Rupee appreciation shows Govt’s hard work - Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe | Sunday Observer

Rupee appreciation shows Govt’s hard work - Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe

12 March, 2023

Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC said that the appreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee amid an economic crisis is a clear indication of the results of the hard work committed by the Government during the past eight months.

The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said at present the people have confidence in the Government’s stability and it has also paved the way to increase our remittances. He said the policy adopted by the Government was not to print money and impose some restraints on imports while giving some concessions to the exporters as much as possible. The number of tourist arrivals has also shown a significant increase during the past two months and all those are the results of the accumulated efforts carried out by the Government.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: The international community has condemned the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to arrest protesters and also to keep many Tamil youth in detention without any charges. The Government has since promised to introduce a National Security Act instead of the PTA. What is the progress of this initiative?

A: The Cabinet has already approved the Anti-terrorism Act. Once the Cabinet approves it has to be gazetted. Now, it is at the gazetting stage and it has to be translated into all three languages.

Q: Sri Lanka has come under criticism for its human rights record at the Geneva UNHRC sessions. What are the progressive steps being taken to address human rights concerns?

A: We have already taken so many progressive measures in this regard. Actually, I can’t explain it in a few minutes. At present, so many developments are taking place in the human rights arena. The Office of Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations are in operation and there is a huge progress of them. In addition, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation is in progress. We have done so many mobile services in the Northern Province. The new anti-terrorism bill has been introduced to replace the old one. Then we have also passed the Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill in Parliament. We have also released some of the prisoners during the past few months. As far as human rights are concerned, those are the progressive steps that we have taken.

Q: There are a large number of cases pending in courts and some cases drag on for 20-25 years by which time some litigants have even passed away. What are the steps you are taking to address these delays?

A: For the law’s delays, we have passed more than 20 laws during the past five to six months. We have amended all those arcade laws such as the Notaries Ordinance, the Prevention of Frauds Ordinance and the Wills Ordinance. Steps have also been taken to amend the Power of Attorney Ordinance to prevent forged deeds being executed. We have passed a law and we are going to set up Small Claims Courts. Then those cases below two million will be transferred to the Small Claims Courts to be disposed within one year. Then we also passed the Bill on Recovery of Possession of Premises given on Lease and those cases are to be submitted to courts under a summary procedure and the cases to be disposed within one year.

There are new amendments to the Civil Procedure Code just simplifying the procedure and pretrial proceedings have already been introduced. That is just to have a pretrial conference before going to trial and also to avoid unnecessary witnesses and evidence being led.

We have introduced this pretrial conference for the High Court criminal cases as well.

Again we are considering a new law about plea-bargaining and that is just to accommodate or expeditious disposal of cases in the High Courts and Magistrate’s Courts. New courts are also to be opened in heavy courts houses. Those are the progressive steps that we have taken to address the laws delays.

Q: Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a committee headed by Romesh de Silva, PC to draft the outline of a new Constitution. Is there any momentum towards formulating a new Constitution at this stage?

A: There is no such momentum at this stage. Because all agreed on the 21st Amendment as an urgent need. Now the first priority has to be given to recover the economy and we are engaged in that process.

Q: Today our prisons are largely overcrowded and the conditions are not very good for the prisoners. Earlier, it was suggested to release those who could not pay fines and also those imprisoned for minor offences to reduce the congestion in prisons. What are the steps being taken to address the overcrowding in prisons and also what are the prison reforms you have in mind?

A: We released over 620 prisoners on Independence Day such as those who cannot pay penalties for minor offenses. We replaced another set of prison regulations by repealing what had been there since 1934. We have appointed special committees and medical experts to consider feeble persons and those who are suffering from illnesses and terminal illness so that we can release them based on their recommendations. In addition, we are converting condemned prisoners to life and life prisoners to 20 years imprisonment. Few committees are working on that. We are also considering a new system of house arrest for minor offences and just to have custody to the parents or guardian without sending to the prison. Because when they go to prison they come back as real criminals. So, we are considering so many aspects.

Q: With China’s reassurance on debt restructuring, how confident are you of getting the IMF facility before April?

A: We believe that the IMF will approve it before the end of this month. We have already fulfilled all the conditions required by them.

Q: The Election Commission has said that April 25 is the most suitable date to hold the Local Government elections. According to reports the Government has been urged by the international community to hold LG elections but the Government has said that there is no money to hold the elections. What is the Government stance with regard to the holding of elections especially in the light of the Election Commission declaring April 25 as the most suitable date for the elections?

A: There is no question of declaring a suitable date for the election. According to the law, the Election Commission has to fix the date for the election. Now the matter is in courts. The Finance Minister has taken up the position that we don’t have money and the priorities are something else. Anyway, we will have to finally take what the court decides.

Q: What is the significance of the appreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee at a time when there is an economic crisis?

A: That shows the results of the hard work we did during the past eight months. The policy we adopted first was that we should not print money. Secondly, we imposed some restraints on imports. We also gave some concessions to the exporters as much as possible. The people have confidence about the stability of the Government.

Therefore, our remittances have gone up. In addition, lots of tourists are also coming into the country. Last month 110,000 tourists visited the country. In January, 102,000 tourists came to Sri Lanka. Those are the results of the accumulated efforts we did.

Q: Lots of commentators are saying that the JVP is enjoying a resurgence and could make significant gains at any future election. What is your view on this?

A: In democracy, that is why we are having elections from time to time. Even in 2004, thirty-nine JVP MPs were elected to Parliament and that is bigger than all the Provincial Councils and Local Government bodies in the country. They came and went. There are waves which come and go from time to time. That is the nature of democracy. You will have to state it and let the people decide.

Q: The Opposition has broken into several factions including the Helicopter Party. How will this impact on the SLPP at any future election?

A: Actually, I don’t want to make any comment about those matters. Let them have their own affairs and also allow the people to decide.

Q: The Opposition is alleging that politicians and businessmen have stashed billions of US Dollars abroad. Does the Government have any plan to get back this money?

A: The Opposition didn’t do that. I am the one who spoke and raised that issue in Parliament but that was not carried by any media because they are also depending on that business community. It is a business mafia. Now the media and politicians are handicapped with strengthening the money of this business community. Actually, we are planning to get this money back. We have just started and commented on some of those steps but it will take some time.

Q: The central theme of the ‘Aragalaya’ and also the current protest movement is a system change demanded by the youth. What are the steps being taken in this direction?

A: That is what we are doing. We are going to change the PTA and implement new anti-corruption laws. We have introduced the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and also the Campaign Finance Law. Therefore, so many positive things have already been done.

Q: Do you think the Government under the leadership of President Ranil Wickremesinghe would be able to fulfill the aspirations of the people and overcome the current hardships faced by them?

A: Obviously. We could remember how the country was there eight months ago. At present the people have adequate fuel and 24 hours electricity.

There is no shortage of gas in the market. Amidst hardships, the basic needs of the people have been fulfilled. Our target is to somehow bring down inflation. We have brought it down to 50 percent from 96 percent. If we can further bring it down to at least 10 percent, I think that will be the biggest achievement.