The move to impeach the Chief Justice (CJ) and the prison riot at Welikada in which a number of prisoners died, have aroused considerable public interest over the recent past. The Government’s reactions and actions have come under the scrutiny of the people in what seems like an unofficial referendum. But public interest and scrutiny must be sustained consistently if the Judge and the judged are to receive the justice they are both entitled to.
Different but equal
The persons connected with these happenings belong to two very different worlds. One is a prominent figure holding very high public office; the others are a mass of faceless and excluded persons. One interprets the law and dispenses justice; the others have been judged and sentenced under this same law. One has access to the best legal advice, skills and competence; the others are deprived of such resources.
On principle however, the CJ and the prisoners come under the same law and must be equally protected from any distortion of justice. Ironically, it is the judicial power that the one commands that makes her a threat; and the social powerlessness that the others convey that make them dispensable. But justice requires that neither this power nor this powerlessness should be allowed to work to their disadvantage.
The responsibility to act justly
The Circumstances surrounding the impeachment of the CJ are worrying. Most of the fourteen charges could have been raised long before, but were not. Something recently provoked the impeachment and public opinion suggests that this in all probability was the Supreme Court ruling, interpreted as defiance. Consequently the objective of the impeachment is questionable. Is it to ensure a clean CJ or a tame CJ?
Also questionable is the procedure being adopted. For instance, representatives of a government that already believes there are valid charges for an impeachment comprise the majority on the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) which will also make the judgement. This simply does not sound right.
In these circumstances it is still not too late for the government to consider one of two options. The first is to avoid the escalation of a national crisis by withdrawing the impeachment and resolving any differences with the CJ through conversations; so that our national energy could be directed towards more important internal and external challenges. If on the other hand it still wants to proceed with the impeachment, the shortcomings in procedure should be rectified and the principles of justice set in place. If it is the latter, the members of the PSC will be obliged as representatives of the people to take on to themselves a national responsibility and rise above any partisan expectations. It will only be then that the CJ, who according to media reports is ready to defend herself, will have a fair and even chance of doing so.
Prisoners are also human
The Welikada riot in which prisoners took to violence is unacceptable and must be condemned. All security personnel injured while exercising their duty to quell the riot, and their families should receive the care, appreciation and prayers of the nation. Allegations of corruption in the Prisons system and the need for an effective grievance resolution mechanism for prisoners will also have to be addressed by impartial and competent persons without delay.
Of immediate importance however is the need to ensure justice for the prisoners killed in the riot and their families. That they were persons already judged, convicted and often socially despised, does not mean they and their families can be denied justice.
The truth about the causes of the riot and very particularly whether those killed died in a shootout or otherwise, has to be ascertained by an impartial commission and divulged to the nation. If it transpires that some of these deaths could have been avoided those responsible will have to be dealt with under the law.
A just promise
All citizens of our beloved Sri Lanka belong somewhere within this range of power and powerlessness. This is why what happens to the judge and the judged matters to us all; and this is why an accountable and independent CJ within an accountable and independent judiciary are of monumental importance for the nation today.
They together hold a promise of justice for the Judge and the judged, the powerful and powerless, each so vulnerable and excluded in their different ways.