Sacked Sri Lanka chief justice says 'life in danger'

Sri Lanka's sacked chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake said on Tuesday she feared for her life as a defiant President Mahinda Rajapakse hurried her successor into office.

Speaking to reporters from her car as she sped away from her official residence in Colombo, Bandaranayake told reporters she also feared for the safety of her husband and son after falling foul of the government.

"My life is in danger. The lives of all three of us are in danger," she said in brief comments.

"I wasn't even allowed to say my goodbyes to the people whom I worked with at the Supreme Court for over 16 years."

Bandaranayake, the first woman to hold Sri Lanka's highest judicial post, was sacked by Rajapakse on Sunday two days after parliament voted to impeach her.

Despite a chorus of international criticism and threats of a legal challenge, Rajapakse swiftly filled the vacancy Tuesday by appointing the government's senior legal adviser Mohan Peiris as her successor.

The government launched the impeachment in November after court decisions went against the government of Rajapakse, who has tightened his hold on power since crushing Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009 to end a decades-long ethnic war.

Among other rulings, Bandaranayake stalled a bill that sought to grant greater political and financial power to the president's youngest brother Basil, who is the economic development minister.

The impeachment has drawn further criticism of the government, already accused by the West of rights abuses in the final stages of the war.

The US State Department said Monday the impeachment raised "serious questions about the separation of powers in Sri Lanka, which is a fundamental tenet of a healthy democracy".

Lawmakers found Bandaranayake guilty of tampering with a case involving a company from which her sister bought an apartment, of failing to declare dormant bank accounts, and of staying in office while her husband faced a bribery charge.

She has said the charges were politically motivated and she was denied a fair trial.

"I am totally innocent of all charges and had there been a semblance of truth in any allegation, I would not have remained even for a moment in the august office of the Chief Justice," she said in a statement on Tuesday.

"I have suffered because I stood for an independent judiciary and withstood the pressures."

Bandaranayake also insisted that she was still the lawful chief justice because a series of court rulings have held that her impeachment was unconstitutional and illegal.

"I still am the duly appointed legitimate chief justice," she said in the statement, adding that she was leaving her official residence only because she feared violence.

"Since it now appears that there might be violence if I remain in my official residence or my chambers, I am compelled to move out... particularly because violence is directed at innocent people including judges."

Ruling party supporters had beaten up lawyers and demonstrators who backed Bandaranayake last week in the wake of the court rulings against a parliamentary select committee report which found her guilty of misconduct.

Police commandos and anti-riot squads were deployed Tuesday to the main courts complex in the capital, fearing Bandaranayake would defy her dismissal and sit on the bench, a police official told reporters.

In an unprecedented security operation, even the cars of senior judges were stopped and searched before being allowed in. Later in the day, the newly appointed chief justice drove to courts under military protection.

Reporters were not allowed to record Peiris assuming his duties but the president's office released photographs of him being sworn in.

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