Sri Lankan govt tables 20th Constitution Amendment Bill that proposes complete presidential immunity

The government on 2 September gazetted 20A, which would prevent the Supreme Court even considering whether an act by the president amounts to a violation of the Constitution

Press Trust of India September 23, 2020 08:31:00 IST
Sri Lankan govt tables 20th Constitution Amendment Bill that proposes complete presidential immunity

In this image made from UNTV video, Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa speaks in a pre-recorded message which was played during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, at U.N. headquarters in New York. The U.N.'s first virtual meeting of world leaders started Tuesday with pre-recorded speeches from some of the planet's biggest powers, kept at home by the coronavirus pandemic that will likely be a dominant theme at their video gathering this year. (UNTV via AP)

Colombo: The Sri Lankan government's proposed 20th Constitution Amendment Bill that aims to bolster the powers of the President was tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, ending speculation that its presentation would be delayed amidst internal resistance from within the ruling party led by the powerful Rajapaksa family.

The government on 2 September gazetted 20A, the new proposed legislation that would replace the 19th Amendment introduced in 2015 that curtailed the powers of the President and strengthened the role of Parliament.

The 19A was seen as the most progressive pro-democracy reformist move since Sri Lanka came to be governed under the all-powerful executive presidency in 1978.

It depoliticised the government administration by ensuring the independence of key pillars such as the judiciary, public service and elections.

The 20th Amendment proposes to restore full legal immunity to the President, removing the provisions made in the 19A to take legal action against the President.

Amidst an uproar by the Opposition in Parliament on Tuesday, Justice Minister Ali Sabri tabled the bill which was the original gazette issued by the government on 3 September.

After the bill is presented in Parliament, anyone wanting to drag the matter to the court can approach the apex judicial body against it.

The 20A has been tabled in Parliament and it is upto the Opposition to approach the court if they want to go against it, the government said.

GL Peiris, the Education Minister, on Monday had said: "After it is presented in Parliament for what is known as the first reading tomorrow, any interested party can approach the Supreme Court against it. Then the court will have further 3 weeks to inform its legality to the President and Parliament".

Peiris headed a 9-member ministerial committee to review the 20A's original provisions after it faced internal resistance from within a faction of the ruling Sri Lanka People's Party (SLPP) parliamentary group itself.

Yet Peiris' committee report was not considered for any changes based on the objections.

"Any changes which the parties want could be discussed at the committee stage of the debate", Peiris said adding that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had received two clear mandates both in November last year and at the parliamentary election held in August to abolish the 19A.

The 19A Amendment adopted in 2015 by the then reformist government was subject to much criticism by the powerful Rajapaksa clan as it prevented dual citizens from contesting elections.

At the time, two of the Rajapaksa family members, including the current president, were dual citizens of the US and Sri Lanka.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to renounce his US citizenship to contest the presidential election in November, 2019.

His younger brother and SLPP founder and its National Organiser, Basil Rajapaksa, is a dual citizen of the US and Sri Lanka. There are five from the Rajapaksa family already in the government.

During the 5 August general election, the SLPP sought two thirds parliamentary mandate or 150 seats in the 225-member assembly to effect constitutional changes, the foremost of them was the move to abolish the 19A.

The SLPP and allies won 150 seats and have a two-thirds majority to affect the constitutional change they desire.

While Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as the Sri Lankan President in November last year, his eldest brother Mahinda Rajapaksa won the general election and assumed charge as Prime Minister on 9 August.

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