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COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday sacked the chief justice by ratifying a controversial parliamentary vote, defying international calls for restraint and plunging the country into a constitutional crisis.
Shirani Bandaranayake, the first woman to hold the office of top judge, had issued several decisions at odds with the government. Rajapaksa dismissed her after a closed-door meeting with other judges on Saturday, according to a presidential spokesman.
The move came despite mounting calls on the president to halt the impeachment, which is seen by rights groups and Western nations as a blow to judicial independence in a country just emerging from decades of ethnic war.
Parliament voted on Friday to approve an impeachment report that last week had been quashed by the country’s highest court, which ruled that the process was unconstitutional.
The United States and Britain expressed deep concern at the vote.
“The president this morning signed the letter removing Shirani Bandaranayake from the office of chief justice,” Rajapaksa’s spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said.
The Lawyers’ Collective, which represents most of the nation’s 11,000 lawyers who have been boycotting work since Thursday to protest the impeachment move, said they would not accept Rajapaksa’s decision.
“We salute her for her courage, leadership and steadfastness in facing one of the most unreasonable and irrational inquiries ever faced by a person holding such an exalted office in a democratic country,” the Collective said.
“Shirani Bandaranayake remains the Chief Justice, notwithstanding being unconstitutionally removed.”
The main opposition United National Party also rejected the sacking.
The Commonwealth had asked Rajapaksa on Saturday to reflect on the “constitutional and other ramifications” at a time when Sri Lanka is preparing to host the 54-member group’s next summit later this year.
Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times newspaper said Rajapaksa had offered to allow her to retire and so avoid impeachment during a meeting on Saturday with other supreme court judges, but a source close to Bandaranayake said that she was not amenable.
Rajapaksa’s spokesman would not comment on what was discussed in Saturday’s meeting.
The ruling party initially framed 14 charges of financial, professional and personal misconduct against Bandaranayake, but later cleared her of financial wrongdoing and convicted her only on three counts of misconduct.
Legislators had found her guilty of tampering with a case involving a company from which her sister had bought an apartment, of failing to declare dormant bank accounts, and of staying in office while her husband faced a bribery charge.
Bandaranayake has denied all the allegations against her. She walked out of a parliamentary select committee hearing last month after accusing government legislators of verbally abusing her and not giving her a fair trial.
The government launched the impeachment in November after a spate of supreme court decisions went against the administration of Rajapaksa, who has tightened his hold on power after crushing Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009 following a decades-long long ethnic war.
Among other rulings, Bandaranayake stalled a bill that sought to grant greater political and financial power to the president’s youngest brother Basil, who is the economic development minister.
Privately run newspapers in Sri Lanka yesterday had urged Rajapaksa to reconsider and avoid a constitutional crisis.
“In the coming week, what stands between possible constitutional anarchy and the rule of law is the intervention of the president,” the Sunday Times said in an editorial.
The Sunday Island said the chief justice was not given a fair hearing and the impeachment had only “blackened” the country’s image.