Chief Justice – Shirani Bandaranayake

It is ironic that, having been the only government Member of Parliament to complain over the year of the failure of the Judiciary to administer justice either effectively or efficiently, I seem now to be the only one who thinks impeaching the Chief Justice would be a mistake. This struck me when Ravaya was interviewing me about the matter, which was when I also realized how quickly history is forgotten, and in particular the perversion of justice that this Constitution seems to have entrenched.

My first active political intervention in this country occurred when I resigned from my job with Peradeniya University to protest the manner in which Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights had been taken away for seven years, the maximum punishment possible under the law. That was the most egregious instance of Parliament acting as a judicial body, and it was a horrifying sight. I can still recall then Prime Minister Premadasa claiming that one reason to punish Mrs Bandaranaike was because she was an example of absolute power corrupting  absolutely. He said this with no sense of irony while nearly 140 government parliamentarians cheered and jeered. The TULF had left the chamber, so Mrs Bandaranaike had barely half a dozen supporters, and the dignity she displayed on that occasion has remained the most impressive of my political memories.

Tried by members of the judiciary handpicked by President Jayewardene

The manner in which Mrs Bandaranaike was condemned shows the perversity of both the judiciary and the legislature. She was tried by members of the judiciary, two Supreme Court judges and one judge of the Court of Appeal, handpicked by President Jayewardene who then claimed that the judgment against her was made by senior judges. Before that he had shown exactly what he thought of judicial independence, in that he had sacked all judges through his new Constitution, and only appointed to the bench those he thought would play ball with him. Thus brilliant intellects such as Noel Tittawella were left out, and characters such as Joe Weeraratne, known to be dim if devoted, made the Bench. President Jayewardene then appointed him to the Special Presidential Commission to try Mrs Bandaranaike.

Jayewardene promptly amended his Constitution to prevent such appeals.

Jayewardene promptly amended his Constitution to prevent such appeals.

But worse was to come. Mrs Bandaranaike’s lawyers appealed for a Writ to halt the grindstone, and this was granted. Jayewardene promptly amended his Constitution to prevent such appeals. This provision was made retrospective, which made clear his total contempt for judicial process as well as his own Constitution, which prohibited retrospective legislation. He had indicated earlier that he did not take such matters seriously, in that Mrs Bandaranaike was charged with actions that did not constitute an offence when they were alleged to have been committed.

The Special Presidential Commission was chaired by Justice Sharvananda who was subsequently made Chief Justice, leapfrogging Raja Wanasundara who was renowned for integrity as well as independence. Sharvananda went on to become Governor of a Province, in the first outrageous example of a judge accepting a further office of profit, in effect putting paid to the idea of judges being immune from such temptations.

...putting paid to the idea of judges being immune from such temptations.

…putting paid to the idea of judges being immune from such temptations.

So Mrs Bandaranaike was found guilty of four charges, with the judges pronouncing on decisions which obviously were the prerogative of the executive. The effrontery with which they presumed to judge how the executive should have responded to an armed insurrection was matched only by the sycophancy with which they found her guilty of a charge pertaining to the treatment of President Jayewardene’s son while he was in prison.

Though she was cleared of the majority of the charges, Parliament decided to go for the maximum penalty possible, namely expulsion from Parliament and deprivation of Civic Rights for 7 years. Jayewardene clearly had no qualms about making it clear that his principal purpose was political, namely to prevent her from standing against him at the next Presidential election, due in 1984 (in fact he later changed the Constitution yet again, in an equally cynical move based on his declining popularity, to enable him to advance the date of the Presidential election, with the ridiculous provision that an incumbent would take office at a later date than any challenger who might have won).

I am not sure if my distaste for impeachment is based on my continuing abhorrence of what Jayewardene did in 1980, and my knowledge of the appalling consequences of such a cynical use of power both for himself and the country. I know quite well that Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Shirani Bandaranayake are very different characters, and that the latter has not behaved with the dignity and the discretion that her position required, even though since the impeachment was mooted she has corrected the worst of her errors. But I do believe that Parliament must be very careful about using powers it has conferred on itself, by law or by Standing Orders, and that justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done, by whatever body sits in judgment.

Colombo Telegraph 15 Dec 2012