Sri Lankan Parliament has begun the process to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake as the Executive and Legislature gave vent to their collective displeasure over her “stepping out of line”.
There are 14 charges against the top judge, including improper conduct, amassing wealth and property, and non-declaration of assets.
Last month, Ms. Bandaranayeke locked horns with the Legislature and the Executive over a Bill that sought to take away some of the powers vested in the Provinces. The Bill places powers to spend about LKR 80 billion on development on a single Ministry controlled by Basil Rajapaksa, a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Tamil National Alliance challenged the Bill, and the Chief Justice held that the Bill had to be approved by all nine Provincial Councils. This created problems for the government as the Northern Province does not have an elected council. The Northern Province Governor gave his consent to the Bill, which was challenged in court. Supreme Court ruled that certain provisions of the proposed Bill required a two-thirds majority to be passed in Parliament.
Political opponents believe that the stand-off over the draft legislation is the reason behind the impeachment move. Democratic People’s Front leader Mano Ganesan tweeted: “Rajapaksa’s cat is out. Regime is impeaching CJ, for ruling against Divineguma bill which is eating up the power share concept…World is calling Rajapaksa to share power. Instead of sharing, he is taking back what is already shared by law.” Ms. Bandaranayeke, an academic who became a Supreme Court judge with no experience either on the bench or at the bar, was hand-picked to be the first woman Chief Justice in May last year. Though many crucial verdicts went in favour of the government under her watch, her ties with the President nosedived in the last few months: a judicial officer issued a press statement complaining of interference, and the government held that she had over-stepped her authority.
Apart from opposition parties in Sri Lanka, the United States and the International Commission of Jurists have expressed concerns over the move. India, which reportedly did a flip-flop in Geneva on Monday when the Universal Periodic Review for Sri Lanka came up, holds the view that this is an internal matter.
On Monday, three senior Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka also appealed for saner counsel to prevail. In a letter, the three Mahanayake Theras requested President Mahinda Rajapaksa to reconsider the need for the impeachment.
Rival demonstrations were held for and against the move to impeach the judge. On Monday, lawyers held a demonstration against the impeachment motion while on Tuesday, a group of persons, including Members of Parliament, held a demonstration hailing the government decision.
The Speaker, Chamal Rajapaksa, another brother of the President, will now constitute a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) of not less than seven MPs — including four from the ruling party — which will go into the allegations. The PSC has tenure of a month, and can seek an extension. The findings of the PSC will be tabled in Parliament, and the House will debate the issue. The ruling alliance, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, has a two-thirds majority in the House. The motion needs to be passed by a simple majority. The decision will then be communicated to the President.