Sri Lanka: defending democracy as chief justice impeached

By Savi Hensman
January 16, 2013

Sri Lanka is facing a constitutional crisis after the chief justice was impeached, in a process ruled unlawful by the supreme court. The bid by cabinet members to replace her with one of their own legal advisers has been widely criticised as an attack on the independence of the judiciary. Pro-democracy activists are challenging the move, despite the danger they face from an increasingly dictatorial regime.

Chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake’s problems began in late 2012. She ruled that a bill that would have given more power to the economic development minister could not be passed by parliament without provincial councils’ approval. The minister, Basil Rajapakse, is part of a powerful family that dominates Sri Lanka: the president, defence secretary and speaker of parliament are his brothers.

Bandaranayake found herself facing impeachment, supposedly on the grounds of misusing her power and failing to declare her assets. The process was ruled unlawful by the supreme court. But those in charge were intent on removing her, and pressed ahead.

In January 2013, parliament voted to impeach her, and the president declared that she was no longer chief justice, though many lawyers disagreed. Cabinet legal adviser Mohan Pieris was appointed. The Centre for Policy Alternmatives and its executive director Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, with the assistance of lawyer and MP MA Sumanthiran, petitioned the supreme court to stop Pieris from acting as chief justice – a brave move in a country where dissent is sometimes met by violence.

If judicial independence and the rule of law are undermined, this leaves ordinary people with little protection against tyranny by the most powerful. Top ministers’ attempts to silence dissent endanger the people and undermine hopes of a peaceful, democratic and diverse Sri Lanka.

But those who resist, seeking to restore the checks and balances which are being removed, promote human rights and justice locally and internationally.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a long-standing Christian commentator on religion and politics, Anglican affairs, theology and LGBT issues. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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