Sri Lanka is facing a deepening constitutional crisis after President Mahinda Rajapaksa went ahead and sacked its most senior judge – a move that critics say undermines the independence of the country’s judiciary.
In step many have claimed was inspired by a desire to remove someone who had blocked several government bills, Mr Rajapaksa on Sunday ratified a vote by the parliament to remove chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake.
“President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed this morning the order removing chief justice Dr Shirani Bandaranayake from office with immediate effect in accordance with the resolution passed by Parliament on January 11, 2013,” said a statement issued by the president’s office. “The removal order was delivered this morning to the official residence of Ms Bandaranayake.”
The move follows months of stand-off between Mr Rajapaksa and his supporters and an increasingly vocal judiciary and legal community which has claimed the moves are undermining the independence of one of the few institutions in Sri Lanka not under the pervasive influence of the government.
Critics say that since 2009, when the government defeated Tamil rebels, Mr Rajapaksa has squandered opportunities for reconciliation and instead intimidated and jailed his opponents and silenced much of the media. One critic, former general Sanath Fonseka, who led the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam but later challenged Mr Rajapaksa in a a presidential election, was jailed for three years.
Ms Bandaranayake, 54, has declined to make any public statement since the crisis began in November, when the government began proceedings to remove her.
But her lawyer, Saliya Peiris, told The Independent, the chief justice had not recognised the legitimacy of the directive given to her by Mr Rajapaksa. “She has received the letter from the president and as far as she is concerned she is not going to recognise the legality of her ouster,” he said. “But as far as her next step, I cannot tell you at this stage.”
The decision to act against the chief justice has been widely condemned by Sri Lanka’s legal community as well as international bodies. Lawyers have boycotted the courts since last week’s vote by parliament to impeach Ms Bandaranayake and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka has urged the legal community not to recognise any new chief justice appointed by the president.
“The association strongly, unequivocally and with no reservations whatsoever condemns the decision to take up for debate the impeachment motion against...the chief justice,” it said in a statement,
Members of Mr Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance ruling coalition started efforts to impeach Ms Bandaranayake last year amid claims she had acted unconstitutionally. A panel set up by the parliament found her guilty of involving herself in a case focussing on a company from which her sister had bought an apartment.
Ms Bandaranayake said she did not receive a fair hearing and left the committee’s session. A Supreme Court bench subsequently found the panel had no legal jurisdiction to investigate the allegations levelled at the chief justice and another senior court said parliament could take no further action against her. In proceeding with a vote last Friday, the parliament has ignored the rulings of the courts.
“There has been a judgement, and the parliament has decided the judgement was wrong and has acted to ignore it,” said one lawyer, Manjuka Fernandopulle.
One leading opposition politician, Mangala Samaraweera, said the move underscored the “dictatorial nature” of the government.
“This is something we have been talking about for a long time. I think this impeachment has finally exposed the true face of the administration,” he said. “And this is something the international community should take note of, especially since the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is due to take place in Sri Lanka later this year.”
Many observers believe the government moved against the chief justice after she stalled a series of government bills she claimed were unconstitutional. Among them was the so-called Divineguma bill, a piece of legislation that would have devolved certain powers held by the provincial authorities and handed greater political and financial power to Mr Rajapaksa’s youngest brother Basil, who is the economic development minister.
No-one from the president’s office could immediately be contacted for comment. However, Mohan Samaranayake, a spokesman for the Mr Rajapaksa, told the AFP that he had acted constitutionally after 155 of parliament’s 225 members voted to go ahead with the impeachment of the chief justice. He added: “The letter was hand-delivered to her by a secretary accompanied by presidential security staff.”