MPs in prison | Serving from behind bars

By Sarah Hannan

Allowing politicians who are serving prison sentences to take oaths as public representatives and granting those posts that require them to be part of day-to-day ceremonies outside the prisons, has caused quite a stir, as well as within Parliament. 

Last week, MP Lakshman Kiriella took a jab at the Speaker, noting that it would be more convenient to have a jail cell appointed in the Parliament premises, so that MPs who are serving jail sentences can be confined to the Parliament prison and attend the sessions, without having to be transferred from the Department of Prisons. 

The cases of MPs Premalal Jayasekera and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan have become the most debated cases since the present Government was established in August. 

What is at play here are the parliamentary privileges afforded to members of Parliament and then the discretions that the Speaker could exercise on a case-by-case basis. 

Parliament Secretary General Dhammika Dasanayake, when contacted by The Sunday Morning, said: “The Speaker can request the Department of Prisons to grant leave for members of Parliament that are serving a sentence to attend parliamentary sessions, especially when a vote is to be taken. You may have observed this when we allowed MPs Premalal Jayasekera and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, who were serving prison sentences, to attend Parliament sessions.” 

When asked about the absence of MP Rishad Bathiudeen during the voting of the Second Reading of the Budget, Dasanayake stated that the Speaker had in fact asked for the Department of Prisons to allow Bathiudeen to attend Parliament. However, due to the Covid-19 situation that was present in the prisons during that time, the Department of Prisons had not permitted Bathiudeen to leave the compound. 

“Since MP Bathiudeen is out on bail, he can now attend parliamentary sessions. Even MP Chandrakanthan attended Parliament on Friday (27).” 

Meanwhile, Commissioner General of Prisons Thushara Upuldeniya noted that the Department of Prisons has the authority to obtain permission from the respective magistrate of a relevant jurisdiction to allow prisoners on death row to attend events. 

Earlier this month, the Department of Prisons had granted approval to MP Chandrakanthan to attend a function at a kovil in the Eastern Province. 

The Batticaloa High Court on 10 November had taken up the murder case of former Batticaloa District Parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham, slain in 2005 during Christmas Mass, for which Chandrakanthan and four others, namely Edvin Silwa Krishnananthraja, Kanaganayagam alias Gajan Mama, M. Kaleel, and Mathusinghe alias Vinoth, after Tuesday’s (10) hearing were re-remanded till 24 November. 

Chandrakanthan’s lawyers requested that the court grants him permission to preside at the district development meeting, of which Chandrakanthan is the Chairman, that was to take place the same day, and a function in a kovil the next day. 

While the Batticaloa Prison Superintendent had not objected to the request, the State Councillor had objected, which was later ruled by the Batticaloa High Court Judge, noting that if the Commissioner General of Prisons permits, the prisoner in remand custody could attend the meeting and take part in the religious event. 

“In the case of MP Chandrakanthan, he attended a ceremony in his electorate when he was also attending a hearing for his court case in the same area. The courts and the Department of Prisons were in agreement to accommodate his lawyers’ request to allow him to attend the ceremony, as he was the Chief Guest for the event and was representing his position as the District Co-ordinator,” Upuldeniya explained. 

Referring to the privileges that have been afforded to MP Chandrakanthan by the Parliament and the judiciary system of the country, The Sunday Morning inquired from the Parliament Secretary General whether similar privileges would be afforded to MP Jayasekara as well. 

Responding, Dasanayake stated: “It is a decision that the Speaker is to make when it is a matter of Parliament, and anything outside Parliament, the magistrate and the Department of Prisons would take the necessary actions to either permit or refuse the requests of a death row inmate.”