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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Sri Lanka court denies former strongman authority to act as PM

The order is the latest twist in a political drama engulfing the South Asian island

Sri Lanka's disputed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, with President Maithripala Sirisena. AFP
Sri Lanka's disputed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, with President Maithripala Sirisena. AFP

A Sri Lanka court on Monday ruled that former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa could not act as prime minister or hold cabinet meetings while the political crisis that has engulfed the South Asian island continues.

The Appeals Court was ruling on a petition from 122 lawmakers in the 225-seat parliament that opposed Mr Rajapaksa’s authority after he was installed as prime minister without a parliamentary or public vote in October.

It said that “irreparable damage” could be done to Sri Lanka and its democracy if Mr Rajapaksa, the man at the centre of the political crisis, was permitted to stay on as head of government without a presentable majority.

"An interim order is granted against the first respondent functioning as the prime minister...also issuing interim order against 30 other respondents functioning in their offices," judge Preethipadhman Surasena said.

He lost two no-confidence votes last month following Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to install him as premier after deposing incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe in a move that critics decried as a coup.

The court decided to call the case for hearing again on December 12, when Mr Rajapaksa is expected to appear.

The decision is yet another blow to Mr Sirisena and Mr Rajapaksa’s hopes of removing Mr Wickremesinghe from office. After Mr Sirisena dismissed parliament, the Supreme Court moved quickly to restore it. Now, other arms of Sri Lankan democracy are opposing the perceived power grab.

Mr Rajapaksa has failed to show majority support in parliament and MPs have voted to ban him from using state funds while the crisis continues. The international community - bar China, a close supporter of Mr Rajapaksa - has almost universally refused to acknowledge his appointment.

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Read more:

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His rival Mr Wickremesinghe maintains that he is the legitimate premier of Sri Lanka and has holed himself up at the Temple Trees compound in Colombo, surrounded by hundreds of supporters.

Mr Sirisena’s move to oust his premier came almost two years before the next parliamentary elections.

Mr Rajapaksa is a controversial figure who once ruled the country with an iron fist as president from 2005 to 2015.

He is revered by the country’s Sinhalese majority for ending the decades-long civil war with the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group that had carried out a campaign of suicide bombings and killings against authorities.

But rights groups and Tamil activists say he sought to crush the Tamil minority and accuse him of a series of abuses. They fear that any comeback could drag Sri Lanka back to the dark days of the civil war.

The acrimony around Mr Rajapaksa’s political comeback has reportedly led to Mr Sirisena considering a U-turn and dropping his bid to dissolve parliament and install Mr Rajapaksa over the man he had fallen out with as his prime minister.

Two sources close to Mr Sirisena told Reuters that he was now seeking a dignified exit from the crisis, withdrawing his bid to dissolve parliament before a court overturns his decision. The Supreme Court, which had stalled the dissolution of parliament, is set to announce its decision on December 7.

Mr Rajapaksa has refused to resign, but his short time as a discredited prime minister may soon come to an end.