Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse yesterday sacked his 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 Sri Lankan government. Rajapakse dismissed her after a closed-door meeting with other judges on Saturday, a presidential spokesman said.
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.
The Sri Lankan parliament voted on Friday to approve an impeachment report that last week had been quashed by the country’s highest courts, which ruled that the process was unconstitutional. The US and Britain expressed deep concern at the vote.
“The president this morning signed the letter removing Shirani Bandaranayake from the office of chief justice,” Rajapakse’s spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said.
The Commonwealth had asked Rajapakse on Saturday to reflect on the “constitutional and other ramifications” as Sri Lanka prepares to host the 54-member group’s next summit later this year.
A spokesman for Bandaranayake confirmed that she received the letter of dismissal yesterday, but declined comment. No replacement has been named.
Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times newspaper said Rajapakse had offered to allow Bandaranayake to retire and so avoid impeachment during a meeting on Saturday with other Sri Lankan Supreme Court judges, but a source close to her told reporters that she was not amenable.
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 walked out of a parliamentary committee hearing last month after accusing legislators of verbally abusing her and not giving her a fair trial. She has denied all allegations against her.
The government launched the impeachment process in November last year after a spate of supreme court decisions went against the administration of Rajapakse, who has tightened his hold on power after crushing Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009 after a long civil war.
Among other rulings, Bandaranayake stalled a bill that sought to grant greater political and financial power to the president’s youngest brother, Sri Lankan Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapakse.