Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions are in ferment once again. The impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and her quick replacement with former Attorney General Mohan Peiris come as an unsavoury climax to an unedifying standoff between the judiciary on the one hand and the legislature and executive on the other. The episode is one more instance of President Mahinda Rajapaksa placing his own and his regime’s interest over that of the country and its institutions. It is certain to contribute to institutional decay, attract international opprobrium and underscore the impression that Sri Lanka is ruled not by law but by the will of individuals. And the worrying fact about the country’s travails is that its chief executive, who ought to be the one most concerned about it and do more to strengthen them, is actively contributing to the undermining of its institutions. The country’s Parliament ignored judicial decisions against the validity of a parliamentary inquiry against Chief Justice Bandaranayake and went ahead with her impeachment. Mr. Rajapaksa lost little time in accepting the impeachment motion and appointing the Cabinet’s legal adviser to replace her. To external observers, the merit, or lack of it, in the charges said to have been proved against Ms Bandaranayake is of little consequence. Rather, the timing of the impeachment — coming close on the heels of a Supreme Court determination that a new law on development needed ratification by all provincial councils — is worthy of notice. The process, too, was of doubtful legitimacy, and the parliamentary vote, largely on party lines.

The legal fraternity in Sri Lanka is already up in arms against the appointment of a new Chief Justice, as large sections of it seem to believe that the impeachment is a nullity as the parliamentary report based on which it was pursued has already been quashed by the Court of Appeals. Even if Mr. Peiris settles down in his post, it is doubtful if his rulings will command credibility. President Rajapaksa may be unable to undo this irreversible action, but the latest institutional crisis might help remind him that cleansing the judiciary is not a perfunctory task; rather, it requires a well-thought-out process involving appropriate legislation that safeguards the institution’s independence while ensuring a truly independent inquiry into charges of misconduct against judges.

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