Despite international criticism over the dismissal of former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, and protest by lawyers, Sri Lanka's former attorney general Mohan Peiris, who has never been on the Bench, has been appointed the new Chief Justice.

“[Mr.] Peiris took oaths as the new chief justice before President Mahinda Rajapaksa this afternoon [on Tuesday] at Temple Trees,” said a release from the Office of the Presidential Spokesperson. “Mr. Peiris joined the Department of the Attorney General in 1981 as a state counsel and served as a senior state counsel for approximately 15 years. He was appointed the 25th attorney general in December of 2008,” the release added. Earlier in the day, parliament had approved his appointment.

Last Friday, parliament had voted to impeach the country’s first woman Chief Justice, Ms.Bandaranayake by a two-thirds majority, despite a Court quashing the basis of the impeachment motion, a report of a parliamentary select committee. Ms.Bandaranayake, the youngest judge when appointed to the Supreme Court, had never been part of the Bar ahead of becoming a judge.

CPA files complaint

Just before Mr.Peiris was sworn, in a local think-tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), said that it had filed a complaint in the Supreme Court challenging his appointment. It added that they were also asking the court to restrain Mr.Peiris from performing any official duties as Chief Justice.

Elsewhere, lawyers continued to protest by lighting candles outside courts. Entry to area near the Supreme Court was controlled and a large contingent of police and security forces kept a close watch. Meanwhile, Ms.Bandaranayake moved out of her official residence, even as police officials told newsmen outside her official residence that she should not address them since she was not Chief Justice any longer.

Mr.Peiris, till now the senior legal adviser to the cabinet, has been in the forefront of defending Sri Lanka in international fora against charges of human rights violations in the last stages of the war against Tamil Tigers in 2009, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council. His conflicting comments on cartoonist Prageeth Eknelygoda, who disappeared in January 2010 here, had drawn serious criticism from many organisations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Peiris…has made conflicting statements about missing journalist Prageeth Eknelygoda…Peiris's statements highlight the disregard with which the government views international opinion,” CPJ said.

Serious questions

Answering questions, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that the U.S. had repeatedly conveyed to Sri Lanka its concern that there was a lack of due process. “We’ve also made very clear our view that actions undermining an independent judiciary would impact on Sri Lanka’s ability to attract foreign investment…The United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, and the United Nations have all issued statements expressing strong concerns about this process,” she added.

Asked if Sri Lanka was moving towards an authoritarian regime, she said: “We think that there are serious questions about the health and future of Sri Lanka’s democracy.”

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