Sri Lanka Court Temporarily Blocks Mahinda Rajapaksa From Prime Minister’s Job

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Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was appointed prime minister of Sri Lanka despite opposition from Parliament, in Colombo on Thursday. A court order has temporarily prevented him from holding office.CreditCreditDinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

By Maria Abi-Habib and Dharisha Bastians

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A Sri Lankan court issued an order on Monday temporarily preventing the disputed prime minister from holding office, the latest twist in a political crisis that has paralyzed the island nation.

The Court of Appeal ordered Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cabinet to appear on Dec. 12 and to explain on what authority they hold office after Parliament voted against them twice last month. The order prohibits them from conducting government business in the meantime.

Mr. Rajapaksa said in a statement that he did not agree with the ruling and would appeal the decision at the Supreme Court on Tuesday morning.

Sri Lanka has been thrown into political disarray since late October, when President Maithripala Sirisena ousted his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and replaced him with Mr. Rajapaksa, a decision that was deemed unconstitutional. Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Rajapaksa both claim to be the legitimate holder of the office.

Mr. Rajapaksa is a popular former leader who served as president and prime minister for 10 years and who ended the country’s decades-long civil war in 2009. He has been accused, however, of human rights abuses, nepotism and excessively close ties to China. He lost the presidency to Mr. Sirisena, a former political ally, in 2015.

By contrast, Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe had been foes until they united their parties to defeat Mr. Rajapaksa. Tensions between the two men had been building for the past year, with Mr. Sirisena accusing Mr. Wickremesinghe of being weak and corrupt. With his appointment as prime minister, Mr. Rajapaksa appeared to secure his re-ascendance ahead of presidential elections next year.

But lawmakers objected, leading Mr. Sirisena to dissolve Parliament until the Supreme Court blocked him. While Mr. Wickremesinghe holed up in the prime minister’s residence, guarded by hundreds of supporters, Mr. Rajapaksa tried to win over lawmakers amid open brawls in Parliament. Thousands of supporters of each side have protested in the streets of Colombo, the capital, resulting in at least one death.

The court ruled on Monday that the damage caused to Sri Lanka by allowing Mr. Rajapaksa to hold office unlawfully would “be irreparable or irredeemable.”

The order reinforces two parliamentary votes to oust Mr. Rajapaksa and reinstall Mr. Wickremesinghe, who holds a majority in Parliament.

“The triumph of democratic institutions over the whims of individuals is the legacy of the good governance agenda. We will continue to defend the sovereignty of our citizens,” Mr. Wickremesinghe wrote on Twitter in response to the court ruling.

Ethnic Tamil lawmakers met with Mr. Sirisena shortly after the court ruling on Monday. In a readout of the meeting, one lawmaker said that the president recognized the court’s decision to strip Mr. Rajapaksa of power and would “take necessary action within 24 hours,” without providing specifics.

Mr. Sirisena could not be reached for comment.

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