File photo of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Photograph:( Reuters )
Sri Lanka's attorney general Wednesday refused to endorse the president's dismissal of the prime minister for a former strongman accused of rights abuses, the clearest sign yet the move may be unconstitutional.
The country has been locked in a tense standoff between two rivals claiming to head Sri Lanka's government since Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's shock sacking last Friday.
The president and parliamentary speaker held emergency talks Wednesday in a bid to work out a compromise and avoid a showdown, official sources close to both sides told AFP.
The crisis talks came after Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya cast fresh doubt on the legality of President Maithripala Sirisena's actions, declining to endorse them.
Jayasuriya's refusal bolstered Wickremesinghe's claim that the president acted outside the constitution by dumping him for Mahinda Rajapakse, a former president who ruled with an iron fist for a decade.
Wickremesinghe has refused to leave the prime minister's official residence and demanded Sirisena reconvene parliament so MPs can vote for a leader and end the constitutional crisis.
Sirisena had resisted international pressure to revoke his suspension of parliament for 20 days while his appointee Rajapakse has assumed his duties, naming a new cabinet and addressing bureaucrats at the finance ministry on Wednesday.
The two rivals are also jockeying for power behind the scenes, battling to tempt lawmakers from opposing sides to bolster their numbers if a vote is held.
"Having regard to the role of the Attorney General under the constitution, I am of the view that expressing an opinion on the said questions would be deemed inappropriate," said Jayasuriya, the government's top legal advisor.
Sri Lanka's parliamentary speaker had asked Jayasuriya to provide his legal opinion as pressure builds on Sirisena to resolve the nearly week-long impasse that has left one dead in clashes.
Wickremesinghe amended the constitution after winning the premiership in 2015 to remove the president's power to sack prime ministers.
Sirisena insists his actions were legal but Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has also refused to defend his manoeuvrings while warning of a "bloodbath" if the president delayed the opening of parliament.
Sri Lanka's journalists have been caught in the power struggle between the warring leaders.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) said supporters of Rajapakse, whose tenure was marred by allegations of rights violations and corruption, stormed state-owned media institutions shortly after his appointment late Friday night, roughing up ministers and journalists who then had to be rescued by police commandos.
"The violence with which Mahinda Rajapakse's bully boys took over the state media is absolutely unacceptable," RSF said, adding that the crisis recalled the "darkest hours of the Rajapakse presidency between 2005 and 2015".
"We call on all parties to act responsibly by guaranteeing journalists' safety and by respecting their editorial independence, so that impartial news coverage is available to the public."
Journalists say that state media has largely become pro-Rajapakse while private networks have kept up a low-level coverage of Wickremesinghe.
During Rajapakse's tenure, 17 journalists and media workers were killed, according to rights organisations.
In 2015, Wickremesinghe helped Sirisena to defeat Rajapakse and formed a unity government, but the two have drifted apart over policy and personality clashes.
Rajapakse has given five legislators from Wickremesinghe's party ministerial portfolios in his cabinet after persuading them to change sides.
Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, has convinced at least two lawmakers from Sirisena's camp to join his United National Party.
Following the latest defections, Wickremesinghe has 104 MPs in the 225-seat chamber while Rajapakse and Sirisena together have 99.
A majority of the 22 remaining MPs are expected to back Wickremesinghe in any vote, observers said.