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A new battleground in Sri Lanka

Charges against Chief Justice Bandaranayake raised concerns that the government is trying to control the judiciary.
Last modified: 11 Dec 2012 15:20
Activists in Colombo condemned a panel for finding top judge Shirani Bandaranayake guilty of misconduct [AFP]

Tension is building between Sri Lanka's parliament and judiciary.

The government's attempt to remove the Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake has lead to the face off.

The current regime has found the country's highest ranked judge guilty of financial irregularity, abuse of power and bias in a case involving her husband – reasons they say she must be impeached.

The problem is that neither the Chief Justice nor the opposition members had much say in the deliberations that led to the guilty verdict.

Justice Bandaranayake and her lawyers walked out of the Select Committee last week saying they had no faith in the process.

'Baised process'

A statement from her lawyers said the walkout was, "in protest in the face of hostile and biased conduct of the government members of the PSC so as to ensure the dignity of the judiciary of Sri Lanka. The Chief Justice reiterates that she is innocent of the false charges made against her and is always willing to face any impartial tribunal in order to vindicate herself."

Opposition representatives on the Select Committee also withdrew saying the process was unfair.

All this unfolded while supporters of either side, staged demonstrations outside court and parliament.

But the controversial proceedings continued regardless, with the government members wrapping up proceeding one day later and informing the Speaker of the guilty verdict.

The government's undue haste to wrap up the proceedings has drawn howls of protest from the legal community, civil society and the international community.

A number of cases challenging the Committee's appointment were filed in the country's superior courts - these will be heard in January. Rather than issue Stay orders against the committee the Supreme Court took the non-confrontational, and more diplomatic route of 'recommending' that the Select Committee differ its inquiry till the Court came to a decision on the matter.

Supreme Court ruling

But reflecting the government's belligerent attitude, the Speaker announced that parliament was supreme and not bound to follow the Supreme Court.

The country's highest court holds exclusive jurisdiction on interpreting the constitution. Should the Court rule that the PSC process violates the constitution, the entire impeachment process will be rendered null and void – but if parliament insists on its supremacy – a constitutional crisis is inevitable.

But concern is building. Today members of civil society, representatives of the clergy, senior opposition figures took to Colombo's streets to protest the impeachment.

They held placards that said 'Do not grab the sovereignity of the people', 'Today the judiciary - tomorrow?' Chants of "Down with this law of the jungle", "The beginning of the end of the judiciary - the end of freedom of speech".

Most Sri Lankans don't understand what this would mean.

But if they did – they wouldn't wish for it, because the future of democracy as they know it depends on it.