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Sri Lanka parliament gives final approval to remove presidential term limits

The Sri Lankan Parliament [official website] on Wednesday voted 161-17 [press release] to give final approval to the 18th amendment [text, PDF] to the Sri Lankan Constitution [materials], eliminating presidential term limits. The parliament joined the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka and the Cabinet [JURIST reports], which have also voted to ratify the amendment. In addition to removing presidential term limits, the amendment also requires the president to be present in parliament every three months and gives the president greater control over the membership of the Supreme Court, electoral commission and human rights commission by eliminating an independent advisory body and replacing it with a parliamentary council without veto powers over the appointments. The amendment needed 150 votes in the 225-member parliament to become effective, and garnered the support of six members of the opposition party [press release], who voted in favor of the changes. The amendment will allow current President Mahinda Rajapaksa [official website; BBC profile] to run for reelection at the expiration of his current term in office in 2016. Following the vote, supporters of the opposition party protested against the amendment [BBC report] outside of parliament. Shortly before its passage, the constitutional changes were criticized by former Sri Lanka army chief Sarath Fonseka [JURIST news archive], who described the pending ratification as a blow to democracy [TOI report] which could result in military rule. Fonseka, who was defeated by Rajapaksa in the January presidential election [NYT report], has been facing charges [JURIST report] of engaging in politics while on active duty, provoking violence and bringing disrepute to the government.

Critics of the president have called the amendment an abuse of power [AP report] and an attempt to "create a family dynasty." Rajapaksa is a popular figure within Sri Lanka, primarily for his efforts in defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) [JURIST news archive]. That conflict has raised numerous questions about the government's actions during military operations, including the treatment of prisoners and civilians. Last month, the Sri Lankan defense minister defended the government's actions during the conflict by taking every effort to avoid civilian casualties [JURIST report] and providing humanitarian relief. In July, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the Sri Lankan government to improve conditions around UN offices in Colombo after a UN announcement of an international panel to investigate human rights abuses during the war resulted in days of pro-government protests [JURIST reports] near UN offices.

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