The Sri Lankan parliament impeached Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake on Friday, effectively throwing the judiciary into disarray and signalling a breakdown of the Constitution.
A host of procedural issues delayed the debate on Thursday, and the vote on Friday. But Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, allowed the vote to go ahead late on Friday. He later announced that the President will be informed that the impeachment motion was passed with 155 votes for the motion and 49 against.
Despite the impeachment, Ms. Bandaranayake is still some distance away from being thrown out. The President has to make a formal proclamation to this effect; and he has said that he would first consult a panel of eminent persons ahead of taking such a decision. Also, since the PSC report itself is void, the judiciary cannot accept the impeachment. In effect, Ms. Bandaranayake can continue as CJ till the executive implements the orders of the legislature.
The report on which the impeachment motion was debated, prepared by a Parliament Select Committee that probed allegations of misconduct by the top judge, was earlier quashed by a court. The parliament, nevertheless, went ahead with the debate on a voided report.
“Is this Parliament to say ‘We can read the Constitution. Article 125 says it is the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution, but we don’t agree with that. Because we don’t agree with that, we don’t accept that’,” asked M.A. Sumanthiran, an MP, who belongs to the hopelessly out-numbered opposition in parliament. The stand of his party, the Tamil National Alliance, is that the report on which the entire debate is based, does not exist.
After a two-day debate, which saw a host of charges and counter-charges on a host of issues, the parliament voted on the motion moved by the Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva. There were no surprises.
In Sri Lanka, the Speaker of Parliament can entertain a motion of impeachment against a sitting chief justice if demanded by one-third of the 225 members. The motion requires to be passed by a simple majority — 113 votes. In Ms. Bandaranayake’s case, as many as 117 MPs had signed an impeachment motion and had handed it over to the Speaker.
Meanwhile a group of senior lawyers have written to Supreme Court judges, asking them not to accept a new Chief Justice to protect the independence of the judiciary. “The attempt to remove the Chief Justice from office is without any legal basis and contrary to the Constitution and the law of the land,” Lawyers Collective said in a letter to the Supreme Court judges. “As you are well aware you are obliged (as are we) to honour and follow the decisions of our courts whether we agree with it or not. Thus disagreements in other quarters is irrelevant,” it added.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank, said that the “unnecessary and regrettable move by the legislature today has deeply debilitating consequences for constitutional governance.” The United States, the first country to react, said that it was deeply concerned by the impeachment proceedings against the Chief Justice which were conducted in defiance of a Supreme Court order. “This impeachment calls into question issues about the separation of powers in Sri Lanka and the impact of its absence on democratic institutions,” a release said.
“With this the rule of law system in Sri Lanka comes to an end,” said the Asian Human Rights Commission, a Hong Kong-based NGO that works on human rights issues. “This is the culmination of the scheme of the 1978 Constitution which is a constitution, not of a democracy, but of a dictatorship,” it added.