11/12/2012, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Sri Lankan bishops call on the government to respect courts' independence

by Melani Manel Perera
The Bishops' Conference warns parliament over Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake's impeachment. The motion against her does not mention what offences she allegedly committed. Civil society groups and Catholic and Buddhist leaders have criticised the motion, viewed as an attempt to interfere with the justice system. Bishops say that executive, legislative and judicial powers must remain separated.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - The independence of Sri Lanka's justice system is under threat, this according to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL), following the parliament's decision to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake (pictured), the first woman to hold that post.

The motion to impeach the chief judge was sponsored by the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition, and signed by 117 Members of Parliament. The speaker of the house accepted it.

The impeachment lists 14 charges, ranging from undeclared assets to unspecified violations of constitutional provisions, accusations that Justice Bandaranayake rejects.

Civil society groups, Catholic and Buddhist leaders and the international community have criticised the motion, saying that it constitutes an attempt by the government to interfere with the judiciary.

In a statement issued by the Current Affairs Committee of the Archdiocese of Colombo under the guidance of Card Malcolm Ranjith, Sri Lanka's bishops write, "We wait with anxiety to read the charges against" Ms Bandaranayake. "We hope that the motion is not motivated by any displeasure caused by" certain judgments that went against the government, but by actual "acts of misconduct."

Recently, the Supreme Court stopped the central government's attempt to shift powers from the provinces to the centre. In another case, the chief justice delayed a law that would place money directly under the Economic Development Ministry, Basil Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's brother.

"Under our constitution, parliament can impeach a judge for misconduct," the bishops write. But "Our charter places the sovereignty in the people, not parliament." However, "Unlike presidential regimes, where there is a clear institutional separation between legislative, executive and judicial power," in Sri Lanka "parliament exercises judicial power through the courts."

"Constitutional authorities consider such separation of powers as essential to safeguard the independence of the judiciary. These deficiencies in our constitution require reform sooner rather than later."

For the Archdiocese's Current Affairs Committee, the chief justice "should be given the same rights under the law allowed to any ordinary citizen who is accused of a crime. These include the opportunity to defend herself, to be represented by counsel, to cross examine witnesses".

What is more, "We also hope that this impeachment motion would not distract the attention of the Government from more pressing problems of reconciliation between the communities and the implementation of a political solution to the grievances of the Tamil people."

The constitution of Sri Lanka gives the president the power to appoint the chief justice but not the power to remove him or her from office. Only parliament can do that, as in the Bandaranayake case.

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