Colombo, Sri Lanka – A Sri Lankan court has barred former President Mahinda Rajapaksa from acting as prime minister as it hears a petition challenging his refusal to step down despite losing two no-confidence motions last month.
Judge Arjuna Obeyesekere issued the stay order on Monday, saying “irreparable damage would be caused” if Rajapaksa and ministers of his cabinet continued to hold office.
While the decision would leave Sri Lanka without a government, allowing a “set of persons who are not entitled in law to function as the prime minister or the cabinet of ministers or any other minister of government” would cause irremediable damage that poses far-reaching consequences to the whole country, the judge said.
The Court of Appeal will sit again on December 12 to deliver a verdict, he added.
Sri Lanka has been in crisis since October 26 when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Rajapaksa, a controversial but popular leader accused of corruption and grave human rights abuses.
The former president, however, failed to show a majority in parliament, prompting Sirisena to dissolve the 225-member House and call snap elections. But both moves were temporarily blocked by the Supreme Court, which is expected to deliver a verdict on December 7.
Responding to the latest setback, Rajapaksa said he did not agree with Monday’s court order.
“We will file an appeal at the Supreme Court tomorrow,” he said, pledging to continue lobbying for early elections in the Indian Ocean island nation.
Both Rajapaksa and Sirisena have rejected the outcome of the no-confidence motions on November 14 and 16, despite some 122 legislators voting to remove the former president.
The pair claimed the speaker had failed to follow proper procedure by calling a voice vote on the motions.
Leader of the United National Party (UNP) Wickremesinghe, who continues to lay claim to the post of prime minister, hailed Monday’s stay order as a “triumph of democratic institutions over the whims of individuals” in a Twitter post.
But in a meeting with leaders from the UNP, late on Monday, President Sirisena ruled out re-appointing Wickremesinghe “even if all 225 MPs sign a petition”, according to member of the UNP Lakshman Kirielle.
According to another MP, Mano Ganesan, Sirisena called for the UNP to put forward another name and he will “make him prime minister within 24 hours”.
‘Triumph of democracy’
The leader of the UNP, who remains holed up in the prime minister’s official residence, insists his sacking was unconstitutional as the parliament stripped the president of his powers to sack a sitting prime minister in 2015.
The UNP, which has the backing of more than 100 legislators, last week said Wickremesinghe was still their nominee for the prime minister’s job.
Sirisena, however, has ruled out ever reinstating Wickremesinghe, telling reporters last week: “I will not make him prime minister … not in my lifetime.”
R Sampathan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance, a coalition representing the country’s ethnic Tamil minority, said he met Sirisena following the court’s decision, and the president had promised to take “necessary action within the next 24 hours”.
In a Twitter post, Sampathan said Sirisena accepted that Sri Lanka no longer had a government and that he intended to meet national security officials.
Meanwhile, many Sri Lankans took to social media to celebrate the court’s move.
Sagala Ratnayake, a UNP member, also welcomed the decision, saying “justice has prevailed”.
The legislator added: “The fake prime minister and his purported government have been thrown out of office by the judiciary. The Court of Appeal has protected parliamentary democracy from an illegal government.”
Saliya Peiris, who heads a commission tasked with tracing the tens of thousands of people who went missing during Sri Lanka’s 26-year-war with Tamil separatists, described the stay order as “a proud moment for all those who value the Rule of Law and the independence of the judiciary” in Sri Lanka.
Others said the judiciary has proved it was “strong” and called on Rajapaksa to step down immediately.
Rathindra Kuruwita reported from Colombo. Zaheena Rasheed reported and wrote from Doha