By Paul Tait
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's political crisis worsened on Saturday with lawmakers voting to sack the five most senior judicial officials and international consternation growing after a presidential tribunal threw out a quarter of parliament.
The special court, set up by a decree by Afghan President Hamid Karzai after fraud-marred parliamentary elections last year, ruled on Thursday that 62 lawmakers would have to be replaced because of alleged poll fraud.
Karzai's critics have said the court was set up after the September 18 election, in which Karzai's rivals made major gains, to further his own political agenda. Afghan and Western critics have questioned the legality of the court.
With anger growing over the decision, lawmakers voted on Saturday to fire the five most senior members of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi and his deputy Bahahuddin Baha, for failing to stop the special court's decision.
Fatima Aziz, a lawmaker from northern Kunduz province, said 183 MPs out of 190 who attended parliament on Saturday voted to impeach the five members of the Supreme Court's High Council.
Ahmad Humayoun, a lawmaker from eastern Khost province, said the vote was taken because the five had all advised Karzai to set up the special court to resolve the weeks of protests and infighting that followed the elections.
It was not immediately apparent if the five would indeed be fired, with no comment from the presidential palace. Karzai is in neighboring Iran attending a security conference.
"RULE OF LAW"
The political uncertainty comes at a worrying time for Afghanistan, with violence at record levels and NATO-led forces preparing to hand over security to Afghans in several areas at the start of a gradual process that will end with all foreign combat troops leaving by the end of 2014.
Karzai's court announced its new election findings only hours after U.S. President Barack Obama detailed the beginning of a U.S. drawdown, with 10,000 U.S. troops to return home by the end of this year.
European Union Ambassador Vygaudas Usackas met a parliamentary delegation on Saturday, including Speaker Abdul Raouf Ibrahimi and 35 other lawmakers, to discuss the crisis.
He said Afghanistan's "peaceful future lies in the building of robust democratic institutions based on the rule of law and the clear respect for the separation of powers."
He said in a statement the EU reconfirmed its commitment to work with the Afghan government and people to promote "the principles of a democratic state."
Privately, other Western officials in Kabul have expressed shock and anger at the court's ruling. Another Western diplomat said on Thursday he was "totally flabbergasted."
There has been no comment on the ruling yet from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) or from the United Nations, which helped fund and organize the poll.
The IEC threw out nearly a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast last year over fraud and technical concerns, and later clashed with the attorney general's office when the special court began recounting votes.
Karzai, re-elected after a similarly tainted presidential election in 2009, has often been criticized for treating parliament as a rubber stamp.
The latest assembly did not sit for the first time until January 26 -- four months after the vote -- and bickered in public for weeks before it chose Ibrahimi as speaker.
Underlining the political paralysis, Karzai has still not been able to name a complete cabinet because of objections from parliament, with caretakers still in several key posts.
Karzai is known to be unhappy with the make-up of the new parliament after the September vote. While not united, the new assembly could have yielded a more vocal and coherent opposition to challenge him.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Sugita Katyal)