Legal challenge as Sri Lankan political turmoil deepens

AFP – Sri Lanka’s largest party announced Saturday a legal challenge to President Maithripala Sirisena’s sacking of parliament, a move that has plunged the Indian Ocean island nation into fresh turmoil and alarmed the international community.

Sirisena announced on Friday night that he was dissolving parliament and called fresh elections on January 5, two weeks after sacking prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replacing him with the controversial Mahinda Rajapakse.

Mangala Samaraweera, finance minister in Wickremesinghe’s sacked cabinet, said Saturday that their United National Party (UNP) would file a challenge with Sri Lanka’s top court next week, saying the president had "kicked the constitution in the teeth".

"We will go to the courts," Samaraweera told reporters in Colombo. "We will fight in the courts, we will fight in parliament and we will fight at the polls."

Shortly before sacking the legislature, Sirisena also took over the police department by attaching it to his defence ministry. He also took control of the state printer, a crucial institution that publishes decrees and proclamations.

He had already taken control of all state media outlets soon after dismissing Wickremesinghe on October 26.

Sirisena set the election date, almost two years ahead of schedule, after it became clear that his designated prime minister Rajapakse could not prove his majority when the assembly was set to reconvene on Wednesday.

This is despite several legislators saying they were offered millions of dollars to switch allegiance.

Rajapakse, 72, was prime minister for two weeks without ever stepping into parliament. He will now continue as a caretaker premier until a new parliament meets on January 17.

A leader of Rajapakse’s party, Susil Premajayantha, said Sirisena sacked the legislature to end the power struggle and allow people to elect a new parliament.





"Now we have a caretaker government with limited functions," Premajayantha said. "We will conduct a free and fair election."

He accused Wickremesinghe of causing instability by refusing to vacate his official residence.

– Power struggle –

Rajapakse and the ousted Wickremesinghe have been battling for power for two weeks as international concern grew over the mounting turmoil in the strategically important island nation.

Sirisena signed a decree dismissing the legislature in a bid to head off any revolt against his actions which included suspending parliament for nearly three weeks.

Rajapakse was yet to address the nation after his disputed elevation, but early Saturday attempted to justify the dissolution.

"… A general election will truly establish the will of the people and make way for a stable country," he said on Twitter.

– US ‘deeply concerned’ –

Washington’s criticism of Sirisena’s move was swift.

"The US is deeply concerned by news the Sri Lanka parliament will be dissolved, further deepening the political crisis," the US State Department said in a statement.

"As a committed partner of Sri Lanka, we believe democratic institutions and processes need to be respected to ensure stability and prosperity," it said.

Just before sacking the parliament, Sirisena also inducted more ministers into his cabinet. The move was seen as giving them access to state resources in the run up to the January vote.

The leftist People’s Liberation Front (JVP), which regards the sacking of Wickremesinghe as unconstitutional, accused Sirisena of trying to consolidate his power grab.

"Dissolving parliament at this time is illegal and goes against the constitution," JVP general secretary Tilvin Silva told reporters.

Wickremesinghe had late Thursday thanked his supporters in a Facebook video for not letting Sri Lanka be "plunged into the darkness of dictatorship".

It was not immediately clear if he would vacate the official Temple Trees residence following the dissolution of parliament.

The power struggle on the island of 21 million people has paralysed much of the administration, according to legislators on both sides of the dispute.

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