Parliamentary privilege mistaken for brazen impunity! | Sunday Observer

Parliamentary privilege mistaken for brazen impunity!

Months after the country’s worst ever constitutional crisis, a report detailing offences committed during unruly incidents in Parliament have been released and recommends action against fifty-nine parliamentarians, the vast majority of them being from the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

In response, we hear opposition voices saying that these errant MPs should not be dealt with according to the law of the land. Their argument is that whatever happened and whatever anyone did would be covered by parliamentary privileges- and therefore, they are above the law.

The leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, Udaya Gammanpila leads this chorus of dissent. That is not surprising. Gammanpila has the habit of opening his mouth and putting both feet firmly in. Gammanpila is perturbed that the report compiled by a parliamentary committee, is ‘biased’ towards the United National Party (UNP).

Indeed, fifty-four of the MPs named are from the UPFA and only four are from the UNP and one from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. It has to be. The entire country saw the ugly spectacle in Parliament where Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was abused and threatened verbally and physically.

Let us refresh our memories about what happened: Parliamentarians dragged away the Speaker’s chair and poured a liquid on it. Others ripped off microphones in anger. MPs threw chairs at Police officers surrounding the Speaker. One parliamentarian slapped a Police officer. Another threw chilli powder mixed with water at a senior Minister, Jayawickrema Perera. Not only the entire nation but the entire world watched in disbelief as they saw what Sri Lankan legislators were capable of.

When that unrest unfolded, most of the offenders were from the UPFA. That was while the UPFA leader and the purported ‘Prime Minister’ at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa, looked on from a distance with a smug smile on his face, not wanting to intervene. His silence effectively egged them on.

Now, Rajapaksa too has an opinion about the report on the violence in Parliament. Rajapaksa wants the offenders to be dealt with by the Speaker. It would be wrong for the Police to prosecute parliamentarians because the incidents happened inside the chamber of Parliament which is protected by parliamentary privileges, Rajapaksa argues. “It is not proper to allow the police to intervene. This happened in the chamber. If it happened outside, I will have a different opinion,” he says.

That is a pathetic statement, coming from someone of Rajapaksa’s stature. He is one of the senior-most parliamentarians in the legislature, having entered it almost fifty years ago, way back in 1970, as its youngest member then.

Being a lawyer, and having been elected twice as President of the country, Rajapaksa knows all about how the law works, and how it can be used to your advantage. His comments on this incident must be from Rajapaksa the politician, not Rajapaksa the lawyer. We must therefore, pose the question: had most of the offenders been from the UNP, would he maintain the same stance?

Anyone familiar with parliamentary procedure is aware of the issue of parliamentary privilege. What is said in Parliament is covered by privilege. From time to time we hear of some ‘honourable’ MPs using this privilege to make disparaging remarks about their opponents within the chamber of Parliament- comments they would not dare utter in public for fear of being charged with defamation.

Parliamentary privilege also extends to the arrest of an MP. Before such an arrest, the Speaker is usually informed. However, that does not mean that the MP cannot be arrested and that the law of the land does not apply to them.

The question that arises from the ugly incidents in Parliament late last year is, where do we draw the line? If anything and everything that happens within the four walls of the chamber of Parliament is considered sacrosanct and above the law, what are the consequences of a criminal offence being committed inside the chamber? Would the offence then have no consequences?

Two incidents that occurred in Parliament during those infamous sessions provide food for thought. In televised proceedings, the nation clearly saw a parliamentarian approach a Police officer who was only performing his duty, and assault him. We also saw another parliamentarian throw a liquid- later revealed to be chilli powder mixed with water- at senior parliamentarian Jayawickrema Perera.

Had these offences been committed outside Parliament, the offenders would surely be charged and dealt with under the law. Would it be fair to confer some form of ‘immunity’ to the offender simply because the offence occurred within the chamber of Parliament?

If that is done, to what extent would that immunity be extended? What would happen if, God forbid, a murder is committed in the chamber of Parliament? Those who witnessed the violence, the heightened tensions and extreme emotions in Parliament late last year would know that such an event is not impossible in the heat of the moment, when our legislators are going at each other’s jugular, quite literally?

We understand that the initial advice to Speaker Jayasuriya has been that the ugly events in Parliament could be dealt with by Parliament itself or the Supreme Court could mete out penalties. Further advice has been sought from the Attorney General.

The course of action followed in this instance will undoubtedly set a precedent for future incidents in Parliament- and there are bound to be many. If the offenders in these events are handled with kid gloves and are let off with a slap on the wrists, it would then send a strong message to legislators that their actions are condoned and not condemned- and that they could get away with anything.

That is why it is very important that these incidents are dealt with firmly and within the ambit of the law of the land. Parliamentary privileges should not confer on our legislators a degree of freedom that allows them immunity from the law, so they could run amok with brazen impunity, creating mayhem. That is not what is intended by such a privilege.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya won the admiration of the nation- across party lines- for his courageous actions during the constitutional crisis. We hope he would now have the courage of his convictions to continue doing what is right- punish the offenders for what they did, instead of allowing them to take cover under the shield of parliamentary privilege. Then, and only then, will the august assembly that is Parliament live up to its name.