Sri Lanka parties, election commissioner challenges Sirisena

(AFP) – Sri Lanka’s main parties and a top election official on Monday challenged in the highest court the president’s sacking of parliament, a move that escalated a political crisis and deepened international alarm.

President Maithripala Sirisena late Friday called snap elections for January 5 and dismissed parliament, two weeks after sacking the prime minister and installing the divisive Mahinda Rajapakse in his place.

Three political parties holding an absolute majority in parliament and an Election Commissioner, one of three officials tasked with conducting polls, on Monday asked the Supreme Court to declare the president’s actions as illegal.

Commissioner Ratnajeevan Hoole was among those arguing that Sirisena had violated the constitution. In his five-page petition, Hoole said Sirisena broke the law in calling snap elections for January 5 after a string of unconstitutional moves since October 26.

Hoole’s action is seen as a showdown with Sirisena hours after parliamentary Speaker urged public officials to disobey illegal orders of Sirisena and protect the independence of the public service, police and the judiciary.

Sacked premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), the main opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the leftist JVP, or People’s Liberation Front, were among the parties that filed the action.

"The petitions were accepted this morning and it is being taken up for hearing today by a three-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice," a court official said.

He said the head of the court, Nalin Perera, and two other justices decided to fast track the hearings given the importance of the issue. However, it was not clear when a decision would be announced.

Sirisena’s controversially appointed foreign minister Sarath Amunugama told Colombo-based diplomats Monday that he expected a court verdict within five days.

On Sunday night, speaker Karu Jayasuriya urged civil servants to defy Sirisena’s "illegal orders".





"I have watched over the last two weeks as the executive branch has seized the rights and usurped the powers of members of parliament who were elected to represent the people," he said.

"We must all act with patriotism and independence to safeguard the future of democracy in our country."

legal experts say the dissolved parliament would stand restored if the Supreme Court holds with the petitioners and if not the January 5 election will have to go ahead despite a majority of legislators opposing the summary dismissal of the legislature.

-Civil unrest fears-

The same day, Sirisena said violent clashes among rival MPs could have led to "civil unrest" across the country if the legislature had met as scheduled this week.

"Had I allowed the parliament to meet on November 14, there would have been violence in the House and it could have spread to our villagers and towns," Sirisena said in his first address to the nation since the crisis erupted on Friday.

"I acted to prevent civil unrest."

Sirisena’s rivals maintain that he had no constitutional power to sack the assembly until it completed four-and-a-half years of its five-year term that ends in August 2020.

Only China has recognised the appointment of Rajapakse, who during his decade as president relied heavily on Beijing for both diplomatic and financial support as the West shunned him over his human rights record.

A meeting of diplomats called by Amunugama was boycotted several Western diplomats while others sent low level representatives, diplomatic sources said.

The United States has led a chorus of international voices expressing concern over threats to democracy on the island of 21 million people strategically located in the Indian Ocean.

Independent election monitors have also questioned the legality of the snap poll announced by Sirisena.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections said it had already asked the independent Elections Commission to seek an opinion from the attorney general and an order from the Supreme Court.

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