Sri Lanka chief justice faces impeachment hearing

Sri Lanka's chief justice on Friday attended the first day of a parliamentary hearing investigating an impeachment motion that accuses her of misusing power and having unexplained wealth.

Lawyers shouted slogans condemning the motion and cheered for Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake as she left the Supreme Court and drove to the parliament to face an 11-member committee that is probing 14 charges against her. The committee is made up of seven government lawmakers and four from the opposition.

She appeared with her lawyers and remained in front of the committee about 90 minutes, said parliament officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Her lawyers declined to comment after the hearing when questioned by journalists.

Bandaranayake has denied any wrongdoing, and opposition parties and independent analysts say the impeachment attempt is aimed at stifling judiciary independence and concentrating power with Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

On Friday, lawyers smashed coconuts, in front of the supreme court, a symbolic request seeking divine intervention to halt the impeachment process.

"We urge the government to withdraw this motion and restore the independence of the judiciary," said lawyer Sunil Watagala. He said the motion is "clearly a politically motivated one" which threatens the judiciary's independence.

Watagala said the legal community will hold public meetings countrywide to seek public support.

The motion was submitted three weeks ago calling for a Parliament Select Committee to investigate 14 charges and remove Bandaranayake. It alleged her actions had "plunged the Supreme Court and the office of chief justice into disrepute."

Parliamentary Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, who is the president's brother, announced the setting up of the committee last week.

Bandarananyake has said she "can easily refute" the allegations. She said she will continue to discharge her duties impartially in accordance with the law.

The complaint alleges Bandaranayake did not disclose how she obtained 19 million rupees ($146,000) to pay for a house purchased under power of attorney for another person. It also alleges that she took control of several cases filed against the company that sold the property after removing the judges who originally heard them.

The motion accuses Bandaranayake of not declaring the contents of 20 bank accounts, including four foreign currency accounts containing the equivalent of 34 million rupees ($260,000), and alleges that she misused her position to harass other judges.

If the committee determines that the complaint has merit, an impeachment motion will be voted on and forwarded to President Mahinda Rajapaksa for further action. With his ruling coalition controlling more than two-thirds of Parliament's seats, the motion is expected to be carried easily.

The impeachment motion follows months of conflict between Parliament and the judiciary.

The secretary of the Judicial Services Commission, Manjula Thilakaratne, was assaulted last month after he said that powerful people were trying to interfere with its work and with judges, and that their families were under threat.

Opposition parties accused the government of involvement in the attack, but the government denied responsibility.

Bandaranayake came under strong government criticism after she ruled that a government bill violated the constitution. The bill seeks to give wider powers to Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, another brother of the president.

Rights groups and United States have expressed concerns about the motion.

Last week, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, urged authorities to "reconsider" the motion and ensure that proper due process is carried out.