Mohan Peiris, appointed as the country’s new Chief Justice on Tuesday, is the latest actor to enter the impeachment drama. As the spotlight shifts from impeached Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, his will be the most controversial selection to this high office.
Peiris’s appointment follows weeks of uncertainty and bitter legal battles between the executive and the legislature on the one hand and the judiciary and the legal profession on the other. The country’s opposition, barring the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, played only a marginal role in this conflict.
It is not that Mohan Peiris does not have the credentials to be appointed Chief Justice that renders his appointment contentious. Rather, it is the circumstances in which his predecessor Chief Justice Bandaranayake was ousted which has led to aspersions being cast on Peiris’s elevation.
Peiris spent his childhood in Colombo, schooling first at St. Joseph's College and then at Royal College. From there, he proceeded to Law College and qualified as a lawyer in 1975. Six years later, he joined the Attorney General’s Department as a state counsel.
More than two decades later, Peiris was to head the Attorney General’s Department for a period of two years from 2009 to 2011. His tenure there was not entirely uneventful and his role as Attorney General also came under close scrutiny.
Peiris was also to make headlines in an incident that caused Sri Lanka some embarrassment. That was when the country had to answer a barrage of questions in relation to human rights in the aftermath of the successful war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Representing Sri Lanka at the United Nations Committee Against Torture, Peiris was questioned in November 2011 regarding the whereabouts of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. “Our current information is that Mr. Ekneligoda has taken refuge in a foreign country,” Peiris said.
“I am not saying this with the tongue in my cheek. It is something that we are reasonably certain of. This is information that we have got through the media circles and that this is being played out for various reasons. I shouldn’t say more because the matter is being investigated,” Peiris was to explain.
Peiris was implying that Ekneligoda’s disappearance was a staged event to tarnish Sri Lanka’s reputation overseas. After Peiris made these comments, they attracted widespread international coverage and he appeared to be defending the country’s integrity at the United Nations.
However, Ekneligoda’s disappearance was pursued in Sri Lankan courts by his wife Sandya who filed a habeas corpus application. The Homagama magistrate was directed to conduct an inquiry by the Court of Appeal and Peiris was summoned to testify.
There, Peiris was forced to recant his statement to the UN. “The government and the justice department had received intelligence information that Prageeth Ekneligoda was living overseas, but it was mere hearsay and we forwarded that information to be investigated” he said.
Asked for the sources of his information, Peiris was to say that he does not remember who or what the source of his information was and that he was processing nearly one hundred files a day at the time and that remembering such details was not possible.
Clearly rattled by the questioning in court, Peiris was to acknowledge that his knowledge about Ekneligoda’s disappearance was limited. “I have no information that the corpus is alive or not and I do not think the government does either and God only knows where Ekneligoda is”, he said.
This was not the first instance when Mohan Peiris courted controversy. Previously, in early 2011 he withdrew murder charges against former government Member of Parliament Chandana Kathriarachchi and rape charges against parliamentarian Duminda Silva.
These actions were also widely condemned and among his critics were then Chief Justice Asoka de Silva and former Chief Justice Sarath Silva. Silva was to go so far as to say that Peiris’s directions “undermined the judiciary and judicial independence”.
After relinquishing his duties at the Attorney General’s Department, Peiris was appointed as Legal Advisor to the Cabinet. In this capacity, he was entrusted with defending Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against charges of human rights abuses and war crimes.
At a landmark session in March 2012, the UNHRC adopted a United States sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka. Peiris and his namesake, External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris were criticised for the manner in which they argued the country’s case.
Now as Chief Justice, Mohan Peiris faces a tougher hurdle. There is a deep sense of resentment in the legal fraternity. While much of this is because of the manner in which Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was ousted, there is hostility towards Peiris for accepting a tainted appointment.
Peiris is also not a career judicial officer who has risen through the ranks. As such, his camaraderie with the judicial fraternity is limited and he will be looked upon as an ‘outsider’, even though the appointment of an Attorney General as a Chief Justice is considered an acceptable practice.
At the time of writing, the degree of confidence Peiris will command with his fellow judges is uncertain. There has already been speculation that the Supreme Court, as evidenced by its recent judgments fully endorses Chief Justice Bandaranayake. If this continues, Peiris will be isolated.
Among the tasks Peiris may have to undertake is to appoint judges to hear petitions against his own appointment. This bench will have an unenviable task on its hands because the Supreme Court has squashed the findings of the Parliamentary Select Committee probing Chief Justice Bandaranayake.
These would be daunting challenges for anyone, let alone an individual who has not been a judge previously. Peiris will of course rest assured that he has the full support of the executive and the legislature and will no doubt derive strength from this.
The greater question though is where Sri Lanka’s judicial independence and integrity will lie in the weeks and months ahead. Many will claim that it is in tatters now. Whether Mohan Peiris will be able to restore even a semblance of its previous dignity is a moot point.