The Commissions : How independent is ‘independent’? | Sunday Observer

The Commissions : How independent is ‘independent’?

The resignation of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption Director General Dilrukshi Dias Wickremasinghe early last week following a tensed outburst by the President, triggered a national debate.

Though some described the whole affair as opening a ‘can of worms’, certain members of the Independent Commissions voiced the ongoing debate was healthy in the sense that debates help sustain democracy. The Independent Commissions were brought to life under the 19th Amendment, one of the key election vows of the Unity Government. People eagerly anticipated that these commissions will help root out corruption, lawlessness and nepotism that plagued the country, driving the people to seek a regime change.

At the time this paper went to press speculation was rife as to who will succeed Ms.Wickremasinghe with names such as Presidential Advisor Shiral Lakthilaka making the rounds.

Bribery Commission

CIABOC DG MS.Wickeremasighe despite an outstanding past record decided to quit after comments by the President that the Bribery Commission and some other investigative bodies were selective in their investigations. At the time of her appointment as Director General she was a President’s Counsel invited to the Inner Bar, an Additonal Solicitor General, a former Judge of the High Court of Fiji and she had also served as the Chief Legal Officer of the Sri Lanka Air Force.

Ms.Wickremasinghe is also a solicitor in the Bar of England and Wales and has a Master’s in Commercial Law from the University of Monash, Australia. She came in for criticism when there were accusations from the Joint Opposition and the SLFP faction of the government that the actions of the Bribery Commission were selective and that she was responsible for this political tilt within the anti-graft body.

Government agencies and special units battling corruption including the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) and the CID’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) were accused of pushing political agendas by Unity Government partners as well.

Contradictory statements

With so many contradictory statements shot from all directions, the general masses are baffled as to what or whom to believe. With the whole political fraternity divided over the good and bad of the Bribery Commission, the Leftist parties added fuel to the fire by calling the CIABOC DG’s appointment a political one and that their actions were questionable, a claim the Commission had outright rejected. At a recent press conference held jointly by the Communist Party and the LSSP former COPE Chairman and Communist Party stalwart DEW Gunasekera brushed off allegations that the President’s speech threatened the independence of the independent commissions.

He said it was no secret that Ms.Wickremasinghe was a political appointee.

Resignation

The JVP however, towed a different line and said criticisms leveled against the anti-graft bodies were uncalled for and would help sustain the corrupt.

In the midst of these developments there were rumors last week that the Chairman of the CIABOC retired Supreme Court Justice T.B.Weerasuriya would also tender his resignation if Ms.Wickremasinghe’s resignation is accepted by the President.

A member of the Independent Elections Commission Prof.Ratnajeevan Hoole in an email interview with the Sunday Observer said political appointments tend to be made when seven out of the ten Constitutional Council members happen to be sitting Members of Parliament. The members to the Independent Commissions, mandated by the 19th Amendment are nominated by the Constitutional Council and appointed by the President.

However, the post of Director General of the Bribery Commission is a direct appointment made by the President. In the case of Ms. Wickremasinghe, the appointment had been made with the consultation of the Prime Minister.

Prof.Hoole said: ”I do not know if the word independent applies when we were selected by 10 persons of whom only three were truly independent of party politics. I think there was some quid pro quo – you let me pick this person and I will support your guy. I do not know what to call that process.”

Switching to the present tense he said, the prognosis is not good looking at the Bribery Commission’s experience, the new successor to the post of DG is noticed to ‘behave’ even before an appointment is made. He said the matter also raises questions of government stability and added, “Political stability is important for an independent judiciary.”

Prof. Hoole also said that the non-uniform nature of prosecutions – crooks who made millions sitting in the Cabinet while persons like Fowzie who misused a couple of vehicles are charged – does not help make the commissions look too independent either.

Of facilitation and resources to the Commissions, he said he was residing in Jaffna and his transportation to attend the meetings of the IEC is an issue that he is trying to resolve at the moment.

He said the biggest challenge facing the Independent Elections Commission of which he is a member, is public credibility.” If we do not hold the local government elections quickly, we will lose credibility. And then any elections we ‘do hold’ will have no credibility. “

The National Police Commission Chairman Prof. Siri Hettige said as far as the NPC is concerned, he did not think that there has been any political considerations in the appointments to the NPC. However, he said that he cannot speak for other commissions.

Independently

Asked if they faced any interference from the government or any individual in executing their mandate he responded in the negative. “As far as the NPC is concerned, we have been functioning independently without any undue interference,” adding that as a Commission, they were taking collective decisions based on consensus.

“But in the law and order sector, we are not the only actors and I cannot again talk about these other actors and their experiences,” He said the moment he comes under undue interference he will not hesitate to resign and this has been conveyed to the relevant persons.

Prof. Hettige said it was natural to have many challenges facing the Independent Commissions, as many ad hoc and often politically motivated decisions taken in the past have created various problems which are not easy to resolve. In addition, the vital human and financial resources are not easy to mobilise.

However, without being tied down due to constraints, he said, “we are moving steadily and systematically to build up our own capacities and capabilities and help the Sri Lanka Police to become an efficient, truly professional, people friendly service that we can all be proud of.”

“I have never done such a strenuous job in my life. I have been a hardworking academic for several decades but that work is leisurely. In comparison, this work has been truly challenging because much of what we do is pioneering and pathbreaking and needs a lot of commitment, thinking, planning, networking, etc.”

Prof. Hettige said the people in this country need a professional and independent police service. “This is the opportunity to establish such a service that we should not miss. It may not come again. If people take things lightly, we can easily slide back to anarchy and lawlessness.”

Democracy

Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission Chairperson Dr. Deepika Udagama said the public must judge how independent the Independent Commissions are in this country.

Asked if she faced any interference of any sort from the government quarters she responded, ‘none whatsoever’. But she classified as their biggest challenge, the difficulty to implement their decisions and getting cooperation from the other public institutions towards this end.

Echoing Prof. Hettige she said human resource was a great constraint on the HRCSL which hampers them from performing to their full potential. And of the ongoing debate on the independence of the Bribery Commission, she said, ‘debates are always healthy to sustain democracy’ provided that the result, too, upheld democracy.

There were separate discussions between members of Independent Commissions and the Constitutional Council Head, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who had assured them of non-interference. The President also met Commissioners of the Bribery Commission before accepting the resignation of the ex-DG Wickremasinghe.

After resignation the former DG has returned to the Attorney General’s Department to take up her former position of Additonal Solicitor General while the CIABOC Deputy Director General Sunethra Jayasinghe was appointed as the Acting DG by the President on Wednesday.

Member of the Constitutional Council and Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe said President will nominate the new Director General after consulting the Prime Minister upon his return from Belgium. 

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