NEW DELHI — Sri Lanka’s Parliament has initiated impeachment proceedings against the nation’s chief justice, in what critics have complained is an effort by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to curb the independence of the judiciary and consolidate his power.
The Parliament will now form a select committee to examine the 14 charges made public on Tuesday against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake of the Supreme Court. She is charged with misusing her position and failing to adequately declare her assets, among other accusations, in a case her supporters say is politically motivated.
The impeachment proceedings come amid rising tensions between the Supreme Court and Mr. Rajapaksa’s administration. Last week, the Supreme Court blocked efforts by the president to centralize certain powers at the expense of elected provincial councils. The government’s proposed change would have meant that one of the president’s brothers, a current cabinet minister, controlled more than $600 million in development money, according to one analysis.
For over a year, opposition parties and others have complained that Mr. Rajapaksa’s government has broadened its powers while cracking down on dissent and members of civil society, including journalists and lawyers.
“It’s very worrisome,” said M. A. Sumanthiran, an opposition member of Parliament and a lawyer who has challenged the government’s actions. “Now it looks like government, which controls both the executive and legislative branches, wants to control the judiciary.”
Bandula Jayasekara, a presidential spokesman, declined to discuss the specific accusations against the chief justice, but he said the opposition complaints were unfounded. He noted that impeachment proceedings against different chief justices had been brought twice before, when the government was controlled by other parties.
“These comments are made by losers,” Mr. Jayasekara said of the opposition parties, which he described as unpopular. “They are trying to take political mileage out of this.”
Sri Lanka endured more than two decades of brutal ethnic conflict between the Tamil Tiger insurgent group and the government, controlled by the island’s Sinhalese majority. The civil war ended in May 2009, but the country continues to struggle toward reconciliation. To many residents, Mr. Rajapaksa is a hero for winning the war. But his government has also faced accusations that soldiers committed atrocities against helpless civilians in the war’s final, bloody battle.
Mr. Rajapaksa, whose governing coalition dominates Parliament, was resoundingly re-electedto a second term in January 2010, and his supporters say his administration has restored peace to the island while also improving the economy. Yet international rights groups, as well as the United Nations, have expressed concerns about civil liberties, the treatment of the Tamil minority and official intimidation. In October, a gang of thugs attacked a judge days after he had spoken out about rising government pressure on the judiciary.
“The timing of the impeachment motion, just as the Supreme Court had challenged the government, certainly has raised some eyebrows,” Sam Zarifi, the Asia director of the International Commission of Jurists, said in a statement. This month, the group released a report documenting, among other things, a steady government effort to erode the independence of the judiciary.
The Obama administration, if eager to maintain a good relationship with Sri Lanka, especially given its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, has also expressed concerns about the government’s human rights record. In March, the United States pushed through a resolution before a United Nations human rights council that called on Sri Lanka to investigate the thousands of civilian deaths at the culmination of the civil war.
The United States State Department expressed concerns last week about the impeachment of the chief justice and called on the Sri Lankan government to address “outstanding issues” like the rule of law, democratic governance, accountability and reconciliation.
“We urge the government of Sri Lanka to avoid any action that would impede the efficacy and independence of Sri Lanka’s judiciary,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
My Sinhalese friends in Colombo tell me that now only they realise that the Tamil Pranahran is better than their Sinhala Prabaharan.