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Chief justice crisis grips Lanka

Colombo, Jan. 11 (Reuters): Sri Lanka faced a possible constitutional crisis today after its parliament voted to impeach the chief justice, disregarding rulings from the Supreme Court that the process was illegal and threatened judicial independence.

The move has caused an outcry among Opposition lawmakers, religious leaders and lawyers, prompted the US and the UN to voice concern for the integrity of justice in the South Asian state, and may alarm foreign investors.

Dominated by a coalition headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party, parliament voted to impeach Shirani Bandaranayake, Sri Lanka’s first female chief justice, with 155 of the legislature’s 225 members in favour.

During a two-day debate, lawmakers ignored rulings by the Supreme Court and court of appeal against the impeachment, after a parliamentary panel found Bandaranayake guilty of financial irregularities and failure to declare assets.

Bandaranayake will be removed from the post after Rajapaksa declares the outcome of the impeachment in the parliament, the date of which has not been announced.

Lawyers Collective, a judiciary activist group, said in a statement that the appointment of a new chief justice would be unconstitutional as Bandaranayake’s removal was against the law.

“This impeachment calls into question issues about the separation of powers in Sri Lanka and the impact of its absence on democratic institutions,” the US embassy said in a statement.

Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled that parliament lacked the legal authority to investigate accusations of misconduct against the chief justice, while the court of appeal nullified the parliamentary panel findings.

Lawyers across Sri Lanka boycotted courts for a second day running on Friday in protest at the vote.

A black cloth was hung at the entrance of the Supreme Court building in Colombo, and some lawyers inside covered their mouths with black cloth or wore black headbands.

“There is already a constitutional crisis,” S.L. Gunasekera, a senior lawyer and former ally of Rajapaksa, told Reuters.

“The government is totally intoxicated with power,” Gunasekera added. “This (move) is to make the judiciary subservient, as are the police and the public service.”

 
 
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