuwe Ananda Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Abhayaramaya temple in Narahenpita – once the spiritual and political HQ of the Mahinda Sulanga campaign – was also among the petitioners. The SLPP aligned monk said the government’s draft legislation creating an autonomous administration for the Colombo Port City, which was financed and constructed by China, would create a ‘Chinese colony’ and a separate state in Sri Lanka.
Attorney Sunil Watagala, appearing as counsel for the JVP, said the Government was giving the Chinese a separate administrative region with the Port City bill, to govern according to their whims and fancies. Special laws could be made specifically for the Port City, Watagala noted after filing his case.
Transparency International said its challenge was grounded in three central corruption concerns. ISL urges that the bill is in violation of several key articles of the Constitution and that it creates pathways for corruption, by facilitating or enabling illicit financial flows, and money laundering. TISL noted the lack of transparency in ownership of the ‘offshore’ businesses that will be set up at the Port City, since ultimate owners of businesses registered need not be disclosed. “Access to such information by law enforcement is crucial,” TISL tweeted.
The anti-corruption watchdog also said it was concerned about a lack of transparency in relation to the operations of offshore banks in the Port City, that could be free from the purview of the regulatory framework applicable to local banks, posing a risk of turning the Port City into a “secrecy jurisdiction.”
TISL said it was also deeply concerned that the bill leads to the evading of parliamentary oversight on public funds and matters within the port city, creating a serious gap in public accountability.
Observers remained skeptical that the Supreme Court would intervene to bring the Government’s proposed legislation within the framework of the constitution and insist that the reclaimed city conforms to public expenditure regulations.
The Supreme Court has frequently appointed hefty benches to hear multiple petitions filed on singularly controversial and constitutionally existential issues, held days upon days of public hearings and eventually thrown the cases out without providing even one line that would indicate rhyme or reason for why the bench was deeming the cases meritless.
Political observers noted that it had becoming less and less likely that the highest court of the land will intervene to prevent the government’s infringement on citizens’ rights, after the Supreme Court failed to take positions on the unlawful delay in parliamentary elections, the mandatory cremation policy that went to the heart of fundamental rights questions, the 20th amendment, and other key matters.
“Since President Gotabaya’s election, on every burning question of the day that has been the cause of deep suffering for the people of Sri Lanka or struck at the heart of our democracy and constitutional freedoms, the Supreme Court has declined to make a meaningful intervention. The apex court has given us no signal that it will rise to defend constitutional democracy and fundamental freedoms against the headwinds of authoritarianism and executive overreach,” a political analyst emailed Colombo Telegraph.
It was therefore unlikely that the Court will cross the Government on the Port City matter, that was of critical importance not only to the President and his Government but also to one of the world’s most powerful countries which holds the purse-strings and perhaps Sri Lanka’s economic future in its hands, the analyst wrote. (By Chinthika De Silva)