Updated at: 01/16/2013 2:07 PM
By BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI
(AP) COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - The International Commission of Jurists has condemned the appointment of a trusted aide of Sri Lanka’s president as the country’s chief justice and urged the government to reinstate the former top judge who was fired after a highly criticized impeachment process.
The group denounced the appointment of Mohan Peiris, a retired attorney general and a legal adviser to the Cabinet, as chief justice, saying it "raises serious concerns about the future of the rule of law and accountability" and is "a further assault on the independence of the judiciary."
Peiris was sworn in before President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday, two days after Shirani Bandaranayake was dismissed as chief justice after a parliamentary committee found her guilty of having unexplained wealth and misusing power.
Bandaranayake denied the charges and accused the tribunal of not giving her a fair hearing. Courts have ruled in her favor, but the president and Parliament ignored the rulings.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Sri Lanka has not given a satisfactory explanation for the impeachment "in terms of protecting democracy." But she told a news briefing it was too soon to say what impact it would have on U.S. foreign assistance to Sri Lanka, budgeted to total $16.5 million in 2013.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the impeachment "appeared to be highly politicized and lacking transparency," adding that Canada would continue to raise its concerns directly with Sri Lanka and through resolutions at the United Nations and the Commonwealth.
Media in Canada have raised the possibility of Canada boycotting this year’s Commonwealth leaders’ meeting to be held in Sri Lanka, citing concerns about Colombo’s commitment to human rights and democracy since the country’s long civil war ended in 2009.
Rajapaksa’s critics say appointing a confidant to the post of chief justice gives him control over the judiciary as well as Parliament, where more than two-thirds of the 225 members support him.
Peiris has been prominent in defending Rajapaksa’s government from allegations of human rights violations and enforced disappearances.
"Mohan Peiris’ appointment as the new chief justice, after a politically compromised and procedurally flawed impeachment, adds serious insult to the gross injury already inflicted on Sri Lanka’s long suffering judiciary," Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Asia director, said in a statement on the group’s website.
He said during Peiris’ tenure as attorney general and the government’s top legal adviser, he "consistently blocked efforts to hold the government responsible for serious human rights violations and disregarded international law and standards."
Critics say replacing the chief justice is part of an effort to consolidate the government’s power in the hands of the president’s family. Rajapaksa’s older brother is the parliamentary speaker, and two of his younger brothers hold the powerful positions of economic development minister and defense secretary. Rajapaksa’s eldest son is a lawmaker.
Many prominent lawyers in Sri Lanka have already said they still recognize Bandaranayake as the chief justice and have written to senior judges urging them not to recognize a new appointee.
On Tuesday, a local political think tank, the Center for Policy Alternatives, and its executive director filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging Peiris’ appointment.
Bandaranayake said in a statement Tuesday that she was still the legitimate chief justice of Sri Lanka, but that she decided to leave her official residence and office, fearing violence.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)