COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's leading lawyers on Monday denounced President Mahinda Rajapaksa's dismissal of the chief justice as illegal and said they still recognize Shirani Bandaranayake as the South Asian country's top judge.
Lawyers and activists said Rajapaksa and the Parliament he controls violated the constitution by trying to remove Bandaranayake, and that any attempt to replace her could precipitate a constitutional crisis.
The U.S. State Department expressed deep concern about the impeachment of the chief justice. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there are serious questions about "the health and future of Sri Lanka's democracy."
Rajapaksa on Sunday ratified a parliamentary vote to dismiss Bandaranayake, saying she has been found guilty of having unexplained wealth and misuse of power. The president's critics say he pushed out the chief justice because she resisted efforts to solidify his family's hold on the government.
A parliamentary tribunal found Bandaranayake guilty last month. She denied wrongdoing and walked out of the proceeding, saying she was not given a fair hearing. An appeals court quashed the guilty verdict after another court ruled that the tribunal lacked legal powers, but neither parliament nor Rajapaksa recognized those moves.
Lawyers Collective, a grouping of the country's leading lawyers, said Bandaranayake's dismissal was "unconstitutional and illegal."
"We also still recognize she is the chief justice of this country," said Chadrapala Kumarage, a member of the collective. He said any new appointment would be invalid.
"If the rulers of this country themselves break the main laws, other criminals may say those courts are not valid and illegal and that they will not accept them," Kumarage said. "Then there will be a very dangerous and anarchy situation in the country."
The lawyers said they will launch an islandwide campaign to educate the people about the government's move. Many senior lawyers have asked Supreme Court judges not to sit with a new chief justice. It is unclear when Rajapaksa intends to appoint a replacement.
Critics of Rajapaksa see Bandaranayake's impeachment as a step toward removing obstacles to absolute power and ensuring a servile judiciary.
Rajapaksa won his second term as president on a wave of popular support after ending Sri Lanka's bloody 25-year civil war in 2009. He 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.
Bandaranayake was long viewed as pro-government but faced the allegations after she ruled against a law that would have increased the power of a brother of Rajapaksa who runs the economic development ministry.
The government is largely controlled by the Rajapaksa family, including the president's older brother Chamal Rajapaksa, the speaker of Parliament. Another brother runs the defense ministry, and one of the president's sons is a member of Parliament.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.