Sri Lankan Move to Fire Top Judge Stirs Fears

, The Associated Press

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When Shirani Bandaranayake was appointed Sri Lanka's chief justice, rights campaigners assailed her as a puppet of a government that was steamrolling opponents and consolidating power. A year later, she is on the verge of becoming its latest victim.

In the wake of court challenges to government authority, the ruling party submitted an impeachment complaint in Parliament accusing her of unexplained wealth and misuse of power. Opposition parties and independent analysts allege it is a naked attempt by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to cow the judiciary.

Rajapaksa's ruling coalition, which controls more than the two-thirds of votes needed to impeach, is expected to pass the motion easily. After impeachment it would be up to the president to remove Bandaranayake.

The impeachment "is totally politically motivated," said human rights lawyer and activist J.C. Weliamuna. "The present regime has concentrated all legal powers and they are not prepared to even accept that the courts can give judgments controlling their power."

The U.S. government has urged Sri Lanka to refrain from impinging on the judiciary's independence. Sri Lankan lawyers have called for U.N. observers to monitor the impeachment proceedings. Even the country's conservative Buddhist monks have asked Rajapaksa to reconsider.

The impeachment complaint alleges Bandaranayake did not disclose how she obtained 19 million rupees ($146,000) to pay for a house purchased in an opaque real estate deal, and that she took over cases filed against a company involved in the deal after removing the judges who originally heard them.

It accuses her of not declaring the contents of 20 bank accounts, and of misusing her position to harass other judges. It says her actions "plunged the Supreme Court and the office of chief justice into disrepute."

In a statement to Colombo's Daily Mirror newspaper, the chief justice insisted she is innocent and will continue to work.

Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella appeared to signal that the impeachment proceedings were about far more than corruption allegations. Bandaranayake, he said, had overstepped her role and worked to undermine Parliament's authority. He said the impeachment was brought because the dispute "had gone beyond the stage of settlement."

Rajapaksa, at an event where he handed out free laptops and interest-free car loans to journalists, said the government did not intend to interfere with the judiciary but insisted Parliament is duty-bound to check into complaints against the justice, according to a government news website.

The president has been accused of manipulating the judiciary to get convictions against his opponents. Sri Lanka's former army commander Sarath Fonseka was convicted in a few cases since he challenged Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election.

Bandaranayake is an unlikely government foe.

Her elevation to chief justice came months after she supported a ruling that said Rajapaksa needed only a parliamentary vote -- not a national referendum -- to amend the constitution to expand his powers and let him serve more than two terms.

But the government and judiciary have repeatedly clashed during her short term in office.

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