Sri Lankan lawmakers debate judge's impeachment
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -- Sri Lanka's Parliament debated on Friday whether to impeach the chief justice, deepening a standoff between the judiciary and the government, controlled by the country's most powerful family.
Lawmakers were widely expected to vote to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. Last month, a parliamentary committee ruled she was guilty of possession of unexplained wealth and misuse of power and declared her unfit for office.
Bandaranayake denied the allegations and challenged the committee's verdict, saying she had not been given a fair hearing.
The country's highest court ruled that the parliamentary committee had no legal power to investigate the allegations. An appeals court eventually nullified the committee's guilty verdict.
The dispute is widely seen by jurists and rights activists as an attempt by the government to ensure a servile judiciary. Bandaranayake, who had long been viewed as pro-government, faced the investigation after she issued a ruling against a law promoted by a member of the powerful Rajapaksa family.
The government is largely controlled by the Rajapaksas, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his older brother Chamal Rajapaksa, the speaker of Parliament. Two more brothers run the ministries of defense and economic development. One of the president's sons is a member of Parliament.
Rights groups and the president's critics say he wants to remove the last obstacles to absolute power.
President Rajapaksa, riding a wave of popular support after ending a 25-year civil war in 2009, has pushed through laws ending term limits for the presidency and abolishing independent commissions that select top judiciary, police and public service personnel. He now has the power to appoint many of the country's officials.
More than two-thirds of the 225-member Parliament back him, giving the chief justice little chance of escaping impeachment, analysts say.
The government has insisted that Parliament is superior to the judiciary and is not bound by any court order.
The debate has set off a series of protests and strikes.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, with 11,000 lawyers, called a two-day strike Thursday. Association Secretary Sanjaya Gamage said any action to ignore the Supreme Court ruling could bring a "negative and eroding impact" on the rule of law.
Chandrapala Kumarage, a leader of the group Lawyers for Democracy, warned that an impeachment would deepen the influence that politicians already have over the legal system.
"It means politicians are above the judiciary, and then the law of the jungle will become the law of the country," he said.
Lawyers have also warned of a possible crisis if the government ignores the Supreme Court order.
Constitutional expert Jayampathy Wickramaratne said the judiciary is unlikely to accept a replacement for Bandaranayake if she is impeached.
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