COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — A Sri Lankan appeals court on Monday quashed a guilty verdict reached by lawmakers against the country's chief justice in a much-criticized impeachment hearing, a move that could intensify a monthslong dispute between Parliament and the judiciary.
A parliamentary committee last month found Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake 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 ruling by three appeals court judges declared the committee's hearing unlawful and its verdict null, and deemed any further action on the impeachment, including a debate and vote, illegal.
The appeals court's decision followed a Supreme Court ruling last week that said the parliamentary committee did not have the authority to investigate Bandaranayake. Parliament was to start a two-day debate on the committee's verdict on Wednesday, followed by a vote on whether to impeach the chief justice.
The impeachment move was heavily criticized by lawyers, judges and opposition politicians who saw it as the culmination of a long dispute between the judiciary and Parliament, which is effectively controlled by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The critics viewed the proceeding as an effort to undermine judicial independence and concentrate more powers with the president.
With Rajapaksa's ruling party controlling more than two-thirds of Parliament's 225 seats, it was expected to easily win an impeachment vote.
There was no immediate comment from the government. But any move to disregard Monday's court order and impeach Bandaranayake could plunge the country's governance into chaos because the courts would probably not accept any replacement for the chief justice.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has said it would reject any replacement if Bandaranayake is ejected without a fair trial.
Authorities had previously disregarded a Supreme Court request to delay the impeachment hearing until it heard a petition by Bandaranayake asking the court to declare the parliamentary committee illegal.
Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, a brother of the president, has said that Parliament is not bound by any court order. He is expected to soon announce Parliament's next move.
President Rajapaksa in 2011 appointed Bandaranayake as the country's first female chief justice. But she began to be heavily criticized after she ruled that a proposed law giving vast financial powers to the economic development minister, another brother of the president, was unconstitutional.
The dispute between the administration and the judiciary began after a minister allegedly threatened a judge to alter a decision and later led a mob to attack a court house with stones.
Later a judge who is responsible for transfers and disciplinary action in the judiciary was attacked.
Meanwhile, thousands of people protested in Colombo on Monday demanding that the government to withdraw the impeachment bid, ensure judicial independence and respect court orders.