COLOMBO (AFP): Sri Lanka’s attorney general Wednesday refused to endorse the president’s dismissal of the prime minister for a former strongman accused of rights abuses, the strongest sign yet the move may be unconstitutional. The country has been locked in a tense standoff between two rivals claiming to head Sri Lanka’s government since Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s shock sacking last Friday.
Wickremesinghe insists President Maithripala Sirisena acted outside the constitution by dumping him for Mahinda Rajapakse, a former president who ruled with an iron fist for a decade. Wickremesinghe has refused to leave the prime minister’s official residence and demanded Sirisena reconvene parliament so MPs can vote for a leader and end the constitutional crisis. Sirisena has refused despite international pressure, and his appointee Rajapakse has assumed his duties, naming a new cabinet and addressing bureaucrats at the finance ministry on Wednesday.
The two rivals are jockeying for power behind the scenes, battling to tempt lawmakers from opposing sides to bolster their numbers if a vote is held. But Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya has cast fresh doubt on the legality of Sirisena’s actions, declining to endorse them. “Having regard to the role of the Attorney General under the constitution, I am of the view that expressing an opinion on the said questions would be deemed inappropriate,” said Jayasuriya, the government’s top legal advisor.
Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker had asked Jayasuriya to provide his legal opinion as pressure builds on Sirisena to resolve the nearly week-long impasse that has left one dead in clashes. Wickremesinghe amended the constitution after winning the premiership in 2015 to remove the president’s power to sack prime ministers. Sirisena insists his actions were legal but Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, another powerful figure, has also refused to defend his manoeuvrings.
Jayasuriya again Wednesday urged Sirisena to allow the 225-member parliament to hold a vote, warning of a “bloodbath” if the president delayed further. Unconfirmed reports said the speaker was being pressured to defy the president and reconvene parliament unilaterally. As the island reels from crisis, Sri Lanka’s journalists have been caught in the power struggle between the warring leaders.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) said supporters of Rajapakse, whose tenure was marred by allegations of rights violations and corruption, stormed state-owned media institutions shortly after his appointment late Friday night, roughing up ministers and journalists who then had to be rescued by police commandos. “The violence with which Mahinda Rajapakse’s bully boys took over the state media is absolutely unacceptable,” RSF said, adding that the crisis recalled the “darkest hours of the Rajapakse presidency between 2005 and 2015”. “We call on all parties to act responsibly by guaranteeing journalists’ safety and by respecting their editorial independence, so that impartial news coverage is available to the public.”