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Sri Lankans march to protest against government's move to impeach chief justice

Hundreds of Sri Lankans marched Monday to demand the government halt a plan to impeach the country's chief justice and condemning what they say is intimidation of the judiciary.

Nearly 1,000 demonstrators, including opposition lawmakers and rights activists, marched through the capital, shouting slogans and displaying banners that read "Hands off the judiciary" and "End of judiciary - End of fair play."

Last week, the government started the process to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake after a drawn-out conflict between the judiciary and parliament. The government says Bandaranayake has undermined parliament's supremacy and misused her office. Opposition politicians and critics say the impeachment motion is a ploy to stifle judicial independence

On Monday, protesters staged a silent protest in front of the country's Supreme Court and then walked across the main roads of Colombo and held a rally outside the main railroad station.

Opposition lawmaker Anura Dissanayake said "the government is trying to weaken the judiciary and on the other hand it has dealt a severe blow to the country's democratic setup."

Opposition officials and rights groups have accused President Mahinda Rajapaksa of tightening control over the media, police and election officials as well as carrying out vendettas against independent media, journalists and opposition parties.

The government changed the constitution last year, giving the president power to appoint the chief justice, police chief and election commissioner, which is seen as a way to curb their independence.

Dissanayake accused Rajapaksa of moving on a path toward "a total dictatorship."

Lawyer Sunil Watagala said the protest campaign will continue "until the government withdraws this motion."

The U.S. State Department said last week it was concerned by the actions against Bandaranayake, and spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged Sri Lanka to avoid any action that would impede the efficacy and independence of the judiciary.

Last month, Sri Lanka's Secretary of Judicial Service Commission Manjula Tillakaratne was assaulted by a gang days after he publicly said the judiciary was being pressurized by powerful people and that there were threats to the lives of judges and their families.

The impeachment motion follows months of power struggles between the judiciary and parliament. It also follows a recent Supreme Court determination that a government bill contradicted the constitution because it could give back power to the national government from provincial governments, such as for rural development plans.