When Shirani Bandaranayake was appointed Sri Lanka’s chief justice, rights campaigners assailed her as a puppet of a government that was steamrolling opponents and consolidating power. A year later, she is on the verge of becoming its latest victim.
In the wake of court challenges to government authority, the ruling party submitted an impeachment complaint in Parliament accusing her of unexplained wealth and misuse of power. Opposition parties and independent analysts allege it is a naked attempt by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to cow the judiciary.
Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition, which controls more than the two-thirds of votes needed to impeach, is expected to pass the motion easily. After impeachment it would be up to the president to remove Bandaranayake.
The impeachment “is totally politically motivated,” said human rights lawyer and activist J.C. Weliamuna. “The present regime has concentrated all legal powers and they are not prepared to even accept that the courts can give judgments controlling their power.”
The U.S. government has urged Sri Lanka to refrain from impinging on the judiciary’s independence. Sri Lankan lawyers have called for U.N. observers to monitor the impeachment proceedings. Even the country’s conservative Buddhist monks have asked Rajapaksa to reconsider.
The impeachment complaint alleges Bandaranayake did not disclose how she obtained 19 million rupees ($146,000) to pay for a house purchased in an opaque real estate deal, and that she took over cases filed against a company involved in the deal after removing the judges who originally heard them.
It accuses her of not declaring the contents of 20 bank accounts, and of misusing her position to harass other judges. It says her actions “plunged the Supreme Court and the office of chief justice into disrepute.”
In a statement to Colombo’s Daily Mirror newspaper, the chief justice insisted she is innocent and will continue to work.
Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella appeared to signal that the impeachment proceedings were about far more than corruption allegations. Bandaranayake, he said, had overstepped her role and worked to undermine Parliament’s authority. He said the impeachment was brought because the dispute “had gone beyond the stage of settlement.”
Rajapaksa, at an event where he handed out free laptops and interest-free car loans to journalists, said the government did not intend to interfere with the judiciary but insisted Parliament is duty-bound to check into complaints against the justice, according to a government news website.
The president has been accused of manipulating the judiciary to get convictions against his opponents. Sri Lanka’s former army commander Sarath Fonseka was convicted in a few cases since he challenged Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election.
Bandaranayake is an unlikely government foe.
Her elevation to chief justice came months after she supported a ruling that said Rajapaksa needed only a parliamentary vote — not a national referendum — to amend the constitution to expand his powers and let him serve more than two terms.
But the government and judiciary have repeatedly clashed during her short term in office.
In July, a mob reportedly instigated by a government minister attacked a courthouse with stones in the northern Mannar district because they disagreed with a judge’s ruling. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka said the minister threatened the judge in a phone call. Bandaranayake demanded action against the attackers.
In September, the Judicial Services Commission, a disciplinary body for judges that Bandaranayake heads, accused unnamed “powerful persons” of trying to interfere in its work. It said judges and their families were under threat and living in fear.
Commission secretary Manjula Tillakaratne was later beaten in broad daylight last month as he sat in his parked car. Opposition parties blamed the government, which denied responsibility. Police have made no arrests.
Judges and lawyers boycotted courts in protest.
The impeachment complaint against Bandaranayake — submitted earlier this month to Parliament’s speaker, the president’s older brother — followed a Supreme Court ruling that declared Rajapaksa’s effort to take back some powers from the provinces to be unconstitutional.
The ruling angered the government by showing how it had reneged on its promise to strengthen provincial councils as part of a plan to empower minority Tamils and defuse the nation’s ethnic conflict, said Jehan Perera, an analyst with the National Peace Council activist group.
The majority Sinhalese-dominated government had told the United States and India it would embark on a reconciliation program after winning a bloody war against Tamil rebels in 2009.
Analyst Kusal Perera said the impeachment was more likely the result of a personal falling-out between a government and a chief justice who once worked hand-in-glove, rather than a dispute over judicial power.
“I don’t see the chief justice as a principled person. Her appointment itself was very political,” said Perera.
Weliamuna, the human rights lawyer, warned that if the government continues to assert authority over the justice system, it could start appointing party hacks as judges and destroy what remains of judicial independence.
“See the message given to the international community. The chief justice is not protected in Sri Lanka. How can we protect our own citizens?” he said.
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