Central Bank probe: unified COPE report stumps JO alarmists | Sunday Observer

Central Bank probe: unified COPE report stumps JO alarmists

Ending months of speculation, JVP Parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti, in his capacity as the Chairman of COPE, presented the Committee’s special report to Parliament, on Friday morning.

Although many believed that the presentation of the COPE report would be characterised with dissent, proceedings were calm and peaceful. Handunnetti, in his speech, explained the recommendations made by the committee and reasons for them. All MPs representing the House praised the JVP Parliamentarian’s efforts at a comprehensive and impartial report on the bond issue.

“This is not an easy task. Members of my office, translators and others involved in the process spent two sleepless nights to prepare the report on time. I must express my sincere gratitude to all of them,” Handunnetti said in his speech.

Handunnetti said the COPE recommended a full-scale investigation into Perpetual Treasuries Ltd – the primary dealer at the centre of the Treasury bond controversy. Such an investigation, he said, would prevent the recurrence of a similar incident around issuance of Treasury bonds in the future.

Perpetual Treasuries

The Committee also noted Perpetual Treasures had earned unprecedented profits within a short period, and for this reason, recommended a proper inquiry into the company’s operations, to ascertain if any malpractice was involved.

In addition, the Committee recommended a number of measures to rectify anomalies within the Central Bank’s system, to prevent the recurrence of similar malpractice in the future. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, addressing the Parliament, after the presentation of the COPE report, reiterated his faith in the work of COPE Chairman Sunil Handunnetti and other members in the Committee.

Wickremesinghe said it was an achievement that a report into an investigation on an institution under the purview of the government was presented to Parliament. He attributed this achievement to President Maithripala Sirisena and other members of the ruling coalition.

“These are the fruits of good governance,” the Prime Minister said, emphasising the manner in which the government had strengthened the Parliament, which cowed under the Rajapaksa administration. “Above all, we have been able to turn a bunch of thieves towards good governance,” Premier Wickremesinghe said, directing his criticism at members of the Joint Opposition who were clamouring on the other side of the House.

“They have now become the guardians of good governance. Why couldn’t they do that when they were in power?” he asked.

“The COPE Chairman told me this report would be presented to Parliament before the Budget debate and we all agreed. It is up to Parliament to decide on the future course of action,” he said.

“This report talks about an institution coming under my purview. I don’t have a problem with it. First, let’s examine the report and take it up for debate. After that, let’s send it to the Attorney General for further action, if necessary.

“I have already sent several issues relating the Central Bank to the Attorney General. I have sent even the handbook of the Central Bank to the Attorney General. Later, we can act under the instructions of the Attorney General. At this point, we have been able to strengthen Parliament,” the Prime Minister explained.

In his speech, the Prime Minister highlighted how it was that such practices did not exist under the Rajapaksa rule.

“The Greek bond issue was never investigated. Had we done that, problems such as these would not have arisen,” he said.

“Our sole objective is to strengthen the Parliament,” he said, adding that Rajapaksa supporters should be ashamed of themselves. “The more they shout, the more they show their bankruptcy. A handful of newspapers, which the Rajapaksa group started using stolen money, are supporting them. There should be investigations into all their frauds,” he stressed.

Arjuna Mahendran

In his speech on Friday, the Prime Minister also disclosed the fact that the former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran had not fled the country, despite claims by certain opposition Parliamentarians that he had.

“Mahendran will be back soon after attending a wedding overseas,” he said, responding to a question raised by Opposition MP Weerakumara Dissanayake. “He is not hiding like Weerathunga,” he said, referring to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cousin , former Ambassador Udayanga Weeratunga, who is now in hiding.

The proceedings, however, took an unexpected turn when Deputy Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe urged the Deputy Speaker to summon the editors, journalists and media organisations that reported on the COPE proceedings of Treasury Bond issue.

“COPE proceedings were not open to media. But media organisations published various reports on them. How can they do that?” he asked. “They should be summoned and questioned. The COPE has been vested with powers to summon them,” Senasinghe said. Senasinghe’s comment come while many parliamentarians have stressed the need for giving the media access to COPE and PAC sessions, contradicting, to a great degree, the basic tenets of good governance in which transparency is an essential element.

Responding to Senasinghe’s remarks, Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala said he would discuss the matter with COPE Chairman and take appropriate action.

JVP MP Bimal Ratnayake joined in at this juncture, saying his party was against summoning media and journalists before the COPE:

“If you insist on summoning them you should first summon the Leader of the House - he was the one who made statements to media on the COPE sessions,” he said, adding, “We are not political infants. The Leader of the House had made a statement first to media, and he should be summoned before COPE first.”

Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella entered the fracas telling the JVP MP mildly, that he was no member of the COPE.

“I got up one day and said that Hadunnetti was not suitable to be the COPE Chairman,” said the Leader of the House. “He is the one who gave an interview to a newspaper on Treasury bond issue. We can prove it. We will prove it,” he said.

Special debate

In response to UPFA MP and Joint Opposition stalwart Dinesh Gunawardena’s request for a special debate on the issue Kiriella also informed the House that Parliament may debate the special COPE report on the Treasury bonds issue in detail at the next party leaders’ meeting.

“We are not afraid. But remember the previous government put 30 COPE reports into dustbin. Was there any debate on those? The former President put 30 COPE reports into the dustbin. He removed the then COPE Chairman Wijedasa Rajepakshe. Do you recall?” Kiriella asked.

These developments have so far highlighted the fact that the COPE investigation into the Central Bank Treasury bond issue is a landmark event, establishing supremacy of Parliament.

This is also the first time an opposition Parliamentarian functioned as the Chairman of the COPE and it produced significant results on the transparency of the investigation, with the House unanimously agreeing that appointing an opposition MP as the Chairman of the COPE was a major step in ensuring the independence and transparency of the inquiry.

Aavarankaal biker gang

In addition to the COPE report on the Treasury bonds issue, the government had to deal with a fresh problem in the North with the emergence of underworld groups functioning as ‘biker gangs’.

One such gang is the ‘AAVA Gangsters’, which claimed responsibility for the attack on two police officers in Chunnakam, last week.

The attack was a wakeup call to law enforcement bodies, forcing them to fasttrack operations to nab the members of the criminal group.

The name ‘AAVA,’ sources say, is derived from ‘Aavarankaal’ – a village in Jaffna, which could well be the birthplace of the criminal gang - although they are most active, according to Police, in the areas of Atchuvely, Manipay, Kopay and Chunnakam in Jaffna.

The ‘AAVA Gangsters’ consist of about 25 youth, Police said, who have terrorized people with their criminal activities to such an extent that the ordinarily populace – just coming out of 30-years of war, are afraid to report the incidence to the Police.

Normal criminal activity

A first breakthrough in Police investigations came in May this year, when Jaffna Police arrested five members of the criminal group. Police said as many as 13 of the gangsters are now behind bars, but it has done little to buck these criminals’ violent trend.

Nine motorcycles, hand grenades, 12 swords, knuckle-dusters and several other lethal weapons were also taken into Police custody, but the biker gang of the Northern Province persists, posing serious threat to public safety. Despite their penchant for violence and terror, investigators insist the biker gang ‘AAVA Gangsters’ is not linked to the LTTE or any other terror outfit.

A senior military official based in Jaffna told our sister paper, the Daily News, last week that the group was not politicized: “They are no different to any other underworld group operating in the country,” he said. He said the gangsters – who used swords and knives - seemed to have drawn inspiration from South Indian movies glorifying violence.

It is also important to understand the emergence of underworld groups in Jaffna from a sociological standpoint. Jaffna, during the war, took on the somber mantle of mourning. The town was shrouded in fear and vestiges of ‘normalcy’ all but disappeared.

With the end of the war in 2009, and remarkable efforts to redevelop the North, the Jaffna town is taking on the characteristics of a ‘normalcy’ town, disruptive elements included.

Crime, prevalent in all other major cities but absent in the North when war took precedence, has made its mark in the peninsula as people – still deprived of jobs and opportunity, look for means to supplement their income.

The Northern coastal line has evolved to become a safe haven for smuggling: It is now common knowledge that Kerala Ganja – a variety of marijuana brought down from India - enters at various points on that coastal line.

Two months ago, the Navy arrested two persons attempting to smuggle gold biscuits weighing 5.5 kilograms to India, using a fishing boat: The arrest was made in seas 8 nautical miles north of Kankesanthurai, while the suspects were attempting to transport the stock of gold in a fishing boat, having disguised themselves as fishermen.

While the government had invested in development and construction in the North, the projects are yet to generate sufficient jobs and business opportunities, and poverty remains a key issue to be addressed.

This led to the emergence of underworld groups in the North who have resorted to crime and violence, mainly for money. Apart from the AAVA Gangsters, Police say a few other biker gangs are also operating in Jaffna, under various names.

‘Political spin’

However, the AAVA group attempted to give a ‘political spin’ to the attack on two police officers. Two days after the attack, the AAVA Gangsters distributed a leaflet, claiming responsibility for the incident. In the leaflet, the group explained why they attacked the two Police officers, on Sunday:

The group claimed that the attack on the two Police officers was also a message to the Tamil Police officers in Jaffna, who, according to the group, were acting as ‘traitors’ - it was clear that they had an axe to grind with Tamil Police officers working in the Northern province. They also threatened to punish all Police officers involved in various acts against the Tamil community in Jaffna.

The leaflet also condemned acts destroying what they termed the ‘cultural heritage’ of Jaffna. They also vowed to carry out similar attacks against those who act against the Tamil heritage in the North. This was the first time the AAVA Gangsters, which functioned as a criminal group thus far, has issued a political statement, to justify their acts. This development raises many eyebrows as the AAVA Gangsters has hitherto desisted from involving itself with politics.

There is enough space to believe that some element is using this group to stir up a controversy in the North and create a fresh problem in the province. Therefore, the AAVA Gangsters can easily be viewed as a ‘contracted arm’ rather than a political entity.

That is why it is important to identify who ‘employed’ the Aava group to unleash violence in Jaffna for political reasons. It is in this context that Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka informed Parliament that the government had started an investigation into the Aava group and other underworld groups operating in the North. Addressing the weekly Cabinet briefing last week, he also requested media and critics to refrain from politicizing the issue. “Journalists should have the capacity to get correct information from the police and on the other hand the police must also be trained to deal with the media effectively.”

“We will train police officers at key police stations so that they can respond to media queries and until this system is set up the Government Information Department will assist us in disseminating accurate information,” Ratnayaka said, stating the government was exploring ways to ensure effective flow of information on controversial and contentious matters.