Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court opened the way for potential impeachment proceedings against the president on Thursday, ruling that he broke the law by dissolving parliament last month.
The verdict is a major blow to Maithripala Sirisena, seven weeks into a political crisis in the Indian Ocean island nation that has sparked alarm abroad and concern over its finances.
The seven-judge bench unanimously agreed that Sirisena violated the constitution when he dissolved parliament last month and called a snap election nearly two years ahead of schedule.
“I make order that the November 9 Gazette (decree) sacking parliament… has no force or effect in law and declare its operation illegal,” Chief Justice Nalin Perera said as he delivered the landmark judgement to a packed courtroom.
Sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party had said it would await the outcome of Thursday’s decision before deciding whether to open impeachment proceedings.
Sirisena triggered the unprecedented political crisis on October 26 when he fired Wickremesinghe and appointed contentious former strongman Mahinda Rajapakse in his place.
There was no immediate comment from either Sirisena or Rajapakse. However, Rajapakse’s legislator son, Namal, told reporters outside the courthouse that they did not agree with the verdict.
“We do not agree with the decision of the court, but we do not have a higher court to appeal to,” he said.
The leftist JVP, or the People’s Liberation Front, said the sacking of the prime minister in October was a “coup orchestrated by Sirisena and Rajapakse” and called for a resolution in parliament to bring them to justice.
“This first thing this (restored) parliament should is to investigate the coup and bring both the president and his illegal prime minister to justice,” JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said.
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) welcomed the verdict as a victory for democracy.
“As a country, we have to be joyful that we have an independent judiciary that acted as a check on an errant executive,” UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa said.
Sirisena dissolved parliament on November 9 when Rajapakse, the man he appointed as prime minister, was unable to prove a majority in the 225-member assembly.
Constitutional provisions were clear that he could not dissolve the legislature until it completes four and a half years out of its five-year term, which ends in August 2020.
Four days later after parliament was sacked, the Supreme Court issued an interim ruling suspending Sirisena’s decree and restoring parliament, which almost immediately passed a no-confidence motion against Rajapakse, the purported premier.
Wickremesinghe’s party and their allies command a majority in parliament.
On Wednesday, the legislature voted overwhelmingly to demand the reinstatement of Wickremesinghe with the power struggle just weeks away from a government shutdown.
Members of Wickremesinghe’s party and their allies voted 117-0 asking Sirisena to reverse his October 26 dismissal of his former ally.
However, Sirisena has vowed he will not reinstate Wickremesinghe.
Courts have also prevented Rajapakse and his disputed cabinet exercising power until they can prove their legitimacy. A hearing by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday was put off until January 16.
Former finance minister Ravi Karunanayake said the entire public sector will come to a complete standstill from January 1 in the absence of a budget for the New Year.
Officials have expressed similar fears and urged Sirisena to resolve the crisis urgently. Sri Lanka’s credit ratings have already been cut.