Last week, Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice (who holds the highest position in the judicial system and heads the Supreme Court), attended the first day of a hearing to impeach her. On Thursday she walked out as it became increasingly clear she would not get a fair hearing.
She is accused of 14 charges of financial impropriety and misusing power. The 11 member parliamentary committee is made up of seven government and four opposition lawmakers.
This is the latest event in a series demonstrating the Rajapaksa regime`s attempts to subordinate the judiciary of Asia`s oldest democracy. The underlying theme appears to be the Divi Neguma Bill. This aims to combine three governmental bodies which focus on development (the Samurdhi Authority of Sri Lanka, the Udarata Development Authority and the Southern Authority), to form one called the Department of Divi Neguma Development.
The department would function under the Ministry of Economic Development – headed by Basil Rajapaksa. Overall, the Bill is considered to give him and his department power over the development of the entire Island – by removing some authority already devolved to the provinces and thus diluting the 13th (devolution) amendment of the constitution. Thus the Supreme Court stopped the Divi Neguma Bill passing – stating that its passage required the sanction of every provincial council and that the Northern Council could not give this sanction until fresh elections have been held.
On the 7th October, Manjula Tillekaratne, the secretary of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) was admitted to hospital, following an attack by unidentified persons. Following the stalling of the Divi Neguma Bill, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had, allegedly, requested a meeting with the Chief Justice and other members of the JSC. The meeting had been denied, citing the independence of the judiciary.
There followed a state-controlled print and electronic media campaign against the Chief Justice and other members of the JSC – who are also sitting Supreme Court Justices.
The JSC themselves issued a statement condemning the attacks them and suggested that they had been subject to intimidation. There were further protests by judges and lawyers in late September.
Other opponents of the Devi Neguma Bill have also found themselves under attack. On the 15th October posters appear in Colombo in Singhalese with the following translation
“Let us save the pro-people Divineguma Act that builds the lives of fifteen lakhs of low income families from the Paikiasothy gang that aids and abets the separation of the country.”
The reference to the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Aternatives (CPA) (a think tank in Colombo), Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, is to be understood in the context of the CPA’s challenge to the constitutionality of the bill on a number of substantive and procedural grounds. The very same day the CPA were also subject to an unusual visit from the military, who had apparently been informed that the CPA’s address was related to the Election Department, which they were investigating. The CPA were themselves unable to understand why the military would be involved in such an enquiry.
The breakdown of the rule of law in Sri Lanka is certainly neither new, nor isolated to the above. Indeed, the threatened impeachment, attacks upon the judiciary and the poster campaign against Dr Paikiasothy, are merely indicative of a pre-existing but growing malaise. The executive’s role in the above and inertia in addressing them suggests a worsening intolerance towards restraints on its ambitions and critics – even if those are the law, its upholders and therefore, democracy itself.
The consequences are likely to be devastating and against the interests of all Sri Lankan citizens – except the ones to profit financially. With erosion of the rule of law, perpetrators will be free to continue committing crimes, victims will be unable to receive justice. Even the methodology of the flawed Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report depends on an impartial judiciary for peace and stability.
The international community and the United Nations have been repeatedly criticised for failing to intervene in Sri Lanka’s troubled affairs. Even the Commonwealth secretary-general has made a public statement regarding the impeachment. A recent report was made on the future the Commonwealth by a Foreign Affairs Committee stated that:
This seems to be their chance to right that wrong.