A new twist

Print edition : January 25, 2013

Sri Lanka's Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake attends a Buddhist ceremony at the Kelaniya Temple in Kelaniya on December 28. Photo: Ishara S. KODIKARA/AFP

THE impeachment of Sri Lankan Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was supposed to be an open and shut case: a decidedly pro-government judge who did not seem to have much support or respect among fellow judges or the Bar coupled with the brute majority of the government provided the perfect settings for a chilling impeachment process. The message that was to be driven home was simple: you are either with us or against us.

But the script did not play out as planned, although no one was in any doubt about the closing scene. A groundswell of support from lawyers, a section of the people and the decimated and bickering opposition political parties, and the admission by a court of a petition against the first step in the impeachment process—the Parliamentary Select Committee’s findings (PSC)—have set the stage for an interesting clash between the judiciary and the combined power of the executive and the legislature. The Chief Justice faces 14 charges of corruption and misuse of office. She was summoned by the PSC, which held eight sittings between November 14 and December 8. The PSC found her guilty and submitted its findings to Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

After the in-camera proceedings, Shirani Bandaranayake’s lawyers told the media that she was verbally abused during the hearing. The opposition, which had boycotted the proceedings, said that the abusive remarks had been expunged. The ruling combine was quick to deny the allegations.

The last week of December saw many suggestions being made on how to defuse the situation. Some eminent persons called on the President to prorogue Parliament, reasoning that once the session is prorogued, all business that is transacted in the session also concludes—which effectively means dropping the impeachment proceedings.

But media reports indicate that the President will not go down that path. Parliament will discuss the impeachment motion in January. The two-thirds majority of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance means that there is only one way it will decide: vote out the Chief Justice.

But the last Act in this drama signals the beginning of a new one: a majority of the Bar has resolved that it will not welcome a new Chief Justice. For the Rajapaksa regime, getting Justice Bandaranayake out is only one battle. The war will go on.

From being the rubber-stamp, who gave a slew of questionable rulings, including approving the 18th Amendment that lifted the term-limit for the President, to being the new opposition rallying point, Shirani Bandaranayake has traversed the opposite extremes. It would be too much to expect her to do a Pakistan (where a Prime Minister was brought down) or a Maldives (where a President stepped down partly because he arrested a judge). But she has put the spotlight firmly back on Sri Lanka, again for the wrong reasons. In a year that the country expects to surge ahead, this cannot be good news.

R.K. Radhakrishnan

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