After Sri Lanka's war, President lines up judges as next target

Chief Justice faces an attempt to impeach her after colleague who spoke out is stabbed

The Sri Lankan government has launched proceedings to oust the country's most senior judge in what many believe is just the latest attempt by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to undermine the independence of the judiciary. The move comes as the country's human rights record is being scrutinised by the UN.

The government's Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella confirmed that a motion to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was handed to the speaker of the parliament this morning. 

The government, without giving specific details, claims Ms Bandaranayake has overstepped her role, but many believe the government is seeking revenge for a recent Supreme Court decision that said a proposed piece of legislation that would have centralised a number of powers currently enjoyed by local councils was unconstitutional. 

The move is the latest in a series of power struggles in which the government has clashed with the judiciary. Last month a senior judge was attacked and stabbed after claiming the judiciary was being pressured by powerful people and that judges were, "living in fear for their lives". The police have so far made no progress in the case.

Since Sri Lanka's armed forces crushed the remnants of the once-powerful Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the spring of 2009, the government of Mr Rajapaksa has been accused of tightening its grip of various institutions and of silencing critics. Many journalists have been attacked or threatened. 

At the same time, Tamil politicians say that despite the construction of roads and some new homes in the north and east of the country, Mr Rajapaksa has done little to reach any sort of political agreement to the Tamil minority. Indeed, one of the president's brothers, the powerful Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has spoken openly of his desire to scrap the so-called 13 Amendment to the constitution which supposedly guarantees some sort of political devolution to the Tamil community.

Mr Rambukwella today told The Independent the government had acted because of "certain irregularities" in the chief justice's conduct but did not give specifics. Asked if the government was seeking to punish her for rulings it disagreed with, he said: "Those allegations are baseless. The government does not practice jungle law, we are using what is available to us in the constitution. If what we have done is not constitutional, the speaker will turn it down."

But the government's attempt to impeach the chief justice has been strongly condemned by local and international activists, as well as opposition politicians.

"An independent judiciary functions as a critical institutional mechanism providing a check and balance on the executive and legislative branches of a democratic society. The independence of this organ is vital," Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, chairwoman of the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute, said in a recent letter to Mr Rajapaksa.

The impeachment move follows a ruling by a Supreme Court bench headed by Ms Bandaranayake that the so-called Divineguma bill was in breach of the constitution. The bill would centralise a series of powers that are currently devolved and the court said the bill should have first been submitted to all provincial councils.

Since then, various ministers have accused Ms Bandaranayake of acting unconstitutionally over a recent judicial appointment. Various accusations have also been levelled at her husband, who in February was summoned before a court over alleged corruption charges linked to a controversial transaction. "All these things are being used to get at her," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, an NGO.

In a statement, Lal Wijenayaka, convener of the Sri Lankan group Lawyers for Democracy, said of the government's move: "We consider it as an attack on the independence of the judiciary and on the rule of law."

The impeachment effort underscores the power of both Mr Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance ruling coalition, which enjoys a two-thirds majority in the parliament, and his own family. The speaker of the parliament who has to decide whether there is a valid case against the chief justice is his elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa, while another brother, Basil, heads the economic development ministry to which the series of locally-devolved powers would go if the Divineguma bill was passed.

The government has spent millions of pounds since 2009 to develop infrastructure and to try and develop infrastructure in those areas of the country previously controlled by Tamil militants. It has also overseen rehabilitation programmes for hundreds of former LTTE fighters. "In general I think there is tremendous satisfaction with the big infrastructure projects - roads, electricity and hospitals," claimed Rajiva Wijesinha, a coalition MP and presidential advisor.

But Tamil leaders say the government has refused to listen to demands for devolved powers. Talks between Tamil leaders and the government broke off earlier this year. "There has been no effort to reach out. It can only be described as 'nil', as 'negative'," said R Sambandan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance.

UN investigators have claimed there were "credible allegations" both the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE committed war crimes in the final stages of the conflict and that tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed. The panel called for an independent probe, something that was rejected by the Sri Lankan authorities which instead organised its own investigation. That inquiry largely cleared the authorities, who have always dismissed the allegations of war crimes.

Yet questions about the conduct of the armed forces and the decisions taken by the most senior figures within the political and military establishment refuse to go away. Today, Sri Lanka's human rights records was being examined by the UN Human Rights Council universal periodic review, with questions being tabled by US, Britain, Canada, Cuba, China, and Pakistan.

"Governments should use the UPR to question Sri Lanka's deteriorating human rights situation and make recommendations for meaningful change," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Of particular concern is the government's ongoing failure to hold anyone to account for numerous deadly abuses by both sides during Sri Lanka's long war."

There was no word today from Ms Bandaranayake, 54, who was appointed by Mr Rajapaksa in May 2011 and who is not scheduled to stand down for 11 years. Observers say the government only requires a simple majority in the parliament - something it has - to proceed with the impeachment, though the process could take several months.

Timeline: Sri Lanka's War

May, 2009

After decades of conflict, the government declares that the Tamil Tigers have been defeated after overrunning their final north-eastern stronghold.

February 2010

Amid concerns over human rights abuses in the last stages of the war, the EU suspends Sri Lanka’s preferential trade status.

April 2011

A UN report into the civil war finds that both sides committed atrocities against civilians.

March 2012

The UN Human Rights Council adopts a resolution urging the government to investigate alleged war crimes. Sri Lanka refuses.

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