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Politics

Sri Lanka court bars Rajapaksa from office, disputed PM to appeal

COLOMBO (Reuters) -- A Sri Lankan court issued an order preventing Mahinda Rajapaksa and his disputed cabinet from holding office on Monday, heightening the island's political drama and drawing an immediate vow to appeal from the prime minister.

The South Asian nation has been in crisis since President Maithripala Sirisena replaced Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa in October, then issued an order dissolving parliament and called for a general election.

Sirisena's decisions have prompted legal challenges and on Friday the Appeal Court began hearing a petition by 122 legislators challenging Rajapaksa's authority to hold office after he lost two no-confidence votes last month.

"The damage that will be posed by temporarily restraining a lawful cabinet of ministers from functioning would be...outweighed by the damage that would be caused by allowing a set of persons who are not entitled in law to function as the prime minister or the cabinet of ministers," judge Preethipadhman Surasena said.

The judge issued the interim order against Rajapaksa and his cabinet, and asked them to appear in court on Dec. 12 to explain on what basis they hold office. The order will be in place until a final judgement, whose date has not been set.

Rajapaksa said in a statement his government would lodge an appeal with the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The decision puts a further brake on Rajapaksa's disputed government after parliament voted last week to halt payment of ministers' salaries and travel expenses.

The impasse has pushed the island's currency to record lows, caused turmoil on its stock and bond markets and raised fears it may not be able to service debts to finance reconstruction following a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.

The court order also came as Rajapaksa was set to present an interim budget for the first few months of 2019. In the absence of a budget, officials have raised concerns over the payment of salaries and pensions in the public sector and foreign debt repayments.

Rajapaksa is seen as a hero by many among Sri Lanka's Buddhist majority for ending the war but has been accused by diplomats of rights abuses, particularly at the end of the conflict, which he denies.

The Supreme Court is set to begin hearing on Tuesday a petition on whether Sirisena's decision to dissolve parliament was constitutional. It is expected to give its verdict on Friday.

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