COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s parliament speaker on Thursday rejected a supreme court summons to a parliamentary panel looking into a move to impeach the chief justice, deepening a crisis that has raised concern about the independence of the country’s judiciary.
The stand-off in the south Asian state has raised the risk of a destabilizing clash between the judiciary and President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.
The two have been on a collision course since Rajapaksa’s party filed an impeachment motion against Shirani Bandaranayake, Sri Lanka’s first female head of the Supreme Court, on November 6.
Relations between the chief justice and Rajapaksa have been deteriorating for months, with the government complaining that she has been overstepping her authority and Bandaranayake’s supporters complaining of political interference.
The Supreme Court summoned the speaker and the 11-member parliamentary committee to hear cases filed by lawyers and civil society advocates challenging the legality of the impeachment and the composition of the panel.
In response, parliament speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, who is the president’s elder brother, told parliament: ”I declare that the purported notices, issued to me and to the members of the select committee, are a nullity and entail no legal consequences.
“I wish to make it clear that this ruling of mine as the speaker of parliament will apply to any similar purported notice, order or determination in respect of the proceedings of the committee, which will continue solely and exclusively under the authority of parliament.”
The committee, which includes seven ruling party legislators, is looking into charges ranging from undeclared assets to violating constitutional provisions.
Chrishmal Warnasuriya, one of the lawyers appearing for the chief justice, said neither parliament nor the Supreme Court was superior to the other.
“Similar to the parliament saying the Supreme Court can’t give directives to parliament, the parliament must also realize that the Supreme Court also can’t take directives from them. These are two similar organs of the government,” he said, adding that a constitutional crisis could be brewing.
The United States, United Nations and the Commonwealth have raised concern over the impeachment move and have called on the government to ensure the independence of the judiciary.
Sri Lanka’s four most influential Buddhist monks wrote to the president asking him to think about the ill effect of the attempt and take steps to safeguard the independence of the judiciary.
Buddhism is the main religion according to the constitution and followed by over 70 percent of the 20 million Sri Lankans.
“The majority of the people think that the impeachment motion against the chief justice will lead to a disenchantment with all branches of the judiciary,” they said in the latter.
Bandaranayake recently came under criticism from government supporters for ruling against a bid by the central government to take control of an 80 billion rupees ($614.20 million) development budget, saying it had to be approved by the country’s nine provincial councils.
The block on the bill irked the government and its backers, some of whom accused the judiciary of exceeding its writ.
Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Mark Heinrich