Mohan Peiris’s sullied credentials enabled his ouster

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The debacle surrounding the sacking of Mohan Peiris as Chief Justice has brought in its wake howls of protest but the Government moved decisively last week to oust him, ending three weeks of speculation regarding the highest office in the judiciary in the country.

Restoring the ‘privileges’ of the 43rd Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka were campaign pledges given by President Maithripala Sirisena. While the latter was done by decree, the former proved to be a constitutional conundrum.

Initially, there were expectations that Peiris would resign especially in light of the fact that he was seen at Temple Trees on election night by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Peiris’s conduct was questionable and unbecoming of his office even if there was no coup in the making.

Peiris’s parallel in the financial sector, Central Bank Governor Nivaard Cabraal submitted his resignation at the first hint that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would lose the election. Initial thinking within the new government was that Peiris should be allowed to retire with dignity.

Unfortunately, Peiris chose not to and the clock was ticking on the President’s ‘100-day’ plan. That is when the matter was discussed with him. He indicated his willingness to resign in return for a diplomatic posting for which he indicated his preferred overseas stations!

This did not endear him to the government but it was willing to accommodate Peiris in their bid to resolve this vexatious issue. A premature media announcement regarding his imminent resignation by government spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne upset these plans. Then, Peiris refused to resign. government was faced with a delicate dilemma. They could have impeached Peiris. His presence at Temple Trees provided sufficient grounds to do so. However, it would have been a time consuming procedure that would take several months, well beyond the 100-day period.

In the meantime, if the new government embarked on this collision course with Peiris, there was a danger that he would sabotage the proposed constitutional reforms in President Sirisena’s manifesto, effectively scuttling the ‘100 day’ plan in the period leading up to the general election.

There were also concerns that if this were to happen, influential personalities in the Rajapaksa camp would prevail upon Peiris to resist, holding out the hope that with constitutional reforms blocked, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa could make a political comeback.

With such fears growing and under pressure from the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), senior lawyers advised President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to act swiftly. They did, using an ingenious argument which could have been resorted to in the first instance.

The gist of it was that the proper procedure was not followed when Chief Justice Bandaranayake was impeached and this was indeed so. Therefore, Peiris’s appointment was null and void which meant that the question of his resignation did not arise. Legally, it was a brilliant strategy.

Peiris was ousted and he had no recourse short of forcibly entering Hulftsdorp. Ironically, his departure from office was similar to his assumption of duties, when he was hurriedly installed by former President Rajapaksa after a rushed impeachment against Chief Justice Bandaranayake.

The critics of the government though have come out in force, saying the manner in which Peiris was deposed was hardly good governance (or ‘yahapaalanaya’). If he had to be dealt with, it should have been done through an impeachment, they argue and they have rightly taken the moral high ground.

They contend that the removing Peiris from office simply through a letter issued by the President sets a dangerous precedent that future regimes could follow to the detriment of the independence of the judiciary, which President Sirisena promised during his election campaign. The fact that the government thought it fit to ‘negotiate’ a resignation with Peiris, in return for a diplomatic posting also doesn’t reflect well on the government. If Peiris could have, and should have been removed, why were such incentives offered at all, is a reasonable question to ask.

The Mohan Peiris saga doesn’t help the government’s image. However, it was fast approaching a Catch 22 situation, compelling the government to act in the way it did it. It was possibly aware of the negative fallout but decided that was better than Peiris remaining in office. In hindsight, the fledgling Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government could have handled this issue better. It was also not very prudent for Peiris’s most vocal critic, BASL President Upul Jayasuriya, to be appointed as Chairman of the Board of Investment only a few days after all this drama.

The saving grace for the government was that Mohan Peiris’s credentials are so sullied by his blatant bonhomie with the Rajapaksas that even the Sirisena administration’s harshest critics can only question the manner in which he was removed, not why he was given marching orders.

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