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SLBC blatantly violates election laws

Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) has informed the election commission that the Muslim Service of SLBC had been violating election laws during the silent period.

During the silent period where no election propaganda was to take place, the Muslim Service of SLBC had carried a voice cut by SLPP Beruwala organiser, Marjan Faleel urging the voters to support SLPP Kurunegala candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa.

CaFFE pointed out that this was also a misuse of public property. This is not the first time that the SLBC had violated election laws and CaFFE had lodged similar complaints to the Commission earlier.

CaFFE has also received a number of complaints about propaganda during the silent period. These include promoting candidates at religious establishments as well as distributing goods to voters.

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Anura and Shani won't be summoned until court case is over: PCoI

The Court of Appeal has been informed by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on political victimization that Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, former Director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Shani Abeysekara and Senior State Counsel Janaka Bandara will not be summoned before the Commission until the Court case on the matter concludes.

The Commission had earlier issued summons on 17 individuals including Dissanayake and Abeysekara regarding the complaint lodged by Chairman of Avant-Garde, Nissanka Senadhipathi on the alleged loss incurred by his company due to its arbitrary takeover during the former government.

Dissanayake and Abeysekara subsequently filed two writ applications before the Court of Appeal seeking a court order to cancel the summons issued on them by the PCoI.

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10 international organisations urge Govt. to end targeted crackdown on human rights defenders

The Sri Lankan government should end the targeted arrests, intimidation and threats against the lives and physical security of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists, 10 international human rights organisations said today.

The Sri Lankan government should end the targeted arrests, intimidation and threats against the lives and physical security of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists, 10 international human rights organisations said today.

They observed that a campaign of fear has intensified since the 2019 presidential election, and has cast a shadow over the 2020 parliamentary election campaign.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, International Commission for Jurists, Forum-Asia, Frontline Defenders, CIVICUS, International Service for Human Rights, South Asians for Human Rights and OBS in a joint statement on Thursday (30) said that the United Nations, as well Sri Lanka’s partners and foreign donors, should immediately call for full respect, protection and fulfillment of the human rights of all Sri Lankans, and particularly to halt the reversal of fragile gains in the protection of human rights in recent years.

The statement further said;

"Numerous civilian institutions, including the NGO Secretariat, have been placed under the control of the Defence Ministry. Serving and retired military officers have been appointed to a slew of senior government roles previously held by civilians. The authorities have recently  established military-led bodies such as the Presidential Task Force to build “a secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society,” which has the power to issue directives to any government official. This represents an alarming trend towards the militarization of the state. Many of those in government, including the president, defense secretary, and army chief, are accused of war crimes during the internal armed conflict that ended in 2009.

Dissident voices and critics of the current government, including lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and victims of past abuses, are being targeted by the police, intelligence agencies and pro-government media.

Since the presidential election in November 2019, anti-human rights rhetoric intended to restrict the space for civil society has been amplified by senior members of government. On 6 July 2020, at an election rally, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that “NGOs will be taken into a special attention under the new government formed after the General Election, specifically, how foreign monies and grants are received to the NGOs from foreign countries and further, activities of the international organisations will be observed.” The government has also announced a probe into NGOs registered under the previous government.

In the months following the November 2019 presidential election, a number of organizations reported visits from intelligence officers who sought details of staff, programs and funding, in particular, organizations in the war-affected Northern and Eastern provinces of the country. Such visits are blatant attempts to harass and intimidate Sri Lankan civil society.

In February, the acting District Secretary in the Mullaitivu District (Northern Province) issued a directive that only non-governmental organizations with at least 70 percent of their activities focused on development would be allowed to work, effectively enabling arbitrary interference with and prevention of a broad range of human rights work. A Jaffna-based think-tank was visited several times, including soon after the Covid-19 lockdown, and questioned about its work, funding and staff details.

Lawyers taking on human rights cases have been targeted through legal and administrative processes and have faced smear campaigns in the media. Kumaravadivel Guruparan, a human rights lawyer, was a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Jaffna. He appeared as counsel on behalf of victims in the case of 24 Tamil youth who were subjected to enforced disappearance while in military custody at Navatkuli in 1996. In November 2019, Guruparan was banned by the University Grants Commission (UGC) from teaching law while also practicing in court. The ban was following a letter sent by the Sri Lankan army to the UGC questioning why Guruparan was permitted to engage in legal practice while being a member of the faculty. Guruparan resigned from the University on 16 July 2020.

On 14 April, Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer who has represented victims of human rights violations, was arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). He is being held illegally without charge and without being produced before a magistrate for over 90 days. He has had limited access to his lawyers and family members. The day before his arrest, Hizbullah joined others in submitting a letter addressed to President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa criticising the denial of burial rights to the Muslim community under Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 regulations.

Achala Senevirathne, a lawyer who represents families in a case involving the enforced disappearance of 11 youth in 2008, in which senior military commanders are implicated, has been attacked on social media, including with threats of physical violence and sexualized abuse. The police have failed to act on her complaints of threats to her safety.

On 10 June, Swastika Arulingam, a lawyer, was arrested when she inquired about the arrests of people conducting a peaceful Black Lives Matter solidarity protest. Other lawyers, not named here for reasons of security, have also been visited at their homes by security officials, or called in for lengthy interrogations linked to their human rights work.

Journalists and those voicing critical opinions on social media, have been arbitrarily arrested. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression, including the 1 April announcement by the police that any person criticizing officials engaged in the response to Covid-19 would be arrested. It is unclear whether there is any legal basis for such arrests. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has cautioned against “an increasing number of such arrests since the issuing of a letter dated 1 April 2020”.

Media rights groups have condemned the targeting of journalists since the presidential election, with threats of arrest, surveillance, and lengthy police interrogations linked to their reporting. Dharisha Bastians, former editor of the Sunday Observer newspaper and a contributor to the New York Times, her family, and associates, have been persecuted by Sri Lankan police in retaliation for her work. Since December 2019, authorities have attempted to link Bastians to the disputed abduction of a Swiss Embassy employee in Colombo. The government claims the alleged abduction was fabricated to discredit the government. Since Bastians had reported on the incident as a journalist, the police have obtained and published her phone records, searched her house, and seized her laptop computer.

On 9 April, a social media commentator Ramzy Razeek was arrested under Sri Lanka’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act and the Computer Crimes Act. He approached the Sri Lankan police for protection following online death threats linked to his social media posts condemning all forms of extremism. Instead of receiving protection, he was jailed and denied bail. His hearing has been postponed, despite his failing health and the heightened risk posed by the pandemic in prisons.

The targeting and repression of journalists and human rights defenders is not only an assault on the rights of these individuals, but an attack on the principles of human rights and the rule of law which should protect all Sri Lankans. These policies have a chilling effect on the rights to freedom of expression and association, which are crucial for the operation of civil society and fundamental to the advancement of human rights. Those working on ending impunity and ensuring accountability for past crimes, and especially victims, victim’s families, members of minority communities, and networks in the Northern and Eastern provinces, are particularly at risk of intimidation and harassment.

The Sri Lankan authorities must end all forms of harassment, threats, and abuse of legal processes and police powers against lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists. Ramzy Razeek and Hejaaz Hizbullah must be released immediately. Human rights defenders living and working in Sri Lanka should be able to carry out their peaceful human rights work without fear of reprisals, which requires a safe and enabling environment in which they can organize, assemble, receive and share information.

While the government of Sri Lanka continues to deny Sri Lankans the ability to promote and defend human rights, particularly targeting members of civil society, we call upon the international community, including states and the United Nations, to demand that Sri Lanka live up to its international human rights obligations.

Sri Lankan human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists need to be protected now."

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Tile and sanitaryware importers run out of business due to temporary ban 

The government’s continuation of temporary ban imposed on tile and sanitary ware imports will jeopardize local importers hitting the several other domestic sectors, mainly the construction industry while depriving the government of much needed tax revenue in billions of rupees.

The COVID-19 outbreak has prompted the government to impose a temporary ban on all imports except a few essential items.

After considering the situation and appeals of importers, it has issued a new regulation dated July 16, 2020 in a special gazette notification canceling the previous regulation published on May 21, 2020 lifting the prohibition of many other imported products.

But to the dismay of tile and sanitaryware importers numbering over 300, the government has not lifted the ban on their imports.

 Govt. to lose LKR 15 billion in tax revenue

The country will be losing LKR 15 billion as taxes per annum, several local importers said adding that with the present depreciation of the rupee they are faced with bigger issues as they buy in dollars and sell in Sri Lanka rupees.  

At present, this industry provides direct and indirect employment to around 50,000 individuals with over 2,000 dealers countrywide.

While local manufacturers hold 50% of the market share, the importers are surviving in the industry with 50% of the market share, they pointed out.

The temporary import prohibition on tiles and sanitaryware imports will have a spilling effect on auxiliary related industries such as warehousing and logistics, clearing and forwarding, banking and finance, construction and commercial real estates.

It will increase under employment among a large number of professionals such as architects, engineers, consultants, quantity surveyors, sub-contractors as well as tile masons and daily wage earners, they warned.

The industry maintains an average warehousing space of 2 million sq. ft. and approximately 200,000 sq ft of showroom retail space immensely contributing to the real estate sector in the country.

Therefore, restricting imports would adversely impact the income generated for warehouse and showroom owners’ countrywide, they claimed.

In a letter to the head of Presidential Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication Basil Rajapakasa, the secretary of Tile and Sanitaryware Importers Association (TSIA), E.S. Bulathsinhala has urged the authorities to grant them approval to import these products  under 180 day LC s.

This will immediately prevent the 50 percent shortage of Tiles and Sanitary ware in the local market and make available quality products at reasonable prices, he added.

Therefore, Sri Lankan tile and sanitaryware importers are calling for the lifting of a temporary ban to help cope with the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak which has disrupted their business outright.

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We were wrong about Ranil for 25 years: Udaya Gammanpila

SLPP Colombo district candidate Udaya Gammanpila says that they were wrong to accuse former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of favouring separatism.

"Up until now, we have been accusing Ranil Wickremesinghe of being in favour of separatism. We accused him of trying to destroy the United National Party by appeasing to the Tamil seperatists and to the Muslim extremists. We made this serious allegation for more than 25 years," Gammanpila said at a press briefing today (30).

He said that with the split that resulted in the UNP, they have been able to ponder who really pandered to the separatists and the extremists.

"Now when we look back, it was wrong to accuse him. Although we saw that Muslim extremists and Tamil seperatists like MA Sumanthiran were aligned with the UNP, they have actually been with Sajith Premadasa and not with Ranil Wickremesinghe. Only when these two split did we get to see whose side Hakeem, Mano, Digamabaram and the likes of Sumanthiran were on," he said.

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Sri Lanka suspends joint venture at ‘the world’s emptiest airport’

Many governments, national, regional or local, have good intentions when it comes to the construction of airports. Theoretically, they will improve the economic prospects of a region.

But all too often they turn out to be white elephants unable to attract commercial airlines. Spain has some good examples.

In Sri Lanka the same appears to be happening, with the Indian Airports Authority reported to have been frozen out of a joint venture with the Sri Lankan government to develop the new Mattala airport. That is surprising, because politically it is in India’s interests to assist with developments like these and, at the same time, keep China out.

“At best a white elephant”

The new Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) in Sri Lanka has been described as “at best a white elephant with a very small catchment area”, and that “nobody flies there”.  And that was from SriLankan Airlines’ former CEO Suren Ratwatte.

At the time (2018) it seemed that the airport would be taken over by Airports Authority of India (AAI), and that the plan seemed to be for AAI to invest in the airport. Mr Ratwatte added that, in terms of some of the large China-supported infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka: “Who the infrastructure was supposed to cater to, I really don’t know”.

There is an intriguing tale behind the development of this airport, where, it is now reported, the government has suspended plans to establish a JV with AAI for its operation under a 40-year concession contract. The AAI was expected to hold a 70% stake in the joint venture formed to operate the airport. India’s Minister of State for Civil Aviation had at first denied AAI was considering any such JV proposal.
AAI was asked to submit a business plan, but the private sector also approached

MRIA was opened in Mar-2013 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had ordered the construction of the airport.

In mid Jul-2018 Sri Lanka’s Government requested that AAI submit a business plan for the operation of the airport. AAI was expected to tackle issues that included how many flights it would bring in, and which Indian airlines in particular would service the airport – even though it has no control over those.

Intriguingly, it once appeared, when this procedure began, that the Sri Lankan government was seeking to do a deal with the Indian government directly rather than with AAI, which is an agency operating under the auspices of the Indian Ministry of Aviation.

Later, the Sri Lankan airport was planning to form a joint venture with a private Indian company to operate the airport. GMR became the chief “suspect”, and in fact had been so since as long ago as Oct-2017, when the Sri Lankan government was first reported to be “in advanced talks” with an Indian company to award a concession contract.
All eventualities were on the table

And the situation was further confused by a statement made at the beginning of Jul-2018 by Sri Lanka’s Deputy Minister of Transport after the visit of a delegation from India, to the extent that the government did not plan to sell the airport “despite (it) making losses”.

So… a deal with the Indian government, with AAI as a JV partner, with a private Indian company, and no deal at all. All eventualities were on the table if reports are to be believed.

 India wary of China’s growing influence in the region

India’s interest may have political drivers and could be based around China’s growing influence, having already supported the initial financing of the airport and already holding a presence at the nearby Hambantota shipping port (to access one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes) under a 99-year lease.

Obviously China’s intentions are unclear, but under its ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative access to a port and airport would have given it increasing power in the subcontinent. As some commentators have pointed out, OBOR is primarily to influence control over the Asian ‘rim’, which runs around and through Sri Lanka.

The need for India to keep China at bay in this area has been heightened by worsening political relations between China and just about every other country on earth (except Iran) since the COVID-19 pandemic began (NATO is expected soon to come knocking on India’s door), and by border clashes between China and India during the past two months.
Indian company favoured because of potential visitor volume

An Indian company was favoured by the Sri Lankan government to be the majority partner because India “can bring the largest volume of tourists to this airport”.

And Mattala Rajapaksa Airport needs those visitors. It was conceived as a second international airport for the country but is situated on the south coast, 120 km from Colombo. It was built by the government with the benefit of soft loans – including, tellingly, one from China Exim Bank – and opened in 2013 as the country’s first greenfield airport.

One of the reasons for the site selection appears to be that of the reconstruction of a town (Hambantota) and wider region that was destroyed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The intention is to transform Hambantota into the second major urban hub of Sri Lanka, and purposefully at a distance from Colombo so as not to over-centralise.

Although there are beach resorts and safari sites in the area, the Hambantota district is not Sri Lanka’s premier tourist location by any means. The main reason for the development is simply reconstruction.

Commercial services largely unsustainable

Mattala Rajapaksa opened with several airlines having committed to service there, led by SriLankan Airlines, which actually set up a hub operation, even though the airport is not well located geographically to support hub services.

Demand was so low that the airline soon left, and currently there are no scheduled services as such, apart from air taxi services operated by Cinnamon Air using Cessna aircraft. CAPA has received no passenger traffic statistics since 2017.

It has been called "The World's Emptiest International Airport" due to its low number of flights, despite the large size of the airport.

This is quite an achievement, given the number of ‘aeromuertos’ that opened in Spain but never got going, most of which were closed down and now languish unused and unloved in the sun (except for parking unused aircraft right now, that is).
Unaffected by the pandemic

The total seat capacity for 2020 is 20,610 which is actually over 1,000 more than in 2019, thus making it one of very few airports anywhere which have not been adversely affected by the pandemic!  

According to CAPA – Centre for Aviation, data from OAG shows that all the seat capacity is concentrated into three ‘waves’ of hour blocks daily (0700-0900; 1200-1300; and 1700-1800), with flights to two places – Katugastota (Kandy) in the centre of the country, and Anuradhapura in the north, probably for tourist reasons.

 Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport: seat capacity by hour blocks for 21-Jul-2020 
large LK94000191 E 6 1589458369121Source: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and OAG

Mattala's usage is being diverted towards MRO and cargo activities, possibly aircraft storage. The access road to the airport is now used for farming purposes, and at night by elephants. From white elephant to real elephant, one might say.

It is still possible that a joint venture partner could be found, possibly from the private sector in India, but political drivers connected to China would not play a part there. The most likely prospect is that Mattala will be classed as an ‘aeromuerto’ and find its place in the sun.
(Excerpts from Centre for Aviation)
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Kuwait bans residents coming from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is among seven countries that has been hit with a travel ban by Kuwait.

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Advance polling for people under quarantine on July 31: NEC

The National Election Commission (NEC) has set July 31 as the date for advance voting for persons under quarantine, NEC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said on Sunday ahead of the August 5 vote.

Over 16 million voters are registered to vote on August 5 to elect a 225-member parliament for a 5-year term.

The election commission has been struggling to make arrangements for a free and fair poll due to the health risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The pandemic has forced the election authorities to set an advance polling day for those under quarantine," Deshapriya said adding that "those under quarantine would be allowed to vote on July 31."

Deshapriya said the identities of the voters under home quarantine would not be revealed to the media.

This will be the first-ever election in Sri Lanka to have an advance polling date other than the postal voting for persons on election duties.

Sri Lanka has already extended the polling time for the twice-postponed August 5 parliamentary elections by one hour after conducting several mock polls in adherence to the safety guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 2 dissolved the Parliament, six months ahead of schedule, and called for snap polls on April 25.

However, the election commission in mid-April postponed the elections by nearly two months to June 20 due to the coronavirus outbreak in the island nation.

The commission last month informed the apex court that the polls cannot be held on June 20 because of the coronavirus pandemic and the new date was decided following a unanimous decision reached between the members of the commission.
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Retired senior citizens affected due to low interest rates on deposits

Prior to the current government coming into power, every other government that existed ensured that Sri Lanka’s fixed deposit interest rate was maintained at not less than 8%.
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Cash strapped Sri Lanka signs $400 million currency swap with India

India announced it had finalised a US$ 400 million currency swap facility for Sri Lanka under the SAARC framework, and said that Colombo’s request for a bilateral swap facility for US$ 1.1 billion is being considered.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) signed documents for giving effect to the currency swap facility for the Central Bank of Sri Lanka on Friday. The arrangement will remain available till November 2022, and the Indian High Commission in Colombo informed senior officials of the Central Bank Sri Lanka government about the decision. Earlier, on July 14, Deputy High Commissioner Vinod K. Jacob had met and discussed the currency swap arrangement with the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Prof. W.D. Lakshman. 

This currency swap was extended by India following a request from the Sri Lankan side for the facility under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Currency Swap Framework in order to cope with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
During a phone conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 23, President President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had asked the Indian government to provide a special swap facility of US$ 1.1 billion "to top up the $400 million under the Saarc facility."
While the agreement for the currency swap under the Saarc framework has been concluded, the bilateral swap request for US$ 1.1 billion is being considered, reports say.

A statement issued by the Sri Lankan president’s office in May had quoted Rajapaksa as saying the special swap of US$ 1.1 billion "would enormously help Sri Lanka in dealing with our foreign exchange issues."
During his visit to India earlier this year, President Rajapaksa had sought a moratorium on repayment of loans worth almost US$ 1 billion.
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UNP expels 115 members aligned with SJB

The United National Party has decided to expel 54 of its members including former parliamentarians and organisers
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Child actors among those abused at 'Reality TV' programme

The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) together with the Kollupitiya Police have arrested a man yesterday (25) for allegedly abusing a number of children involved in reality TV programmes, 'Lankadeepa' newspaper reported.

The suspect, said to be a television set designer, had allegedly been abusing children for quite some time.

It is reported that child actors are also among those who have been abused by this person. Further, Lankadeepa reported that the suspect has recorded videos of the abuse.

Based on information divulged by the suspect, the Police are conducting further investigations regarding the allegations.

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