COLOMBO – Sri Lanka’s parliament Friday began an impeachment hearing against the country’s chief justice, defying a Supreme Court request for a suspension of proceedings, official sources told AFP.
Shirani Bandaranayake, the first woman to be Sri Lanka’s top judge, went before a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) for the first time to answer allegations of financial and official misconduct, sources said.
After nearly three hours of closed-door talks, the PSC scheduled the next hearing for December 4 and turned down her request for more time to prepare a full defense, a source told AFP, asking not to be named.
The Supreme Court had on Thursday asked the parliament to consider suspending the impeachment move pending hearings into nine cases challenging the legality of the moves to sack 54-year-old Bandaranayake.
“All government MPs in the PSC voted to deny the Supreme Court request to suspend the proceedings,” an opposition legislator told AFP, asking for anonymity because he was not authorized to talk.
The government reacted angrily to Thursday’s Supreme Court call to hold the impeachment and warned that the judiciary should not interfere in the legislature’s move to sack the chief justice.
“We as government MPs ask the Supreme Court not to intervene in this impeachment process,” Minister of Productivity Development Lakshman Seneviratne told a hurriedly summoned press conference in parliament.
High Education Minister S. B. Dissanayake warned the judiciary against commenting on the impeachment.
“The judiciary has started talking about it, discussing it, holding processions and picketing, but we remained silent all this time,” Dissanayake said.
“Now we want to give the country our side of the story to the media… We hope the judiciary will give their support by remaining silent.”
Rights groups have said the impeachment is the latest sign of efforts by President Mahinda Rajapakse to tighten his grip on power after crushing the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009 at the end of a decades-long war.
The Supreme Court irked Rajapakse last month with a decision that effectively scuppered a bill giving more powers to the economic development minister, who is the president’s younger brother Basil.
Bandaranayake, whose husband was also charged recently with corruption while holding a political appointment as the head of a state-owned bank, has denied the financial wrongdoing alleged in the impeachment.
She declined to comment as she arrived at parliament to go before the PSC, which has a total of 11 members — seven from the government side and four from the opposition. She was accompanied by six lawyers.
The ruling party has more than the required simple majority in the 225-member assembly to impeach Bandaranayake, who would otherwise have another 11 years as chief justice.
The move to sack her was initiated by the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance, which also dominates the PSC.
The United States has joined other international voices in expressing concern over the impeachment. Sri Lankan lawyers have united in urging the authorities to ensure “due process” in any action against the judge.