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Sri Lanka’s Speaker draws flak from Opposition for ‘violating’ Constitution

Sri Lanka’s main Opposition party has accused parliamentary Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana of “violating” the Constitution, in clearing the appointment of a controversial official as the island’s police chief.

Posting on social media platform ‘X’ on Monday night, Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa said: “Constitution is being blatantly violated for the second time. Shame on you speaker!”, referring to the appointment of Deshabandu Tennakoon as Inspector General of Police (IGP). 

The Constitutional Council, a body set up to examine the suitability of nominations made by the Executive to high-level posts, had not approved the IGP’s appointment, he contended, pointing to the four favourable votes, two votes against, and two abstentions. “At least 5 votes are required for a decision. Speaker has a casting vote only in case of a tie. 4/2 is not a tie!” he said in the post.

Mr. Premadasa’s statement follows his party’s move to initiate a trust vote on the Speaker, in connection with his recent endorsement of the Online Safety Act.

Also read: Sri Lankan Parliament approves controversial Online Safety Bill

When The Hindu contacted the Speaker for comment, he said Mr. Premadasa’s accusation was “totally baseless.” “If they [opposition] think there is a violation, they have to go to the courts, not come to parliament,” said Mr. Abeywardana, a member of the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front), the ruling party currently backing President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The police chief’s appointment comes months after President Wickremesinghe appointed him Acting IGP in November 2023, even as human rights defenders questioned the move. The controversial appointment has remained in the spotlight, especially after the Supreme Court, in December 2023, held Mr. Tennakoon personally responsible for torture in a 2011 case. After he was made Acting IGP, at least seven Fundamental Rights petitions were filed at Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, challenging the appointment. The Supreme Court on Tuesday said the petitions will be heard on April 2.

Meanwhile, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People’s Force), has initiated a motion of no confidence against the Speaker of parliament, for approving the Online Safety Bill, allegedly without incorporating all the recommendations made by the Supreme Court, which heard nearly 50 petitions challenging it. Government critics and rights groups have fiercely opposed the new legislation that, they fear, will be used to stifle dissent and undermine freedom of expression. 

Accusing the Speaker of “betraying the trust of the people and the Parliament”, the SJB said called upon parties to unite in the demand for accountability and transparency. Several other members of the Opposition signed the motion.

Earlier this month, Tamil legislator and senior lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran filed a Fundamental Rights petition challenging the passage of the Online Safety Act, in which he accused the Speaker of clearing the legislation, “in contravention of” constitutional provisions.

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