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Geetha , Gotabhaya and the dual citizenship issue

2017-05-06 00:34:52
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By D.B.S.Jeyaraj 

Kumara Vidugalage Dona Geetha Samanmalee Kumarasingha popularly known as Geetha Kumarasinghe is in the eye of a politico-legal storm. The glamorous actress turned politician who was elected to Parliament in August 2015 from the Galle district on the United People’s Freedom Alliance(UPFA) ticket has been unseated by an Appeal court ruling.  


According to newspaper reports the Court of Appeal on May 3rd 2017 issued a Writ of Quo Warranto disqualifying the UPFA Member of Parliament from holding office as an MP because Ms. Geetha Kumarasinghe was holding dual citizenship at the time of seeking nomination to enter Parliament. She was a citizen of Switzerland as well as Sri Lanka.   


Consequent to the 19th amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, no person can be elected to Parliament if they held dual citizenship. The 19th Amendment enacted hastily after President Maithripala Sirisena was elected to office in January 2015 re- introduced the two term limit on the number of terms a person could hold office as President.According to Clause 4 of the 19th Amendment and Article 31(2) of the Constitution, a person who has been twice elected as President is disqualified from contesting third time. Likewise the 19th Constitutional amendment also debarred persons holding office from becoming an MP or President of Sri Lanka. As per Art 92 (b) and Clause 20 (4) of the 19th Amendment, and Article 91(1)(d)(xiii) of the Constitution, persons who are dual citizens are disqualified from being elected as Members of Parliament or the President of the Republic. The Constitution stipulates - “No person shall be qualified to be elected as a Member of Parliament or to sit and vote in Parliament if;(d) (xiii) “a citizen of Sri Lanka who is also a citizen of any other country;”  


The post - 19th Amendment constitutional position regarding dual citizens right to contest elections was firmly established by the Court of Appeal on May 3, when it unseated Galle district MP, Geetha Kumarasinghe, for failing to negate her dual citizen status by renouncing her Swiss nationality before she contested for parliament in August 2015. Court held that under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, a dual citizen is not eligible to contest for Parliamentary membership and therefore Ms. Kumarasinghe could no longer function as a Parliamentarian. The bench comprised Justice Vijith Malalgoda the President of the Court of Appeal and Justice Preethi Padman Surasena. Justice Preethi Padman Surasena with Justice Vijith Malalgoda concurring also directed the State to recover costs from Ms.Kumarasinghe for each day she sat in Parliament knowing that she was a dual citizen and being disqualified to be a Member of Parliament.  

 


Citizen of Switzerland  
 Earlier the Attorney General had informed the Court of Appeal that MP Geetha Kumarasinghe was still a citizen of Switzerland and that according to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, a person who held dual citizenship cannot be an MP.Deputy Solicitor General Janak De Silva also informed Court that, according to Clause 91(1) of the Constitution, Ms.Kumarasinghe was not entitled to Parliamentary privileges and could not be a Member of Parliament.  


According to newspaper reports, Deputy Solicitor General Janak de Silva making submissions to Court based on recommendations from the Attorney General stated that Kumarasinghe possessed citizenship in Switzerland at the time that nominations were called for the last Parliamentary elections here.The DSG told Court that Kumarasinghe could not lay claim to any privileges provided to MPs when she continued in the capacity of an MP while holding dual citizenship status, because this construed a direct violation of Clause 91 (1) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka.De Silva told Court that though the respondent had claimed in the recent past that she had given up her dual citizenship, she had failed to sustain that statement with either written documentary proof or otherwise.He further told Court that despite the Controller of Emigration and Immigration having directed her officially, in writing, to furnish the necessary documents based on advice received from the AG, Kumarasinghe had failed to respond to date. This too, he said, was a direct violation of the Elections Act as well.  
The dual citizenship issue arose when five voters of the Galle District filed a petition in the Court of Appeal requesting Court to declare Ms.Kumarasinghe ineligible to remain as a Parliamentarian while holding dual citizenship.Petitioners in their Writ application challenged her appointment and/or election as the Member of Parliament.The Petitioners were W.W.E. Buweneka, J.K. Amarawardhana, A.C. Gunasekera, J.K. Wijesinghe and Prasanna Deepthilal from Galle electoral district.. They cited Geetha Samanmalee Kumarasinghe, Controller of Immigration and Emigration, UPFA Secretary Prof. Wishwa Warnapala (now deceased) and the Secretary General of Parliament as Respondents.  


The petitioners challenged the appointment/election of Ms.Kumarasinghe to the office of Member of Parliament contending that she was not legally entitled to such appointment and/or election and was holding the said office without authority. Petitioners stated that Kumarasinghe is a holder of dual citizenship namely Sri Lanka and Switzerland and that she had contested the 2015 Parliamentary election without divulging her dual citizenship at the time of submitting her nomination. She had been declared as a Member of Parliament representing the UPFA from Galle District, they stated.As such they claimed she was by virtue of the Constitution not qualified to be elected as a Member of Parliament and charged that she was thus an usurper of the authority of a Member of Parliament.  

 


Member of Parliament  
The petitioners sought the Court to issue a prerogative Writ Order requiring Ms.Kumarasinghe to show by what authority she claimed to hold office as a Member of Parliament and another Order declaring that she was disqualified to be a Member of Parliament and thus not entitled to hold office as Member of Parliament.J.C. Weliamuna PC appeared for the Petitioners. Manohara de Silva PC appeared for Kumarasinghe. Deputy Solicitor General Janak de Silva appeared for Controller of Immigration and Emigration, the Secretary General of Parliament and the Attorney General.  


Ms.Geetha Kumarasinghe was elected to parliament for the first time in Aug 2015 polling 63,955 votes. Five MP’s were elected on the UPFA ticket from Galle in the poll. Geetha was the fifth of the UPFA Galle MPs. Next to Geetha was Piyasena Gamage who polled 47, 247 votes and came sixth. Since Geetha has now been unseated the next in line would have to fill the vacancy caused by being appointed MP. Media reports stated that Mr.Piyasena Gamage is ready, able and willing to replace Geetha Kumarasinghe as MP.  


The unseated MP however is not ready to take her disqualification lying down and is determined to seek recourse by appealing to the Supreme court. In a bid to hold off Piyasena Gamage from filling the vacant MP slot, the disqualified Parliamentarian met with the Speaker, Parliament Secretary-General and Commissioner of Elections and informed them that she was moving the Supreme court in this matter. An appeal would be lodged early next week. Geetha said that she was hopeful of gaining a reprieve from the Apex tribunal in the matter and would be able to retain her parliamentary membership. As such she requested that the MP vacancy should not be filled until the Supreme court ruled on her envisaged appeal. It is very likely that Parliament and the Elections Dept would be guided by the Attorney - General’s advice in this regard.  

 


Bentara-Elpitiya Electoral District  
The political fall-out of the Geetha Kumarasinghe unseating issue is interesting. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) continues to propagate the myth that it is a united political party. The reality is that the SLFP or at least SLFP parliamentarians are deeply divided into two groups. One is aligned with President Maithripala Sirisena and the other is loyal to ex - president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Geetha Kumarasinghe has remained a Rajapaksa loyalist to date. As a result she was removed as Bentara - Elpitiya electoral district organizer by the party leadership sometime ago. Though the bulk of the SLFP rank and file are with the de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, the administrative machinery of the party is under the control of the de jure SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena. PIyasena Gamage belongs to the Sirisena camp. Therefore if Geetha is replaced by Gamage then the joint opposition would lose one MP and the Govt faction could gain one parliamentarian.  


More important perhaps are the underlying political implications of the dual citizenship controversy. Prior to the 19th Constitutional Amendment being enacted it was possible for people with dual citizenship to contest elections in Sri Lanka. When the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Govt. replaced the Rajapaksa regime in January 2015 , many of the bottlenecks surrounding the obtaining of dual citizenship by Sri Lankan expatriates were removed. Despite these “dual citizenship friendly” actions, the new regime introduced a problematic provision in the 19th Constitutional Amendment debarring dual citizens from contesting elections in Sri Lanka. It was widely believed then that the provision was a pre-emptive move to prevent ex-President Rajapaksa’s sibling Gota from seeking 
electoral office. 


Former Defence and Urban development secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is a controversial personality who is loved by some and hated by others. 


There is a school of thought in Sri Lanka which is optimistic that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is destined to rule the country in the future just as his elder brother did. The 19th amendment has reversed the 18th amendment and blocked Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting for the presidency again. If the envisaged new constitution materialises and the executive presidency is abolished and the Prime ministerial office is empowered then Mahinda Rajapaksa can or may seek Prime ministerial office. If however the diluted executive presidency continues to remain then an alternative to Mahinda has to be found. Many think the alternative is Gotabhaya.  

 


Gotabhaya fan club   
In recent times the Gotabhaya fan club has been working overtime promoting the retired Army Colonel as the prospective presidential candidate. This “push” has now suffered a temporary setback. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is a dual citizen holding US citizenship. His only son is well-settled in the US. If Gota is to contest the presidential or parliamentary poll in the future he would have to give up his US citizenship. In spite of critically denouncing the US at times, Gotabhaya has not shown any inclination to renounce his US citizenship. Even recently when Gota addressed the Foreign Correspondents Association in Colombo the ex-Defence secretary was non committal about renouncing US citizenship and entering active politics. Mahinda too has not been too enthusiastic about Gota contesting polls.   


In any case the Appeal court ruling on Geetha Kumarasinghe has demonstrated that if Gotabhaya Rajapaksa wants to be elected to high office then he has to clearly and unequivocally renounce US citizenship. Those in the Sirisena - Wickremesinghe - Kumaratunga camp opine that Gota would never give up his US citizenship. Hence the provision in the 19th amendment was an anticipatory stratagem aimed at keeping Gota out of Parliament and the President’s House. It was based on the premise that Gotabhaya would never opt to lose his dual citizenship status. It remains to be seen whether this calculation is correct or not.  


Another question that arises is how Geetha Kumarasinghe was allowed to contest polls and/or why she was not debarred or disqualified then. It was common knowledge in 2015 that Geetha, having married a Swiss national, was a citizen of both Sri Lanka and Switzerland. Geetha who got married to Chris Fuhrer Ferdinand many years ago has a daughter, Tharika Fiona by that marriage.  
When opponents raised the issue of dual citizenship at that time, Geetha herself said she had renounced her Swiss citizenship by writing to the Swiss Embassy. It was however hazy as to whether a citizen could renounce Swiss citizenship by merely writing a letter. On the other hand it was also doubtful as to whether the election contesting taboo imposed on dual citizens by way of the 19th Constitutional amendment had legal effect or not.  

 


19th Constitutional Amendment  
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution expressly prohibited a “Citizen of Sri Lanka who is also a citizen of any other country” from contesting the elections. The 19th Constitutional Amendment came into effect on 15 May 2015. Nominations for the Parliamentary elections closed on 13 July 2015 . As such it was theoretically possible for Elections Department officials to have rejected nomination papers with a candidate or candidates rendered ineligible on account of holding dual citizenship. However when the UPFA Galle District list was challenged by interested parties during the time of nomination, the Returning Officer said that he could not reject the UPFA list due to one of the candidates, Geetha Kumarasinghe, being a dual citizen.   


Later on the “Sunday Times” posed a specific question about the exact position to the then Additional Elections Commissioner M.M. Mohamed, who also dealt with legal matters, He reportedly answered: “There is no provision (in the law) where we could have rejected a nomination on the grounds that a candidate was holding dual citizenship. 


We also have no powers to investigate whether a candidate had dual citizenship. Even after the elections there is no provision to refrain from gazetting the names of those who were elected. However, the matter could be brought up in court and it will give a ruling. Or the Secretary General of Parliament can decide whether such a person could sit or not.”  


This being the practical situation after the 19th Constitutional Amendment there was no hitch when Geetha Kumarasinghe was nominated as a UPFA candidate or when she actively campaigned in Galle district. Geetha was the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) organiser for the Bentara-Elpitiya Electoral division. She won the electorate for the UPFA with 34,275 (52.7%) as opposed to the United National Party (UNP) getting 26, 559 (40.83%).   


In terms of overall preference votes for Galle District it was Chandima Weerakkody who topped the UPFA list with 114,851 votes. Geetha Kumarasinghe came fifth with 63,955 preferences. She was elected. Geetha’s name was duly gazetted as Galle District MP and she took her oaths on September 1st when the new Parliament convened. Her name was also included in the Sri Lanka Parliament directory of MPs. It appeared that she had become an MP despite the legality of her election being under scrutiny.  

 


“Daily Mirror”Interview  
After Geetha won the Parliamentary elections in 2015 there was much speculation that her election was null and void because of her alleged ineligibility as a dual citizen. In an interview to this newspaper (Daily Mirror), Geetha said as follows: “Losers are in a futile attempt to sling mud at me saying I am a Switzerland citizen. According to the 19th Amendment Sri Lankan politicians with a citizenship in another country are prevented from holding high posts. I obtained the Switzerland citizenship through my husband. But, I cancelled it a long time ago. I do not need to talk about it now.”Though Geetha told the “Daily Mirror” then that she had cancelled her Swiss citizenship a long time ago, a columnist in the Sunday Times had a different take on the issue. Here are the relevant excerpts:  


“Ms. Kumarasinghe told the Sunday Times this week she had written to the Swiss Embassy in Colombo seeking to withdraw her dual citizenship, when the elections were declared in view of the 19th Amendment. However, she did not say whether the Embassy had responded to her request.”  
“Diplomatic sources said there was a ‘lengthy procedure’ involved when one wished to renounce Swiss citizenship and that ‘cannot be done by simply writing a letter’. These sources said the procedure was spelt out in the Swiss Government website. For example, if the citizenship was obtained after marriage, the consent of the spouse would have to be obtained.”“Ms. Kumarasinghe declined to say whether there was confirmation of her renouncement of Swiss citizenship and whether there was a response to her claimed letter to the Embassy in Colombo. She was unable to say if merely writing a letter to the Embassy in fact meant renouncing her citizenship.”  


The uncertainty that clouded Geetha Kumarasinghe’s eligibility to be a Parliamentarian is now over. She will however fight her case in the Supreme court.It is possible that she would seek clemency on the grounds that she had sent a letter renouncing her Swiss citizenship before contesting polls in good faith that the action would suffice to forfeit her dual citizenship status . If the Supreme court accepts her position then there is a possibility of Geetha retaining her seat. Otherwise she ceases to be MP. However she can certainly contest again after she renounces Swiss citizenship through valid legal procedures.   

 


Canvassing for Mahinda at polls  
Geetha Kumarasinghe hails from a middle class politically conscious family. Despite this background she never engaged in active politics preferring to concentrate on her film career. Her entry to politics was due to Mahinda Rajapaksa who enlisted her services on his behalf in the 2010 presidential election campaign. Canvassing for Mahinda at the polls was an exhilarating experience for the popular actress. Thereafter she was appointed UPFA Organiser for Bentara-Elpitiya electoral division in Galle District.   


Geetha contested the 2010 elections on the UPFA ticket from Galle. She lost. In 2014 she contested the Southern Provincial Council poll and was elected as Councillor. In 2015 she entered Parliament as an MP fiercely loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa. Much of her future political prospects depend upon how firm or fickle this loyalty would prove to be.  


Geetha Samanmalee Kumarasinghe was born on 5 July 1955 in Badulla. Her father Wijaya Kumarasinghe was from Hamburugala in Bentara. Her mother Udulawathi Siriwardena was from Kotmale. Though Geetha, the eldest, was born in Badulla, she and her seven younger siblings grew up in southern Bentara. Her father Wijaya was a journalist who worked as the Deputy Editor of the journal Sinhala Bauddaya (Sinhala Buddhist). The children had a strict upbringing and were not even permitted to 
see movies.   Geetha’s interest in films was sparked off by an interesting incident. As a young kid she spent her holidays once with her aunt Aruna Wickramapala in Colombo. Wickramapala was a friend of the famous Film Director Lester James Peries. It was at her house in Kollupitiya that many scenes of Lester’s film ‘Ran Salu’ were filmed. Young Geetha got a chance to see a movie being shot at first-hand. She was infatuated by the leading lady Punya Heendeniya. Geetha used to imitate Punya in front of a mirror. She also took home several slides of scenes in the film and would look at them lovingly over and over again without the knowledge of her parents.  

 


Beauty competition at Bentota  
Geetha’s tryst with glamorous fame came in the form of a beauty competition. The Davasa newspaper organised a beauty competition at Bentota in 1973. Geetha then in her teens wanted to compete. The mother was amenable but her father refused to give permission. Well-known cartoonist and journalist Amita Abeysekera who wrote the popular humour column ‘This is my Island’ in The Island newspaper in later years was a family friend. Geetha appealed to Amita who somehow persuaded Wijaya to allow his daughter to enter the beauty contest. Over 100 dainty damsels participated but Geetha was crowned as the fairest of them all.  


One of the judges Ronald Fernando felt that Geetha should act in films. He was a friend of matinee idol Gamini Fonseka. He told Gamini about the Bentota beauty queen and suggested that she be given a chance to act in films. Gamini agreed to meet Geetha. Fonseka too was impressed by Geetha and arranged for a screen test at cinemas. Wijaya Kumarasinghe objected strongly. Again Amita Abeysekera came to the rescue. Reluctantly Geetha’s father consented.  

Word got around in movie circles that a Sinhala version of Brigitte Bardot had been discovered at a beauty pageant in Bentota. Filmmakers flocked southwards to the Kumarasinghe household in Bentara. Even without a single film of hers being released Geetha had offers for 21 films. Apart from the movie offers, there was a marriage offer too. An expatriate engineer based in the UK wanted to marry Geetha and fly off with her into the British sunset. Though her parents wanted their eldest daughter to accept the offer, Geetha declined. She wanted to pursue a career in films.  


Her first film contract was signed for K.A.W. Perera’s ‘Wasana’. Though Wasana was Geetha’s first film, it was not fated to be her screen debut. Geetha Kumarasinghe’s first film to be released in theatres was Neil Rupasinghe’s ‘Lassana Kella’. It was released on 20 June 1975. A few months later came ‘Damayanthi’. March 1976 saw ‘Wasana’ hitting the screen. Then followed Manik Sandrasagara’s ‘Kolomba Sanniya’. A star was born!  

 


Geetha’s vivacious personality  
Geetha took the Sinhala film world by storm. A remarkable facet of Geetha’s vivacious personality was her readiness to interact closely with her male co-stars on screen. She was not prepared to play the coy maiden if and when a scene warranted close encounters of the physical kind. This was indeed a refreshing boon to directors. Film fans of all ethnicities invaded cinemas in large numbers to see this bombshell of scintillating beauty acting in sensual scenes. Movies featuring Geetha Kumarasinghe seldom bombed at the box office. Incidentally Playboy magazine once offered her a huge amount of money to pose topless for its cover.Geetha refused the lucrative offer.  


It was around this time that Vijaya Kumaratunga was making his mark in movies. Geetha’s first film that was released as her third was ‘Wasana’ in which she acted opposite him. Vijaya was often paired with Geetha and together the duo proved to be a winning combination. Vijaya-Geetha starrers like ‘Anjana,’ ‘Jayasikuru,’ ‘Jaya Apitai’ and ‘Raja Wedakarayo’ were critically-acclaimed commercial successes.   


The first film which showcased Geetha’s thespian skills was Titus Thotawatte’s ‘Maruwa Samage Wase’. In this the male lead role was played by Vijaya. Another film in which Geetha made her mark was Tissa Abeysekara’s ‘Karumakkarayo,’ which too starred Vijaya. Geetha in a media interview has opined that the turning point in her life was Sunil Ariyaratne’s ‘Siribo Ayya’ in which she acted with Joe Abeywickrema.  


Geetha however could never be stereotyped as a bimbo playing eye-candy roles alone. She began acting in weighty roles that demonstrated her acting abilities from the beginning of her film career and continued to do so over the years. Films such as ‘Pembara Madhu,’ ‘Podi malli,’ ‘Siribo Ayya,’ ‘Sathara Diganthaya,’ ‘Karumakkarayo,’ ‘Mahagedara,’ ‘Anuragaye Ananthaya,’ ‘Palama Yata,’ ‘Rajya Sevaya Pinisai,’ ‘Loku Duwa’ and ‘Ran Diya Dahara’ testify to her acting prowess. Who can forget the characters Dulcie in ‘Pembara Madhu,’ Dotty in ‘Palama Yata,’ Punna in ‘Lokuduwa’ and Amali in ‘Ran Diya Dahara’?  

 


Geetha Kumarasinghe Hallmark  
Acting in roles of oppressed women fighting against the overwhelming odds of life is a Geetha Kumarasinghe hallmark. She has won the National Award for Best Supporting Actress twice and National Award for Best Actress thrice. Geetha also obtained the prestigious Sarasaviya award for Best Actress four times and the Most Popular Actress award once. Geetha also got the Swarna Sanka award for Best Actress twice.In a film career spanning more than three decades Geetha has acted in over 80 films. Most of them are Sinhala movies. Yet she has also acted in non-Sinhala movies made by Indian, Pakistani, Japanese and French filmmakers.  


 Geetha Kumarasinghe also blossomed into a producer of popular films of great quality. Some of the films produced by her were ‘Palama Yata,’ ‘Salambak Handai,’ ‘Loku Duwa,’ ‘Anuragaye Ananthaya,’ ‘Wasuli’ and ‘Geetha’. She won two Best Film awards at the Sarasaviya festival in her capacity as producer for ‘Palama Yata’ and ‘Loku Duwa’. In later years Geetha also became a successful business entrepreneur, running several garment factories.  

 


Fighting last ditch battle  
The lovely lass from the south who won a beauty contest and broke into films has come a long way. The dazzling damsel who sizzled on screen became an honourable Member of Parliament from the Southern Province. Now she is engaged in a last ditch battle to retain her Parliamentary seat. Her numerous fans and well-wishers would hope that Geetha Samanmalee Kumarasinghe would face up well to this challenge.


D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com