CoI Act amendments to give Bribery Commission more teeth | Sunday Observer

CoI Act amendments to give Bribery Commission more teeth

CIABOC Director General Sarath Jayamanne PC.
CIABOC Director General Sarath Jayamanne PC.

Key legislation to give the Bribery Commission more teeth is before Parliament this week.

The legislation is expected to clear a major hurdle that hitherto prevented the Bribery Commission from instituting legal action based on the findings of Commissions of Inquiry (CoI) appointed by the President.

Anti-graft lobbyists are hopeful that the safe passage of the Bill – a major amendment to the Commission of Inquiries Act of 1948 – in Parliament will pave the way for re-opening several key CoI reports, which have been gathering dust on the shelves, and give a new impetus to ongoing CoIs.

There had been many Presidential Commissions in the past two decades, but their hefty reports were hardly followed up with the same diligence and fervour as when the Commissions were appointed. The lack of political will remains a main reason, but a badly backlogged and time-consuming judicial process also contributes largely for the sluggish pace of legal action against those accused of bribery and corruption. It is learnt that over 30 CoI reports are now piled up in the Bribery Commission with no substantial progress. The Commissions of Inquiry (Amendment) Bill aims to circumvent undue delays in the legal system and expedite probes to bring culprits of bribery and corruption to book.

According to the Amendments, the Director General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) is given the power to file cases under the Bribery Act or Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law based on the findings of CoI appointed by the President.

“The main purpose of this Bill is to avoid witnesses being re-called before the CIABOC. As of now, we do not have legal provisions to proceed based on the CoI findings. We need to re-summon and redo the investigations. That is a waste of time, and given the limited resources we have it is cumbersome. This Amendment should have been made much earlier,” said CIABOC Director General Sarath Jayamanne PC.

Jayamanne however stressed that the Bill does not remove immunity for the witnesses, adding that evidence before the CoI would not be admissible before the courts of law. “We have not touched the provisions on witnesses’ protection. Those remain the same. The court cannot convict based on material that is elicited by the CoI. The court has to rely on what the witnesses say to the court. But through this Amendment, we can decide whether to forward the case to the court or not by looking at the evidence before the CoI,” the DG sakd.

He said out that the CoI Act of 1948 was amended in 2008 to enable the Attorney General to file cases. “At that time they forgot to give the same power to the CIABOC DG. Even though the AG can technically file a case based on the CoI reports, there are sometimes practical restraints.

“The CoI does not go into all the ingredients of an offence and may not call all the witnesses. But if the AG is to send out indictments he has to consider all the aspects, because unlike in a Commission, you have to be 100 percent perfect in a trial. That is why the AG asks the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to perfect the investigation. The Commission looks at prima facie evidence, but in a court of law you have to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt. Therefore, all the loose ends have to be tied up. The AG has to do so through the CID, but in our case we can conduct investigations ourselves as we have such powers by law. Also, the AG cannot send out indictment for bribery, corruption and asset cases. Therefore, this was a long overdue amendment,” Jayamanne remarked. The President can appoint Commissions of Inquiry whenever it appears to him that an investigation or inquiry or both is necessary on the administration, management and functions of any Government institution or the conduct of any public officer. Commissions of Inquiry can be appointed on any matter relating to the national interest of public safety or well-being at the discretion of the President.

Parliament takes up the CoI Amendment Bill on Tuesday (22) hot on the heels of President Maithripala Sirisena appointing a new CoI to probe allegations of large scale corruption and fraud between January 15, 2015-December 31, 2018. According to the President’s proclamation published on a Gazette Extraordinary last week, the new Commission is the next step of the PRECIFAC which inquired into the allegations of serious acts of fraud, corruption and abuse of power, state resources and privileges from January 10, 2010 to January 10, 2015. The PRECIFAC which was appointed on March 3, 2015 presented its final report on January 2, 2018. The report, which deals with 34 specific cases, has named the wrongdoers in each case and has also recommended the actions against them. The citizenry is yet to see tangible action against those named in the report.

The financial irregularities in SriLankan and Mihin Lanka Airlines and SriLankan Catering Ltd are also being probed by a CoI appointed by the President on January 31, 2018.

On the other hand, there is the much talked-of ‘Bond Report’ produced by a CoI following thorough investigation into the 2015 Central Bank bonds scam. The Commission handed over its report to the President in December 2017. The amendment to the CoI Act came to the fore when legal barriers on taking action against those responsible in the bond scam surfaced. Of late, the President has taken a special interest in passing the legislation and repeatedly expressed his concerns about delays in getting the Amendment passed by Parliament.

President Sirisena also cited the delay in enacting this legislation as one of the sticking points between him and the UNF Government ahead of the October 26, 2018 change of Prime Ministers.

The Bill was presented to Parliament on May 9, 2018 and was moved for debate by then Higher Education and Cultural Affairs Minister Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe on October 12, 2018. At the commencement of the debate that day, it was UPFA MP Dinesh Gunawardena, who requested to postpone the voting of the Bill for another date, saying that many other Amendments have been proposed to the Bill.

At that time, Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella said that the Party Leaders had agreed to take up the vote on another date giving more room for Amendments at the Third Reading.

Now that a date has been re-fixed, one can look forward to an interesting Parliamentary debate on Tuesday (22) as the recent developments in the political sphere too will add more fuel to the verbal crossfire of MPs.

Anti-graft activists lobby for a unanimous nod of the House for this progressive piece of legislation.