- Post 13 January 2013
- By Frances Harrison
It’s been frustrating to watch the international reporting of the story of the impeachment of Sri Lanka’s top judge. Some reports have got bogged down in the issue of whether or not she is guilty of corruption. That’s not the issue at stake.
This is a story about rule of law – about whether the country’s politicians will heed the ruling of the highest court in the land. If they don’t, then there’s little hope for the future.
'Alice in Wonderland'
The Chief Justice is an unlikely rebel. She interpreted the law in a way that challenged the growing powers of the ruling family. Her persecution thereafter has been clearly politically motivated.
An extraordinary Alice in Wonderland process was put in motion to teach her a lesson – with parliamentarians openly abusing the island’s top judge as a mad woman and only granting her lawyers access to the huge stack of papers indicting her the day before the hearing.
Not surprisingly international watchdogs condemned the entire process as unfair. The Appeal Court and the Supreme Court in Sri Lanka also ruled that the impeachment procedure illegal and void. Lawyers went on strike, issued statements and unfurled black flags to mourn the passing away of justice.
The parliament which is controlled by the ruling Rajapaksa family moved to rubber stamp the illegal impeachment on Friday. Many of the MPs that made up the two-thirds majority had been elected on a different ticket but had been induced to cross over to join the ruling clique.
Erosion of the checks and balances
Soon Sri Lanka may bizarrely have two Chief Justices. If the President appoints a replacement, lawyers say he or she will be a usurper. Reports suggest the existing Chief Justice is continuing to fill her diary as if it’s business as usual.
Sri Lanka is not suddenly on an anti corruption drive – far from it. This is an executive not brooking any challenge – even from the Judiciary. It is the erosion of the checks and balances integral to democracy.
Arcane and legalistic as this story may seem to outsiders, the impeachment has become a turning point for Sri Lankan civil society groups in the capital Colombo. Most opted for engagement with the government after the brutal end to the civil war in 2009, hoping victory against the Tamil Tiger rebels would give them some space to improve human rights. Some even played down the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by their own army in 2009, preferring denial but calling it pragmatism. UN reports revealed first 40,000 deaths and then possibly 70,000 deaths but inside the country the priorities were development, reconciliation, land rights, rehabilitation, building roads – everything except truth and justice the bedrock of the future.
A taste of own medicine
The mistreatment of the Chief Justice has brought home to Sri Lankans from the majority community that even the most senior lawmaker in the land cannot be guaranteed a fair trial. Suddenly the denial of justice seems closer to home. Unsurprisingly Tamils in the diaspora are saying that now the majority Sinhalese community are beginning to get a taste of their own medicine.
As an author of a book of survivors’ stories from the appallingly brutal climax of the war in 2009, I wonder why there hasn’t been equal alarm about the injustice then: deliberate shelling of hospitals and food queues, summary executions of bound and naked prisoners, gang rape in police custody, systematic torture in detention and disappearance of people who were seen surrendering to the army. The treatment of the Chief Justice is indeed a symbol of how bad things have got, but hundreds of thousands of Tamils went through far worse injustice and no lawyer or human rights activist unfurled black flags for them.
Frances Harrison is a former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka and the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War, published by Portobello Books (UK), House of Anansi (Canada) and Penguin ( India).