This sequence of events has all the features of a meticulously scripted drama. Much has been made of the fact that neither the President’s Secretary nor the Prime Minister intervened; indeed, they should be commended for not doing so. However, the more pertinent question is: once Raheem’s cover was blown and he was detected at the airport, was there an elaborate plan aimed at damage control by the government?

When parliamentarian Ali Sabry Raheem was nabbed with gold at the Colombo Airport last week, there was a sense of history repeating itself- and it most likely will.

Until last week, Raheem was a little-known MP from the Puttalam district. He began his political life from Rishad Bathiudeen’s All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) but contested the 2020 general election from the Muslim National Alliance (MNA).

Although the ACMC is a partner in the opposition alliance led by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), Raheem opted to support the government during the crucial vote to pass the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Since then, he consistently voted with the government- until this week.

Raheem was nabbed by officers of the Customs Department with gold valued at an estimated 74 million rupees, in addition to having in his possession 91 mobile phones. This is when the incident became interesting.

Regulations provide for penalties to the value of three times the confiscated good to be imposed. Therefore, Raheem could have been imposed a fine in excess of 225 million rupees which he would have almost certainly found it difficult to pay. If he was unable to pay the fine, he would have been detained and matters would have proceeded to courts and, if convicted, he would have almost certainly lost his seat in Parliament.

On the contrary, what happened was very different. Raheem was fined a relatively paltry 7.5 million rupees- one tenth of the value of the smuggled goods, instead of three times its value- or, in other words, one thirtieth of the possible maximum penalty!

Raheem readily paid the fine, walked out a free man and didn’t stop there: he went to Parliament the very next day and voted against the government on the motion to remove the head of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), Janaka Ratnayake.

Having voted against the government, Raheem made certain that his reasons for doing so were known. He was innocent, he maintained, claiming he was only carrying baggage packed by someone else. Both the Secretary to the President and the Prime Minister had declined to intervene on his behalf, so he was voting against the government, he said.

This sequence of events has all the hallmarks of a carefully scripted drama. Much has been made of the fact that neither the President’s Secretary nor the Prime Minister intervened- and indeed they should be commended for not doing so. However, the more pertinent question is, once Raheem’s cover was blown and he was detected at the airport, was there an elaborate plan aimed at damage control from the government parliamentary group?

Why was the penalty imposed on Raheem a relatively meagre 7.5 million rupees, a fraction of what could have been charged? Was it aimed at preventing legal proceedings against Raheem which would protect him from prosecution and secure his seat in Parliament?

Was Raheem also instructed to vote against the government? The MP had consistently voted with the government since voting for the 20th Amendment, so why did he have a change of heart now? The reasons he gives are an insult to the intelligence of the general public. Instead, was there a deliberate plan by the government parliamentary group to publicly distance themselves from Raheem but at the same time ensure his ‘safe passage’ by orchestrating a reduced penalty?

Since this incident, comparisons have been made between Raheem and Anura Daniel, the young parliamentarian in J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP-dominated Parliament of 1977, who was nabbed while smuggling gold, watches and clothing from Singapore in 1982.

The ‘Old Fox’ that J.R. was, he took credit by appearing to deal with Daniel swiftly, ensuring that he was removed from Parliament. It must be noted that, in that instance, the much-respected Heen Banda Dissanayake was the Director General of Customs and ensured that Daniel was issued with a heavy penalty, resulting in the matter being taken to court. Appearing for Daniel was none other than A.C. (Bunty) de Zoysa, who was known as ‘J.R.’s lawyer’ who also prosecuted Sirima Bandaranaike at the Special Presidential Commission appointed by J.R. Nevertheless, Daniel was found guilty.

Not one to let others have the last laugh, J.R. then proceeded to appoint Daniel’s sister, Ms. Rupa Sriyani Daniel to replace him as, by that time, the system of ‘chit’ MPs being nominated by the party to replace a person who had vacated his seat had begun.

The Anura Daniel saga suggests that, while J.R. wanted to take credit for removing Daniel as a MP, he was keen to engage in damage control and not really interested in punishing the errant parliamentarian to the point where it becomes a deterrent to potential offenders

This is why we must ask the question as to whether history is being repeated, forty years later? Is Raheem being seemingly punished but with such a degree of leniency that allows the government parliamentary group to retain his support, particularly as crucial votes- such as an amendment to the Constitution to allow for an early presidential election- could come up in the near future??

If President Ranil Wickremesinghe is the great advocate of ‘clean’ government that he claims to be, here is his great opportunity. He can crack the whip on Raheem and ensure he is booted out of Parliament. It cannot be done easily by constitutional means because expulsion of a MP, even if approved by a majority in Parliament, requires a Special Presidential Commission to investigate the circumstances leading to the expulsion. However, Wickremesinghe should be able to persuade Raheem and the government parliamentary group to fall in line- if he wants to.

On the other hand, if Wickremesinghe approves of the drama that was seemingly enacted last week, he can distance himself from Raheem and allow him to linger on. That will come at a price though: the public has been observing these shenanigans with disgust and disapproval. Not acting decisively against Raheem will be a potent slogan that the opposition can use against Wickremesinghe at a future election.

Will President Wickremesinghe follow his uncle J.R.’s footsteps or crackdown on Ali Sabry Raheem? The people, who are yet to decide whether they will vote for Wickremesinghe, are watching with interest.