Saturday, December 8, 2012

Impeaching a chief justice – how serious can it be?

By Thrishantha Nanayakkara

The word impeachment sounds very legal. Maybe that is why a lot of normal voters stay away from legal heavy weight fighting during a high level impeachment of a chief justice of a country. However, the ongoing attempt of the Sri Lankan Government to impeach Sri Lanka’s first woman chief justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake has caught public attention like never before.

What sparked the impeachment movement? The move began after the Supreme Court held that the Government “Divi Neguma” bill that proposed to give sweeping powers to the president’s brother, minister Basil Rajapakse, unconstitutional on 6th November 2012.  The hurriedly drafted impeachment motion against the Chief Justice quickly received the required number of signatures mostly from junior parliamentarians and those who had crossed over from the opposition sparing the family members of president Mahinda Rajapakse in the parliament from the burden of signing the motion.

Full of mistakes: soon the parliament and the public came to know that the impeachment motion was full of factual errors. Later the law firm hired by the chief justice in her defence gave a rebuttal on the most four serious charges making it clear that the charges were hastily made up with malicious intent. The humiliated lawmakers then appointed a parliamentary select committee to study the impeachment motion. Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake was given just one week to respond to the motion by appearing in front of the committee. Her request to hold an open inquiry was refused on the grounds that an open inquiry would undermine the sovereignty of the parliament, which was again a gross violation of the constitution. According to the Sri Lankan constitution, people are the custodians of sovereignty, not the parliament. Therefore, an open hearing would in fact protect the sovereignty of the people. Furthermore, two Government MPs had verbally abused her with foul language before the Chief Justice finally decided to walk out in despair.

Why is this move dangerous? This is dangerous because the Government motive to impeach the Chief Justice is to give a clear message to the Judiciary – “bow down to our way of Governance no matter how unconstitutional and corrupt it is, or prepare to go home!” This together with the flaws of the 18th amendment to the constitution blow a massive punch on the face of the independence of the judiciary to insulate the rights of the people from greedy politicians in the Government. This is particularly precarious when president Rajapakse’s family runs a large part of the critical mass of the Government. 

What can you do? You do not want a corrupt dictatorship in South Asia don't you? If you think that one Suharto dynasty was enough for that whole region, please take action. There are several ways to do it. Rajapakse Government is not scared of the people living in Sri Lanka. With total abuse of state media, and blockade of many independent online media, they know how to manipulate people’s paranoia to stay popular.  People living outside have more access to free media and Internet based tools such as petitions to attract attention of people who respect rule of law, natural justice, and democracy.