Professor S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole
Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, our Chief Justice, is being threatened with impeachment. I got to know her personally when I was organizing an Ethics Seminar for SLAAS in 2003. I was looking for someone who could speak with authority on Human Rights in Education. Several people encouraged her name and told me that I would be lucky if she agreed. To my pleasant surprise, she readily agreed and called me to her chambers at the Supreme Court.
My daughter who was highly motivated just hearing about a woman Supreme Court Justice, tagged along. She spoke to my daughter personally, encouraging her in her studies and my daughter went on to specialize in Gender and Society at Ivy League Universities.
In my book Enforcing Human Rights: Towards an Egalitarian Sri Lanka, published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (2003), Justice Bandaranayake’s chapter received a prominent place.
What then is this foul business about impeaching one of our brightest minds – a Chevening Scholar, Fulbright-Hays Fellow, British Council Assert Awardee, Zonta Woman of Achievement and a lot more? When she was inducted on to the highest bench by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga from University of Colombo, it was said that Prof. G.L. Peiris who had once been Professor of Law there, was her strongest advocate. Today, this same Prof. Peiris has turned against her. We have a constitution, he assures us, that allows impeachment by a simple majority in Parliament and that it is all legal. Prof. Peiris who, my friend Carlo Fonseka once told me has the best resume in Sri Lanka among us academics, is letting himself and his reputation down badly by making public speeches on various subjects ranging from UNHCR matters (last year and again now) to the 13th amendment to foreign ministry matters that are contradicted by his government colleagues. Thus, few take him seriously any more. It is as though he will say anything as commanded to play the government’s good-cop/bad-cop intrigues.
Minister Peiris’ justifying the proposed impeachment as constitutional is unbecoming when the least intelligent of us can sense that this sudden finding fault with the CJ is vindictiveness and that a simple majority in Parliament (always available to a sitting government) removing the CJ only points to a terrible constitution rather than legal propriety. Indeed, the fact that the two parties of the government with some remnants of principled behaviour, CP (Moscow) and the LSSP, have asked their members not to sign the petition for impeachment, should be enough indication to us all that the government is wrong about the accusations against the CJ and is trying to instill fear and thereby exercise control over us.
I grew up in Sri Lanka, proud of my country. Many of my vintage would remember the things we were proud of – the University of Ceylon with its world class postgraduate level training for undergraduates, educated gentlemen MPs like Pieter Keuneman and SJV Chelvanayagam, judges who could not be manipulated, brave newspaper editors like Reggie Michael and Mervyn de Silva (even if we do not agree with all they wrote), civil servants like Permanent Secretary Murugeysen Rajendra who – when asked by his Minister of Finance what he thought he was doing in taxing the minister’s daughter-in-law’s sports car import – could reply “Upholding the law,” radio broadcasters like Tim Horshington, etc. I can go on. We produced giants. We were proud of our democracy and institutions.
Today, I do not think I have to list the present state of affairs for the reader. In my own world, academic standards have collapsed. Everything good seems gone. Once-liberal newspaper editors, now scared, cut sections of my articles that are too critical of the government. An editor whom I used to write for has been killed and two have gone into exile because of threats. Once loquacious friends are fearful of writing anything critical of the government in emails after a Dialog employee among us said that intelligence officials tap into email there. With that, friends do not even like to talk politics on the phone. A trustworthy source personally saw displaced Tamils in Kokilai in the Vanni with title deeds to their lands unable to claim their lands which had been sold by very high government personages to a foreign company; even as once vocal NGOs were too scared to even listen to their stories. Elections are rigged and a TNA campaigner murdered while the identified EPDP murderer was let out on bail to travel to England where he lives in luxury.
In all these, the judicial branch despite its many failures, is the only bulwark against encroachments by the executive. Despite all of Sri Lanka’s troubles, it is people like Justice Bandaranayake who still make Sri Lanka feel like home to us and safeguard our rights. These moves against the judiciary, we see culminating in the latest salvo against her because of her recent judgement.
The attack on the judiciary has been a slow, creeping insidious process. In Jaffna I have seen a magistrate asking MPs to help her be a high court judge and sitting with Douglas Devananda on the stage at his political meetings. With these controversies Jaffna now has a rival bar association run by Devananda’s legal advisor, and few lawyers will come forward to represent a client in a political case. Communal feelings let loose by this government have taken their toll as when the Bar Association resolved against the Ban Ki Moon Panel, condemning its report as cooked up despite plenty of evidence as to its veracity, thereby making lawyers an extension of the government’s communalism. The climate of fear and patronage led to Tamil Vice Chancellors and Hindu leaders also signing statements against the report.
We can be sure that if these moves against the CJ prevail, no judgement on political matters will ever again be against the government. Our fears will become more acute and oppressive, making us obedient. The CP and the LSSP must speak up against the impeachment – mere abstention is cowardly. All right thinking people must stand up.