Cracking a Nut with a Sledgehammer
One of the most obvious traits of a wise man is that he or she does not try to reinvent the wheel and learns from the mistakes of others. It appears that Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa does not fall in this category as he is bent upon making the mistake that General Musharraf made in Pakistan. President Rajapaksa first dismissed the Army Chief and incarcerated him and now desires to impeach the first female head of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.
On November 23, she appeared for the first time before a parliamentary select committee considering an impeachment motion against her filed by the government. Just like in Pakistan, the proceeding has raised the risk of a destabilizing clash between the government and the judiciary and lawyers.
There are 14 charges against the Chief Justice, including the allegation that she misused her position and failed to adequately declare her assets. Her supporters of course say that the accusations are politically motivated and see it as an attempt by the President to curb the independence of the judiciary and consolidate his power.
The tension between the judiciary and the President is rising. Just a few days before the start of the impeachment proceedings, 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.
President Rajapaksa’s governing coalition dominates the Parliament. He was re-elected to a second term in January 2010. His critics lament that the President is constantly trying to broaden his powers. His government already controls both the executive and legislative branches, and according to the critics, he now wants to control the judiciary.
The fact is that the background to the impeachment process is not as innocent as it may appear, just as it was the case with the Musharraf’s attempt to disqualify Pakistan’s Chief Justice. Prior to the current crisis, the Supreme Court bench, of which the Chief Justice was the head, declared some Bills submitted to it by the government as being in conflict with the Constitution. This move has been seen by almost everyone as the reason behind the impeachment.
The Chief Justice does not see the constitutional process dealing with impeachment as a just and fair one. The UN Rapporteur for the Independence of Lawyers and Judges and many international authorities have expressed serious concerns about the impeachment issue and have requested the government to reconsider the matter.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur, while expressing serious concerns about reported intimidation and attacks against judges, warned that they might form part of a pattern of attacks, threats reprisals and interference in the independence of the justice system in Sri Lanka.
The US State Department spokesperson said that the move would impede the efficacy and independence of Sri Lanka’s judiciary, and stated, “it seems to me rather like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. What makes it worse is that those responsible for the impeachment motion seem to be going after the wrong nut.”
The crisis is further complicated by the fact that some of the judges other than the Chief Justice who have dared to challenge the government’s writ or even expressed any sort of disagreement have been beaten. The Rajapaksa’s government has failed to take adequate measures to ensure the physical and mental integrity of the judiciary and allow them to perform their professional duties without any restrictions, pressures, threats or interferences. Why does it sound so familiar to us in Pakistan?