Sri Lanka ruling party moves to impeach top judge

Amal Jayasinghe
President Mahinda Rajapakse (L) presents a letter of appointment to Shirani Bandaranayake who became Sri Lanka's first woman chief justice in May 2011. Sri Lanka's ruling party lawmakers have submitted a parliamentary motion to impeach Bandaranayake

Ruling party lawmakers submitted a motion to impeach Sri Lanka's most senior judge Thursday, as President Mahinda Rajapakse moved to crush another of his former allies after vanquishing Tamil rebels.

Days after the foreign minister said Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake had flouted the constitution, officials confirmed Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had submitted a resolution to have her sacked.

"Government MPs have handed over a motion calling for the impeachment of the chief justice," Chandima Weerakkody, parliament's deputy speaker, told reporters. The resolution itself has not yet been made public.

The move marked a dramatic escalation in tensions with the judiciary on the day the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva considered Sri Lanka's rights record.

US ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the council's four-yearly review of Sri Lanka Thursday that Washington was "concerned" over the "consolidation of executive power" and attacks against the judiciary in the Indian Ocean island republic.

Thursday's UNHRC debate is the first on Sri Lanka since a US-led resolution earlier this year urged Colombo to probe war crimes allegedly committed by its troops and ensure reconciliation and good governance.

The US ambassador asked Colombo to "strengthen judicial independence by ending government interference with the judicial process", protect judges from physical attacks and end impunity for human rights violations.

The head of Sri Lanka's judicial watchdog, who claimed there was a plot to destroy the courts' independence, is currently recovering after being beaten up by unknown attackers last month. The government denies involvement.

There was no immediate reaction from the chief justice whom ministers said had been guilty of misconduct.

Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said there had been "disagreements" between the government and chief justice stretching back over a period of time.

"The government group believes that the judiciary is overstepping... its authority," Rambukwella said.

The impeachment motion is the latest sign of efforts by the government to tighten its grip after crushing the Tamil Tigers in 2009 at the end of a 37-year conflict, as well as its willingness to pursue one-time allies.

Sarath Fonseka, the army chief regarded as a national hero for overseeing the Tigers' defeat, was jailed after trying to run against Rajapakse in 2010. He was freed in May but remains barred from contesting elections.

Rambukwella said the speaker of parliament Chamal Rajapakse, who is the president's eldest brother, would appoint a panel to look into charges against the chief justice who will have an opportunity to defend herself.

The information minister said 117 UFPA MPs had signed the impeachment resolution by Thursday morning, including himself.

An impeachment motion only needs a minimum of 113 of the 225 lawmakers to succeed, although the process could take months.

Bandaranayake, a former law professor, was appointed as Sri Lanka's first woman chief justice in May last year, having been hand-picked by Rajapakse's government. She has another 11 years in office unless impeached.

Her husband was also appointed to politically sensitive posts in state financial institutions but he now faces corruption charges.

The writing was on the wall for the 54-year-old after Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris told MPs last week she had "violated the constitution" by naming Manjula Tilakaratne as head of the Judicial Service Commission, the judicial watchdog.

Analysts say the government was also infuriated by Bandaranayake's decision to shoot down a bill that sought to give more powers to the economic development ministry which is headed by the president's younger brother Basil.

The government's stand-off with the judiciary comes as it faces heightened international scrutiny of its rights record amid allegations that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final months of fighting in 2009.