Sri Lanka's lawmakers impeach chief judge

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 11, 2013 18:00 hrs

Sri Lanka's Parliament voted overwhelmingly on Friday to impeach the chief justice in a case widely seen by jurists and rights activists as an attempt by the government to ensure a servile judiciary.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa will now decide whether Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake should be dismissed.

Last month, a parliamentary committee ruled that Bandaranayake had unexplained wealth and had misused her power. She has denied the charges and said she was not given a fair hearing.

An appeals court annulled the guilty verdict and forbade any further action by Parliament after the Supreme Court ruled that the committee had no legal power to investigate the allegations.

Parliament's defiance of the court rulings is seen by lawyers and activists as a breach of the constitution that threatens to plunge the courts into crisis. Critics of the president say he wants to remove the last obstacles to absolute power.

President Rajapaksa, riding a wave of popular support after ending a 25-year civil war in 2009, has pushed through laws ending term limits for the presidency and abolishing independent commissions that select top judiciary, police and public service personnel. He now has the power to appoint many of the country's officials.

"Today will be remembered as a day the (government) crucified the independence of the judiciary," said John Amaratunga, a lawmaker for the main opposition United National Party. "We did not want to protect the chief justice. We only wanted a fair inquiry."

Saliya Peiris, an attorney for Bandaranayake, told The Associated Press that his client would not recognize the impeachment but said her next step would be announced later.

A refusal by Bandaranayake to vacate office would create a crisis that has no constitutional remedy. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, with 11,000 lawyers, has vowed not to recognize a replacement to Bandaranayake, and the country's Supreme Court judges may not welcome a new appointee.

A number of senior lawyers have already written to senior judges requesting them not to sit with a new chief justice.

Bandaranayake was found guilty of not disclosing the details of 20 bank accounts and of purchasing a property and then taking judicial control of cases involving the company that sold it. She also was found to have a conflict of interest because she had supervisory powers over judges hearing a corruption case against her husband, a former state bank chairman.

She has said she was not given an opportunity to cross examine her accusers and had insufficient time to prepare for her defense. She also said ruling party lawmakers at the inquiry hurled personal insults at her.

President Rajapaksa enjoys the support of more than two-thirds of the 225-member Parliament. Lawmakers voted 155 to 49 on Friday to impeach her. Twenty lawmakers, including four from the ruling party who disagreed with the impeachment, were absent.

The impeachment also drew international concern.

The United States Embassy in Colombo said it was deeply concerned by the proceedings.

"This impeachment calls into question issues about the separation of powers in Sri Lanka and the impact of its absence on democratic institutions," it said in a statement.

Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director for the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, said the impeachment has "thrown into chaos the entire system of checks and balances in the country."

"As an immediate matter, this has precipitated a legal and constitutional crisis of unprecedented dimensions," he said in a statement.

Bandaranayake, who had long been viewed as pro-government, faced the allegations after she issued a ruling against a law promoted by a member of Rajapaksa's family.

The government is largely controlled by the Rajapaksas, including the president's older brother Chamal Rajapaksa, the speaker of Parliament. Two more brothers run the ministries of defense and economic development. One of the president's sons is a member of Parliament.

The impeachment set off a series of protests and rallies.

The bar association called a two-day strike Thursday. Association Secretary Sanjaya Gamage said any action to ignore the Supreme Court ruling could bring a "negative and eroding impact" on the rule of law. The lawyers hoisted black flags in courts in protest Friday.

Some 200 lower court judges also joined the strike.

Meanwhile, hundreds of government supporters gathered outside Parliament on Friday to back the impeachment and set off fireworks when they heard the outcome of the vote.


Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.