The forty third Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake appeared in the Colombo Magistrate’s court this week when a case filed against her by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption was called for hearing in an unprecedented event in the annals of justice in the country.
Declining any special privileges, Bandaranayake stood in the dock before Magistrate Gihan Pilapitiya and was informed that she would need the court’s approval to travel overseas. Over a hundred lawyers appeared to support Bandaranayake. The case was postponed until February next year.
This is the latest episode in a long drawn saga that pitted the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) against Bandaranayaka many months ago and saw her being impeached by Parliament and ousted from office unceremoniously in January this year.
Bandaranayake has remained defiant throughout these events, maintaining her innocence against charges of financial impropriety and of interference with legal proceedings. Critics of the government see this week’s hearing as a move to justify the impeachment proceedings against Bandaranayake.
Upatissa Atapattu Bandaranayake Wasala Mudiyanse Ralahamilage Shirani Anshumala Bandaranayake was born in Kurunegala but spent her childhood in many localities, changing schools frequently as both her parents were engaged in teaching careers and were subject to frequent transfers.
In March 1986, she obtained a PhD from the University of London, becoming the first Sri Lankan woman to obtain a Doctorate in Law from a foreign university. She was appointed as head of the Department of Law in the Colombo University in 1987 and the Dean of the Faculty of Law in 1992.
At the age of 38, Bandaranayake was controversially appointed to the Supreme Court on October 30, 1996 by President Chandrika Kumaratunga on the recommendation of the then Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, G. L. Peiris. She became the country’s first female Supreme Court judge. After becoming the most senior Supreme Court Judge, Bandaranayake acted as Chief Justice on many occasions and was appointed as Sri Lanka’s forty third Chief Justice by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on May 18, 2011, following the retirement of her predecessor, Justice Asoka de Silva.
While Bandaranayake served as Chief Justice, her husband Pradeep Kariyawasam, a private sector executive previously known for being vice-captain to Ranjan Madugalle in the centenary cricket team of Royal College, was appointed by President Rajapaksa as chairman of the National Savings Bank.
Many criticised the appointment claiming that favoured treatment was being meted out to Bandaranayake’s family. It was also considered inappropriate for the spouse of the Chief Justice to be heading a major state bank. It was an appointment which could have boomeranged on Bandaranayake.
In May 2012 concerns were raised regarding Kariyawasam’s alleged involvement in the purchase of a stake of The Finance Company at an apparently inflated price. Faced with the prospect of a strike by the bank employees, Kariyawasam resigned. Later he was charged with bribery over the same issue.
A few months after that Bandaranayake’s own difficulties with the government began to emerge. It is thought to be linked to the Supreme Court refusing to endorse two laws, the Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Bill and later the Divi Neguma Bill, both presented to the court in late 2012. In both pieces of legislation, the bone of contention was devolution of power to the provinces. The court held that they needed the sanction of all nine provinces. It was widely reported that Chief Justice Bandaranayake’s firm stand on this issue earned her the wrath of the government.
An impeachment motion against Chief Justice Bandaranayake signed by 117 UPFA MPs was handed to Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa on November 1, 2012, the day after the Supreme Court’s determinations on the Divi Neguma Bill were conveyed to the President.
Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa revealed the 14 charges against Bandaranayake on November 6, 2012. They included failing to disclose financial interests, abuse of power and disregarding the Constitution. Bandaranayake vehemently denied the charges.
An eleven member Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), where the government had a clear majority of seven members was appointed to probe the charges. Hearings of the Committee continued despite the Supreme Court ruling against the process and opposition members walking out of the PSC.
The PSC found Bandaranayake guilty of impropriety in a property transaction, having undeclared bank accounts and conflict of interest in a legal case involving her husband. The findings of the PSC were quashed by the Court of Appeal but the Parliament passed the impeachment by a simple majority.
Bandaranayake was removed from office on January 13, 2013, less than twenty months after being appointed to head the judiciary. Even Bandaranayake’s critics say the impeachment motion was ill-conceived and executed in undignified haste seriously eroding the government’s credibility.
To her credit, Bandaranayake has maintained a dignified silence when encountering the media in the past few months and presented herself with a disarming smile and a manner befitting her standing. Conversely, the government has drawn considerable flak internationally for its role in the conflict.
Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake’s impeachment is now a fait accompli. However, this week’s events suggested that there would be many more episodes in this drama which would continue to attract local and world headlines, much to the detriment of the country’s image.