Sri Lankan taxi drivers protest against top judge

AP News
Posted: Nov 30, 2012 4:51 AM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Hundreds of taxi drivers drove across Sri Lanka's capital Friday, demanding that the country's chief justice step down while parliament considers an impeachment bid against her.

About 500 drivers joined the protest, driving their three-wheel vehicles displaying banners that said "Shame - Madam Excellency" across the main roads in Colombo and highlighting the deepening conflict between the island nation's parliament and judiciary.

Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake has been accused of misusing power and having unexplained wealth. She denies any wrongdoing.

Opposition parties and independent analysts say the impeachment attempt is aimed at stifling judiciary independence and concentrating power with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Lalith Dharmasekera, chairman of drivers' union, said Bandaranayake should stop performing her duties as chief justice "until the probe ends."

The action by the drivers comes even though Sri Lanka's influential Buddhist monks, lawyers, trade unions and civil society activists have urged the government to withdraw the motion, saying it threatens the judiciary's independence.

The impeachment motion was submitted a month ago calling for a Parliament Select Committee to investigate 14 charges and remove Bandaranayake. Parliamentary Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, who is the president's brother, announced the setting up of the committee two weeks ago.

The United Nations, the United States and rights groups have expressed concerns about the motion, which follows months of conflict between parliament and the judiciary.

Bandaranayake came under strong government criticism after she ruled that legislation giving more power to Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, another brother of the president, violated the constitution.

On Thursday, Chamal Rajapaksa rejected notices from the Court of Appeal ordering him and the lawmakers on the committee to appear before the court.

He said the notices were "an unwarranted interference with the powers and procedures of parliament, and are invalid."

The impeachment 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.

It also accuses Bandaranayake of not declaring the contents of 20 bank accounts, including four containing the equivalent of 34 million rupees ($260,000), and alleges 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 Rajapaksa for further action. With his ruling coalition controlling more than two-thirds of Parliament's seats, such a motion is expected to be carried easily.