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Sri Lanka parliament committee says chief justice guilty of misuse of power, undeclared wealth

A Sri Lankan parliamentary committee has concluded after a much-criticized impeachment hearing that the country's chief justice is unfit to hold office because of unexplained wealth and misuse of power.

Government lawmaker Anura Yapa, who headed the 11-member impeachment committee, told reporters Saturday that they investigated only five of the 14 charges against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and concluded that she was guilty of three and innocent of two. Bandaranayake has denied all the allegations.

The committee concluded its hearings despite the absence of Bandaranayake and four opposition party members, who walked out during the week, saying they had no faith in the fairness of the process.

Yapa said Bandaranayake had failed to declare 20 bank accounts, and had purchased a house on behalf of another person and then taken judicial control of several cases filed against the company that sold the property. She also was found to have a conflict of interest because she has supervisory power over judges who are hearing a corruption case against her husband, a former state bank chairman.

"The chief justice has been found guilty of offenses that warrant her removal from office," Yapa said.

The committee's report was presented to Parliament Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa on Saturday. Rajapaksa, the older brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said it will be debated and put to a vote when Parliament reconvenes next year after a break.

The impeachment process was much criticized by opposition parties, lawyers and judges, and drew international concern, including from the United States.

Opposition members said the seven ruling party members had rejected what they saw as reasonable requests for establishing a procedure for the hearing and allowing Bandaranayake access to a list of witnesses and a chance to cross examine them.

They said the committee gave Bandaranayake and her lawyers less than 24 hours to study 300 documents and prepare for her defense. Also, in the absence of an agreed procedure, the inquiry was conducted in an ad hoc manner at the will of the majority, they said, adding that remarks made by the government members indicated they had already judged Bandaranayake guilty.

A lawyer representing Bandaranayake said she will not accept the committee's findings because witnesses were called in her absence and the process was hastily concluded late Friday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because public comments on the proceedings are prohibited.

In a statement Friday, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S is deeply concerned about actions surrounding the impeachment trial and urged the government to ensure due process.

"These latest developments are part of a disturbing deterioration of democratic norms in Sri Lanka, including infringement on the independence of the judiciary," Toner said.

Lawyers and opposition parties have described the impeachment as an effort to undermine judicial independence and give more power to President Rajapaksa, who effectively controls the 225-member Parliament with two-thirds of its members on his side.

With that majority, the impeachment report is expected to be passed easily.