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COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s parliament yesterday voted to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake after a process criticised by international rights groups as an assault on judicial independence.
The assembly voted 155 to 49 to dismiss Bandaranayake whose most recent rulings had gone against the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse who is widely expected to ratify the sacking and name a replacement within days.
“The motion was carried with 155 voting for and 49 against,” said Speaker Chamal Rajapakse, the eldest brother of the president. The vote was at the end of a two-day debate on a controversial probe which found her guilty of misconduct.
Bandaranayake, 54, the country’s first woman in the highest judicial office, maintained she was not given a fair hearing by the parliamentary panel which convicted her on three charges of misconduct.
The United States reacted swiftly saying it was “deeply concerned” that Sri Lanka’s parliament had moved to impeach Bandaranayake in defiance of its own Supreme Court which had ruled the process illegal.
“The United States, along with our partners in the international community, continue to urge the government of Sri Lanka to uphold the rule of law and respect the principles of democratic governance,” it said in a statement.
Three leftist members of Rajapakse’s United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition, who stayed away during voting, said they failed to prevent a crisis with the first sacking of a chief justice in Sri Lanka.
“Right from the beginning, we attempted to intervene at several stages to avert a constitutional crisis, a confrontation between the legislature, executive and the judiciary,” Senior Minister D E W Gunasekera of the Communist Party said.
Gunasekera said the impeachment had been “politicised” and damaged the image of the country.
Earlier in the day, lawyers urged all Sri Lankan judges to refuse to accept the appointment of a new chief justice. The Lawyers’ Collective in letters to judges said any replacement would be an “usurper”.
“Judges should refuse to accept an appointment of chief justice or refuse to recognise any person appointed... as such an appointment would be contrary to the constitution,” the Lawyers’ Collective said.
“Such a person (new appointee) would be a usurper in the Office of Chief Justice.”
Work in court houses has been at a standstill since Thursday as lawyers stayed away, protesting against what they call the politically-motivated impeachment, a charge denied by the government.
Ruling party supporters greeted the parliamentary vote by bursting fire crackers around the tightly-guarded assembly building.
The government brought charges against Bandaranayake after she turned down a controversial bill that sought to grant greater financial and political power to Rajapakse’s youngest brother Basil, the economic development minister.
Although she was accused of 14 counts of financial, professional and personal misconduct, a parliamentary committee convicted her only of three.
However, even those findings were quashed by courts on Monday. But, the parliament rejected the court verdict and went ahead with a two-day debate which ended yesterday calling for her dismissal.
Ruling party MPs found her guilty of tampering with a case involving a company from which her sister bought an apartment, not declaring dormant bank accounts and staying in office while her husband faced a bribery charge.
Four opposition legislators withdrew from the panel as a sign of protest after Bandaranayake herself stormed out of a hearing last month saying she was being subjected to personal abuse.
President Rajapakse has tightened his grip on power after crushing Tamil rebels in 2009 in a major military offensive that sparked widespread allegations of rights abuses.