COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's highest court declared on Thursday that a parliament committee does not have the legal power to probe allegations of misuse of power and unexplained wealth against the country's chief justice, escalating a showdown between the Indian ocean island nation's legislature and the judiciary.
The case against Shirani Bandaranayake, the country's first female chief justice, has drawn local and international criticism as an attempt by the government to stifle the judiciary's independence.
In a ruling delivered Thursday, three Supreme Court judges have said that the Parliament Select Committee that investigated Banadaranayke "has no legal power or authority to make a finding adversely affecting the legal rights of a judge."
Government spokesman and Minister of Mass Media and Information Keheliya Rambukwella declined to comment on the ruling, saying "it's premature and unfair for me to comment" until the speaker of parliament expresses his views. The speaker will present his determination when the parliament meets next week, he added.
A parliamentary committee last month found Banadaranayke guilty of unexplained wealth and misuse of power and said she was unfit for office. Parliament is expected to vote for her impeachment when it convenes this month, and the president then could decide to dismiss or retain her.
Thursday's ruling came in response to several cases filed in the Appeal Court against the parliament committee. The 27-page ruling was read out in the Appeal Court which had earlier referred the cases to the higher Supreme Court .
The impeachment is seen as the culmination of a months-long dispute between the judiciary and the parliament, which President Mahinda Rajapaksa controls. The parliamentary speaker, Chamal Rajapaksa, is a brother of the president, as is a Cabinet minister whose powers were curtailed by a ruling from Bandaranayake.
The case has drawn international concern, including from the United States, and opposition party activists, lawyers and rights activists have protested that the impeachment process was unfair.
The U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, on Monday urged the authorities to reconsider the impeachment "due to the lack of due process and fair trial guarantees and to ensure that the judiciary can operate free from external pressures, threats or any interference."
Bandaranayake, her lawyers and four opposition lawmakers on the parliamentary committee walked out during a hearing on her case, saying it was unfair. Seven ruling party lawmakers delivered the verdict in their absence, which Bandaranayake told the court was illegal.
Bandaranayake was found guilty of not disclosing details of 20 bank accounts, buying a house for another person as an attorney and then taking judicial control of cases against the company that sold the property. She was also found to have a conflict of interest because she has supervisory powers over judges hearing a corruption case against her husband, who is a former state bank chairman.
She has denied the charges against her.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Bandaranayake in 2011, but the government became critical of her after she ordered that a proposed law giving vast powers to the economic development minister was illegal. The minister is President Rajapaksa's brother.
Bandaranayake has filed a case with Sri Lanka's Appeal Court, saying her conviction was unfair and asking the court to quash the parliamentary committee report.