COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s president on Tuesday swore in a trusted aide to replace the chief justice he fired, a move that could lead to a judicial crisis if lawyers and judges who say the move was illegal refuse to cooperate with the new head judge.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa swore in Mohan Peiris, a retired attorney general and a legal adviser to the Cabinet, after his nominee was approved by a parliamentary council earlier Tuesday, said presidential spokeswoman Anuradha Herath.
On Sunday, Rajapaksa dismissed Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake after a parliamentary committee found her guilty of having unexplained wealth and misuse of power.
Bandaranayake has denied the charges and accused the tribunal of not giving her a fair hearing. Courts have ruled in her favor, but the president and Parliament ignored the rulings.
Bandaranayake said in a statement on Tuesday that she was still the legitimate chief justice of Sri Lanka, but that she decided to leave her official residence and office fearing violence.
“In the circumstances, in my country, which is a democracy, where the rule of law is the underlying threshold upon which basic liberties exist, I still am the duly appointed legitimate chief justice,” she said.
“I have suffered because I stood for an independent judiciary and withstood the pressures. … The constitution of the republic recognizes the rule of law and if that rule of law had prevailed, I would not have been punished unjustly,” the statement said.
Peiris has been prominent in defending Rajapaksa’s government from allegations of human rights violations and enforced disappearances.
Rajapaksa’s critics say appointing a confidante to the post of chief justice gives him control over the judiciary as well as Parliament, where more than two-thirds of the 225 members support him.
The critics also say replacing the chief justice is part of an effort to consolidate the government’s power in the hands of the president’s family.
Rajapaksa’s older brother is the parliamentary speaker, and two of his younger brothers hold the powerful positions of economic development minister and defense secretary. Rajapaksa’s eldest son is a lawmaker.
Many prominent lawyers have already said they still recognize Bandaranayake as the chief justice and have written to senior judges urging them not to recognize a new appointee.
Hundreds of policemen guarded the country’s main court complex in Colombo, the capital, on Tuesday in an apparent bid to prevent Bandaranayake from entering the courts. Bandaranayake, however, remained at home.
Lawyers supporting Bandaranayake protested her dismissal by blowing out candles in unison in front of the Supreme Court to symbolize what they called the death of the judiciary. They chanted, “Let’s rise against dictatorship.”
“The legal community is not ready to accept a puppet appointed by this authoritarian (president),” said Srinath Perera, a lawyer who took part in the protest.
On Tuesday a local political think tank Center for Policy Alternatives and its executive director filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the appointment of Peiris as chief justice.
The petition said the post of chief justice is not vacant since courts have quashed the guilty verdict against Bandaranayake and asked for a declaration that a new appointment is a violation of the constitution and a breach of fundamental rights of the petitioners.