Will to crack down corruption questioned; vote on landmark bill postponed

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The Anti-Corruption Bill that was due to be passed by Parliament this week was postponed on Wednesday to a later date with both the Government and the opposition agreeing that more time was needed to introduce amendments and for MPs to further debate the landmark legislation.

While both sides were in agreement on the urgent necessity of introducing the legislation, questions were raised by the opposition on whether any anti-corruption legislation would achieve its stated aims if there was a lack of political will to enforce it.

At the start of the debate on Wednesday, House Leader and Minister Susil Premajayantha informed Parliament that while it had earlier been agreed to move the Anti-Corruption Bill on that date, more time was needed for the line ministry to prepare and translate the amendments the Supreme Court had proposed and for those amendments to be discussed at the relevant Sectoral Oversight Committee. As such, he proposed that with the agreement of the opposition, both the Anti-Corruption Bill and the Assistance and the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Bill should be taken up for debate that day but approved at a later date.

The opposition had no objection to the Government’s proposal provided that the debate on the Anti-Corruption Bill was extended by a further one or two days, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa told Mr Premajayantha.

Presenting the Bill, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said the proposed legislation made many improvements to the existing Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption Act of 1994. To cement the independence of the Bribery Commission, all Commissioners and its Director General would be appointed by the Constitutional Council, the minister said, adding that it also specified the qualifications and experience they should possess.

“We also know now from experience that appointing retired judges and police officers to the Bribery Commission will not bring expected results. As such, we have proposed that the Commission should be staffed by those who are less than 62 years of age and who are experts in their particular fields.”

Moreover, the new bill would ensure the financial and administrative independence of the Bribery Commission. It would give more powers to the Director General and all officials would be subjected to conflict of interest principles, he added.

The new law will make it mandatory for the President, Commissioners of all independent Commissions, ambassadors, governors, chief ministers, provincial ministers, provincial council members and executive grade officers in embassies stationed overseas to submit assets and liabilities declarations annually. They will have to submit these declarations even after retirement for a further two years.

Provisions had also been included in the bill to protect the rights of whistleblowers. In addition, sexual bribery at the workplace would be made a crime punishable by law through the new bill, he explained.

Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella said the bill was applicable only to future offences and there is no retrospective effect. “The government says there is a transitional provision but that is not enough. It is our view that there should be a special provision allowing retrospective effect for past crimes committed by various people. We have given an amendment in this regard.”

Minister Rajapakshe said the government would have to obtain the Attorney General’s advice on whether the bill could have retrospective effect.

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran pointed out that although in the Constitution, there was a bar to retrospective effect in criminal matters, there was a proviso stating that it could apply if it was a criminal act. He said this was in accordance with the general principles of law recognised by the community of nations.

The preamble of the new Bill mentions that it was being introduced to give effect to certain provisions of the United Nations Convention against Corruption and other internationally recognised norms, standards, and best practices. As such, there could be no objection to the retrospective effect provision applying from the time those conventions came into effect, he argued.

Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP and Freedom People’s Congress member Prof. G.L. Peiris said that due attention had not been given to the main problem. “When a major financial fraud is committed, the money that is stolen is not kept in this country. The thieves deposit those stolen funds in foreign bank accounts. The primary goal should be to reclaim those funds for the Treasury. This is not something that Sri Lanka can achieve by itself. It needs to join hands with international agencies for this purpose, but this has not been done,” he said.

“This bill does not have sufficient teeth. In order to give it, we need to introduce amendments to this bill that will provide for cooperation with these foreign agencies.”

State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe said he saw the bill as an important tool to help create an environment conducive to businesses. “It is essential that we affect the necessary reforms that will improve our ranking in the Ease of Doing Business Index. It is only by doing this that we can compete with our competitors in the international market.”

SLPP MP Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle said she was happy that the Government had heeded calls made by female MPs and women’s rights organisations to designate sexual bribery as a crime under the new legislation. She, however, proposed that the language in the draft bill be amended from “sexual favour” to “sexual bribery” as the former diminishes the gravity of the offence.

While endorsing the clauses that sought to punish both bribe takers and bribe givers, Dr Fernandopulle noted that in the case of sexual bribery, it was usually a woman who had been forced into sex as a bribe. As such, she proposed that the draft be amended to provide an exception so that those forced into giving a sexual bribe were not punished.

The question when debating these bills is whether ultimately, there has been a change in the culture of this country, said Tamil National People’s Front Leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam.

“Everything that is done in this House and outside is a box-ticking exercise designed to demonstrate to the world in some way that we merely qualify for democracy. There’s nothing beyond that. Everything else is a pack of cards. It’s hollow. It is window-dressing and playing to the gallery. Until that situation changes, all these laws will remain a mere academic exercise,” claimed Mr Ponnambalam.

Former President and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Chairman Maithripala Sirisena reminded the House that he appointed several Commissions to investigate acts of corruption during his time as President. This included the Commissions appointed to investigate acts of corruption committed by the government in power prior to 2015, the Commission appointed to investigate the Central Bank fraud and the Commission that probed corruption at SriLankan Airlines. Though those Commissions produced extensive reports, nothing was done after the change of government in 2019, he said.

“Whether it’s serious acts of corruption committed by politicians, state officials or others, we have never punished any of the main players. It is only the small fish who have been punished. That must change,” added Mr Sirisena.

The Committee on Parliamentary Business will decide on further dates for the continuation of the debate on the bill.

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