Sri Lanka court seeks suspension of impeachment

Sri Lanka's supreme court asked parliament on Thursday to suspend a hearing against the country's top judge for alleged financial wrongdoing until the legality of the impeachment process is decided.

A three-judge bench declined to issue a formal injunction against an 11-member parliamentary select committee (PSC) due to open the impeachment hearing on Friday, but it asked the committee to put its proceedings on hold.

A senior official in parliament however said the PSC would meet as scheduled on Friday morning, and that there were no immediate plans to put off the impeachment proceedings.

"The Supreme Court asked parliament to hold (postpone) its hearing until the court gives a determination on the constitutionality of the impeachment process," a court official told AFP earlier on condition of anonymity.

Rights groups have said the impeachment motion is the latest sign of efforts by President Mahinda Rajapakse to tighten his grip on power after crushing the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009 at the end of a decades-long war.

The impeachment move followed a Supreme Court decision last month that effectively scuppered a bill giving more powers to the economic development minister, who is the president's younger brother Basil.

Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, 54, has denied the financial wrongdoing alleged in the impeachment case brought by the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance.

She has vowed to remain in office and defend her name.

Nine individuals have petitioned Sri Lanka's highest court asking it to declare that the process of impeachment by legislators is illegal and violates laws of natural justice.

"We have not received the Supreme Court hearing and in any case the PSC will meet tomorrow as scheduled," the parliamentary official said late Thursday, asking not to be named.

"It will be up to the PSC tomorrow to respond to the Supreme Court's request."

The PSC, dominated by ruling party MPs, had earlier refused Bandaranayake's request for six weeks to respond to 14 charges in the impeachment motion. It summoned her to appear on Friday.

The charge sheet against the chief justice was first presented to parliamentary Speaker Chamal Rajapakse, who is the president's eldest brother. It was formally handed over to Bandaranayake earlier this month.

The United States has joined other international voices in expressing concern over the impeachment. Sri Lankan lawyers have united in urging the authorities to ensure "due process" in any action against the judge.

The ruling party has more than the required 113 votes in parliament to dismiss the chief justice following a process that could take months.