These days, media headlines are dominated by one individual: Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. The Chief Justice is presently the subject of an impeachment motion that is being prosecuted by the government at lightning speed, raising grave concerns about its commitment to democratic norms.
Unlike many who hold top positions in Sri Lanka’s public service, Upatissa Atapattu Bandaranayake Wasala Mudiyanse Ralahamilage Shirani Anshumala Bandaranayake, now 54, did not attend a prestigious school in Colombo or any other major city.
The daughter of two teachers who were subjected to the travails of regular transfers, she attended schools in Ginigathhena, Hettimulla and Tholangamuwa in the Kegalle district and in Anuradhapura from where she entered the University of Colombo. There, she excelled in her chosen discipline, law.
Numerous academic accolades and a doctorate from the University of London soon followed, culminating in her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1996 by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. She was Sri Lanka’s first female to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
Controversy is nothing alien to the Chief Justice. Her appointment to the highest court led to protests from opposition parties who perceived her as Minister G. L. Peiris’ protégé as he was her colleague at the university. Their main complaint was that she had never practised as a lawyer. After the initial furore over her appointment died down, Justice Bandaranayake hardly hit the headlines until her appointment as Chief Justice by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2011. That appointment too was not without its share of controversy.
That was because Justice Bandaranayake’s husband was Pradeep Kariyawasam, a corporate executive whose only previous claim to fame was being vice-captain to Ranjan Madugalle in the centenary year cricket team at Royal College, Colombo.
Kariyawasam was appointed first as Chairman of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation and then as Chairman of the National Savings Bank before Bandaranayake’s elevation as Chief Justice. These appointments are now the subject of an inquiry and form part of the ‘case’ against the Chief Justice.
The positions offered to Kariyawasam suggest that Chief Justice Bandaranayake and her family enjoyed the President’s confidence. That relationship however turned sour with the Supreme Court verdict on the ‘Divi Neguma’ bill, a pet project of Minister Basil Rajapaksa.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Bill needed the assent of all provincial councils for it to be consistent with the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution. Initially, this sparked moves to repeal the thirteenth amendment but this quickly snowballed into a campaign against the Chief Justice.
Sri Lanka is not naïve to the concept of impeaching Chief Justices. There were attempts to impeach Chief Justices Neville Samarakoon and Sarath Silva. The former retired before the process could be completed; President Kumaratunga prorogued Parliament, preventing the latter from being ‘tried’.
However, in both instances, the impeachment proceeded at normal pace. There was no indecent hurry to rush through the procedure at breakneck speed.
In contrast, the present impeachment drama smacks of a witch hunt. Chief Justice Bandaranayake may have ruffled many feathers with her rapport with Minister G. L. Peiris and the appointments bestowed on her husband but even her critics would find it hard to condone current events.
The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing her conduct has acted arbitrarily, denying her time to respond to the charges, not providing her with all the required documents and summoning witnesses after stating it wouldn’t be doing so, which led to the Chief Justice walking out of the PSC.
Even if these were technicalities in the manner in which the proceedings of the PSC are conducted, other events cast the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in an extremely poor light thereby exposing its real intent-that it wishes to dispose of the Chief Justice and do so in a hurry too.
When the Chief Justice first attended the PSC, policemen were instructed not to salute her. Then, protesters were mobilised to taunt her. Finally, some ruling party members of the PSC addressed her in a derogatory manner, even disregarding the fact that she was a lady, let alone being the Chief Justice.
The entire saga is a sad day for the Judiciary in this country which, despite its many tribulations, has maintained a reasonable degree of independence at the worst of times. With a mega-majority at its disposal in Parliament, the UPFA appears to be hell-bent on changing this trend.
The coming weeks will see a tussle between the Executive and the Legislature on the one hand and the Judiciary on the other. It would be interesting to see whether the higher courts will have the courage and the resolve to stand up for its role as a guardian of democratic norms in this country.
The Supreme Court previously suggested to the PSC that it defers its sittings until it pronounced its verdict on related cases. The PSC simply ignored this. With several related matters up for adjudication, it will be incumbent upon the Supreme Court to assert its authority. That is due to the present opposition being utterly impotent in dealing with the crisis and abdicating its role as a defender of democratic freedoms. As a result it has been left to the legal fraternity to fight the impeachment
Sections of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka are proposing that in the event a new Chief Justice is eventually appointed this appointment should be ‘ignored’-and indeed it would take some form of ingenious protest to deter the government from going ahead with its present plans.
The real danger is not in Chief Justice Bandaranayake losing her position. The danger lies in the creation of a judicial culture that would be subservient to the ruling party-and that is a prospect that would imperil all democratic freedoms this country now enjoys.Whatever the final outcome, Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake is assured of her place in history. It may not have been as she would have liked it to be but she will be remembered as a lady of courage who stood up for what she thought was right with dignity, decorum and an unflappable smile.
One thing which I cannot approve is what has been said about the opposition which said that "...due to the present opposition being utterly impotent in dealing with the crisis...". How can opposition function without being impotent when its members are paid and taken to the government side and offered ministerial portfolios? How many UNPers are with the government now? It is because cheap people entering politics and going after various benefits. The rest was very well written giving a fair assessment about the true situation
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