Sri Lanka sliding to dictatorship
The removal of Sri Lanka’s 43rd Chief Justice, Shirani Bandarayanayaka, has shaken the very foundations of independence of the judiciary, rule of law and all basic norms of a functioning democracy.
The Executive and the Legislature deliberately ignored the constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court and the verdict of the Court of Appeal quashing the impeachment report by the government members of the Select Committee of Parliament which was not in conformity with Article 107(3) of the Constitution dealing with the removal of judges of the superior courts. By the illegal impeachment of Bandarayanayaka, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has demonstrated that he is not a respecter of the Constitution or the judiciary.
The manner in which the impeachment process was conducted in and outside Parliament, how Bandarayanayaka was barred from entering the Supreme Court and was physically evicted from the official residence of the Chief Justice and prevented from speaking to the media exhibit the authoritarian streak in Rajapaksa who will go to any length to have his way.
Though he has hurriedly appointed Mohan Peiris, a former Attorney-General who had demonstrated his capacity to prefer expediency over legality, Bandaranayaka maintains she is still the duly appointed Chief Justice and that she has an obligation and unwavering duty towards the judges, lawyers and the citizens of Sri Lanka.
As Attorney-General, Peiris is known to have abused the powers of noli prosecue in order to acquit persons who were undergoing investigations into serious crimes such as murder. It was Peiris who filed the indictment against the former Chief of the Army Staff, General Sarath Fonseka, who contested the last election as the common candidate against President Rajapaksa.
After retirement as AG, he was involved in the business affairs of the Rajapaksa family. With the President discarding respect for the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, it is quite natural that he no longer wants any kind of loyalty to the law as a criteria to be followed by the Supreme Court.
It is quite symbolic that on the day Peiris was appointed the Chief Justice, the gates of the Supreme Court were locked and barricaded. A new era has begun when courts are no longer expected to play the role of protector of the freedoms and liberties of the citizens of Sri Lanka. Instead, the courts are expected to be instruments of repression of those opposing the government and the ruling family.
Unless the judges, lawyer and the freedom loving people of the country resist and oppose the hijacking of the Supreme Court by Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s slide to dictatorship cannot be stopped. The Lawyers Collective in Colombo has categorically affirmed that Bandaranayaka continues to be the Chief Justice, notwithstanding her removal by the President. She will be remembered as a judge who did not succumb to pressure and held the scales of justice without fear or favour.
The International Commission of Jurists has condemned the appointment of Peiris as Chief Justice, saying it raises serious concerns about the future of the rule of law and accountability and that it was “an assault on the independence of the judiciary.” The group urged the government to reinstate Bandaranayaka immediately.
Victoria Nuland, spokesperson of the US Department of State, questioned Sri Lanka’s quality of democracy and expressed her country’s concern about the perception of reprisals against somebody for independent thinking and action. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called on the government of Sri Lanka to respect the country’s Constitution and the independence of its judiciary and change course immediately. Watching in silence as Sri Lanka sinks deeper into dictatorship is not in the best interests of India. But New Delhi remains resolutely mum.