Sri Lanka Probes President’s Niece Over Pandora Papers’ Claims

This photograph illustration shows the logo of Pandora Papers, in Lavau-sur-Loire, western France, on October 4, 2021. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP)

 

Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered a probe Wednesday into his niece’s overseas wealth after she and her husband were alleged in the Pandora Papers to have millions of dollars stashed abroad.

The opposition immediately cried foul, saying that the investigation would amount to a cover-up by the Rajapaksa family which has been powerful in the island nation for decades.

Cabinet spokesman Dulles Alahapperuma said the president asked the main anti-graft body to issue a report on the assets of Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband Thirukumar Nadesan “within one month”.

Nirupama Rajapaksa, 59, was a legislator in the previous governments of another uncle, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current prime minister, between 2004 and 2015 and was a junior minister for five years.

The couple’s names were among dozens of prominent personalities worldwide featured in roughly 11.9 million documents leaked from financial services firms that managed their wealth.

The Pandora Papers were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and released in stories by media partners including The Washington Post, the BBC and The Guardian.

Allegations range from corruption to money laundering and tax evasion.

The ICIJ said that according to its analysis of a Nadesan trust’s financial statements, Nirupama Rajapaksa and Nadesan had offshore holdings worth about $18 million in 2017.

In emails to Asiaciti Trust, a Singapore-based financial services provider, a longtime adviser of Nadesan’s put his overall wealth in 2011 at more than $160 million, the ICIJ said.

The couple declined to comment, the ICIJ said.

Holding assets offshore or using shell companies is not illegal in Sri Lanka, but it must be declared to the local tax authorities.

The government last month passed legislation granting an amnesty to tax dodgers hoping that the move will bring back wealth stashed abroad at a time when the island is facing a serious shortage of foreign exchange.

Leftist opposition legislator Anura Dissanayake said they had little faith in the latest investigation which had he said had been set up to deflect public anger.

“Investigations are a mechanism to suppress the truth and protect the guilty,” Dissanayake told AFP.

Nadesan has been indicted in a local money laundering case in 2016 along with another Rajapaksa sibling, Basil Rajapaksa, who is the current finance minister. The case is pending.

The ‘Pandora Papers’ are the latest in a series of mass leaks handled by the ICIJ, from LuxLeaks in 2014, to the 2016 Panama Papers.

They were followed by the Paradise Papers in 2017 and FinCen files in 2020.

AFP

Sri Lanka Declares Worst Economic Downturn In 73 years

Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Photo: ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP

 

Sri Lanka announced Friday that its economy shrank 3.6 percent last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, making it the worst downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.

The unprecedented recession compared with a 2.3 percent GDP growth in 2019, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka said in its annual report for 2020.

It hoped the economy would rebound in 2021 and record an optimistic six percent growth on the back of improved local manufacturing and services.

“The pandemic has also offered an opportunity to reset the economy’s focus and to address longstanding structural weaknesses and establish a production-based, productivity-driven economy,” the bank said.

READ ALSO: No Plan To Significantly Raise Electricity Tarrifs – FG

The pandemic hit the island’s lucrative tourism sector while sharp contractions were seen in construction, manufacturing as well as in services, the bank said.

It said the central government’s debt also rose to 101 percent of GDP last year, up from 86.8 percent of GDP in the previous year, underscoring the debt crisis faced by the South Asian nation.

International rating agencies have expressed fears for Sri Lanka’s ability to service its huge foreign debt as the country’s foreign reserves fell sharply in the past year.

The island’s economy was trying to recover from the effects of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings that killed 279 people when the pandemic hit in early 2020.

Two weeks ago, Sri Lanka secured a $500 million loan from China to shore up its foreign exchange reserves as the local currency came under intense pressure and fell to a record low.

Chinese influence in the South Asian nation has been growing in recent years through loans and projects under its vast Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, raising concerns among regional powers and Western nations.

Between 2005 and 2015, Colombo borrowed billions from China, accumulating a mountain of debt for expensive infrastructure projects.

Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its strategic Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to a Chinese company in 2017 after it was unable to service the $1.4 billion debt from Beijing used to build it.

AFP

Sri Lanka Secures $1.5 Billion Chinese Loan

In this file photo taken on July 23, 2020, the Chinese flag flies behind barbed wire at the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco. Philip Pacheco / AFP
In this file photo taken on July 23, 2020, the Chinese flag flies behind barbed wire at the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco. Philip Pacheco / AFP

 

Sri Lanka and China have signed a $1.5 billion currency swap deal, the island nation’s central bank said Tuesday, as it struggles with a major foreign exchange crisis and debt repayments.

Colombo had been negotiating for months to secure credit from China — its largest single source of imports — as the island’s foreign reserves plummet amid the pandemic.

Chinese influence in the South Asian nation has been growing in recent years, through loans and projects under its vast Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, raising concerns among regional powers and Western nations.

READ ALSO: Germany To Enter Strict Easter Shutdown Amid ‘New Pandemic’

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka said the three-year swap arrangement for 10 billion yuan with the People’s Bank of China was “with a view to promoting bilateral trade and direct investment for the economic development of the two countries”.

Officials said talks were also underway to secure another $700 million from the China Development Bank.

Sri Lanka’s economy was already reeling from the deadly 2019 Easter bombings, with the coronavirus epidemic and lockdowns further weighing on growth.

The economy contracted by a record 3.9 percent last year.

Foreign reserves fell to $4.5 billion in February from $8.0 billion a year ago, despite Sri Lanka banning the import of luxury goods and vehicles as well as some food commodities.

Under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 and 2015, Colombo borrowed billions from China, accumulating a mountain of debt for expensive infrastructure projects.

Rajapaksa returned to power as prime minister in 2019, after his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president.

Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its strategic Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to a Chinese company in 2017 after Colombo said it was unable to service the $1.4 billion debt from Beijing used to build it.

AFP

Bus Crash Kills 14 In Sri Lanka

BREAKING: 'Multiple Casualties' As Gunman Opens Fire At US Synagogue
File photo

 

A crowded bus crashed into a precipice in central Sri Lanka Saturday, killing the driver and 13 passengers in the worst road accident in 16 years, police said.

The privately-owned bus was travelling through the hilly region of Passara when it went off the road and crashed as the driver swerved to avoid an oncoming truck at a narrow pass, police said.

Five of the dead passengers were women and eight were men, police said, while another 30 people sustained injuries.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: British PM Receives First Dose Of AstraZeneca Vaccine

Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said CCTV footage suggested the bus driver was negligent before the accident. An investigation was underway.

It was the worst bus crash since April 2005 when a driver tried to beat a train at a level crossing at the north-western town of Polgahawela. The bus driver escaped with minor injuries, but 37 passengers were killed.

Sri Lanka records an average of 3,000 road fatalities annually making the island’s roads among the most dangerous in the world.

AFP

Sri Lanka Sets Visitor Restrictions As It Reopens For Foreign Tourists

People watch an elephant standing behind an electric fence marking the boundary of a wildlife sanctuary in Udawalawe on January 16, 2021. (Photo by Lakruwan WANNIARACHCHI / AFP)

 

Sri Lanka will restrict daily visitor numbers to 2,500, authorities said on Thursday, as it cautiously opened its doors to foreign tourists again after a 10-month coronavirus shutdown.

The reopening comes despite a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, as authorities seek to revive a once-lucrative tourism sector devastated by the deadly 2019 Easter bombings and the pandemic.

The cap on visitors will help stop the island nation’s coronavirus testing facilities from becoming overwhelmed, according to the Tourism Promotion Bureau.

“We have placed a daily limit of 2,500 tourists to make sure that there are enough PCR tests for repatriating Sri Lankans,” tourism chief Kimarli Fernando told reporters in the capital Colombo.

 

People watch an elephant standing behind an electric fence marking the boundary of a wildlife sanctuary in Udawalawe on January 16, 2021. (Photo by Lakruwan WANNIARACHCHI / AFP)

Qatar Airways, Emirates and several other airlines currently operate repatriation and transit flights, and have brought home some 40,000 Sri Lankans since late July.

But another 68,000 are waiting to return, according to the government.

Sri Lankan doctors have called for a ramp up in PCR testing amid a surge in infections since October, that has seen the number of cases spike from 3,300 to more than 55,000.

Fernando said the immigration department has issued 75 tourist visas since officials announced the reopening on Monday.

“Not big numbers, but we have to make a start. Hotels are getting a lot of inquiries,” she said.

The government has set strict Covid-19 protocols for visitors, including limiting them to 55 designated hotels, requiring a negative PCR test result before arrival and insurance to cover Covid-19 related illnesses.

Some 2.3 million tourists visited the sun-soaked country in 2018 — the highest-ever.

But foreign visitor numbers fell to 1.9 million the following year after the deadly Easter bombings in April.

Sri Lanka Welcomes First Tourists Despite New COVID-19 Strain

Ukraine passengers arrive at Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, in Mattala on December 28, 2020. – Sri Lanka welcomed its first foreign tourists in nine months on December 28 even as a new deadlier strain of the coronavirus gripped the island. (Photo by STR / AFP)

 

Sri Lanka welcomed its first foreign tourists in nine months Monday even as a new deadlier strain of the coronavirus gripped the island.

A charter flight carrying 185 passengers from Ukraine landed at a little-used airport south of the capital, which has been stricken by a surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths.

In less than three months, the official number of coronavirus fatalities has risen from 13 to 191, while the number of infections has gone from 3,300 to more than 41,000.

Still, authorities hope the Ukrainian arrivals will be the first of thousands of foreigners to visit — easing pressure on the tourism-reliant economy that was shut down in March.

The visitors, who had to produce coronavirus-free certificates before departure, were tested again on arrival at Rajapaksa International airport.

They will be confined to their hotels for the duration of their holiday.

“This is a pilot project to test our systems,” government spokesman Ramesh Pathirana said, adding that there would be a review after one month.

Sri Lanka’s international borders remain closed, with the exception of repatriation flights and charters approved by local health authorities.

But Sri Lanka is also scheduled to host a two-Test cricket tour by England next month.

The moves come despite authorities announcing a deadlier coronavirus strain.

Minister for COVID Disease Control, Sudharshini Fernandopulle, said the strain was more infectious than one which spread in Sri Lanka between January and October.

Sri Lanka Rescues 120 Whales After Country’s Largest Stranding

Sri Lankan volunteers try to push back a stranded short-finned pilot whale at the Panadura beach, 25 km south of the capital Colombo on November 2, 2020. Dozens of pilot whales washed ashore in Sri Lanka, officials said as volunteers struggled to push the animals back into deeper waters of the Indian Ocean and rescue them.
LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP

 

Sri Lanka has saved some 120 pilot whales in a gruelling overnight rescue involving the navy, officials said Tuesday, after the island nation’s biggest stranding.

Three pilot whales and one dolphin died of injuries following the mass beaching on Monday on the country’s western coast at Panadura some 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of the capital Colombo.

A handful of whales had started beaching in the early afternoon and their numbers swelled to more than 100 by dusk, overwhelming local volunteers, resident Pathum Hirushan told AFP.

“Some of the fishermen from the area tried to push back the whales. The sea was rough and the waves would bring them back to shore,” Hirushan said.

“It was very tiring, but later the navy came in with their boats and worked through the night.”

The navy and the coastguard, as well as dozen of volunteers, were able to move the other mammals into deeper waters with the aid of small patrol craft by dawn on Tuesday, navy spokesman Indika de Silva told AFP.

Volunteers had come forward to help with the rescue despite the region being under a days-long lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pilot whales — which can grow up to six metres (20 feet) long and weigh a tonne — are highly social.

The causes of mass strandings remain unknown despite scientists studying the phenomenon for decades.

The wildlife department’s chief veterinarian Tharaka Prasad told AFP autopsies were carried out on the dead whales and officials were “satisfied they were disoriented”.

He hailed the rescue as one of the most successful in the world.

Authorities had braced for mass deaths after some 360 out of 470 pilot whales that beached in a remote harbour in Australia’s southern island state of Tasmania in September were not able to be saved.

Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority had said Monday that the Panadura stranding was the South Asian country’s largest.

The last mass beaching in Sri Lanka was in June 2017 when 20 pilot whales were stranded at a beach in the coastal town of Sampur near Trincomalee harbour in the country’s northeast. All were saved.

A sperm whale was stranded inside Trincomalee harbour in April 2011 and two navy boats guided it out into deeper waters where it was reunited with waiting whales.

The waters around Trincomalee, used by Allied forces as a staging post during World War II, have a high concentration of blue and sperm whales.

-AFP

Sri Lanka Arrests Three Accused Of Killing Leopard For Asthma Cure

 

Leopard killings
A Sri Lankan police Chief Inspector holds the severed head of a leopard who was entrapped in a snare and killed, in Ududumbara some 50 kms from the city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka on September 25, 2020. – Sri Lanka’s police on September 25 arrested three people, including a woman, for entrapping and killing of an endangered leopard and trying to sell its meat as a cure for asthma. (Photo by – / AFP) / 

 

Sri Lankan police on Friday arrested three people suspected of trapping and killing an endangered leopard and trying to sell its meat as a cure for asthma.

The trio were detained after police raided their home following a tip-off that they had used a snare to catch the creature in the central highlands.

“They cut the head off and killed the animal after it got caught in the snare on Thursday,” chief inspector Dushantha Kangara told AFP by phone.

He said the suspects had thrown the leopard’s head in the forest and removed the carcass to sell the animal’s skin, meat and other body parts.

Several leopards have been trapped by snares in the region, some 175 kilometres (110 miles) east of Colombo.

Kangara said there was a popular belief that leopard meat could cure asthma.

Police seized 17 kilos (37 pounds) of leopard meat from the three suspects.

There are believed to be fewer than 1,000 leopards in the wild in Sri Lanka, and harming the big cat is punishable by up to five years’ jail.

Wildlife conservationists have asked the authorities to ban snares and to prosecute those who use them.

AFP

Sri Lanka President Vows To Scrap Reforms Limiting His Power

Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa speaks at the national Parliament session in Colombo on August 20, 2020. – Sri Lanka’s new parliament opened its first session on August 20 with a murderer and an accused killer among its ranks after a sweeping election victory by the ruling Rajapaksa brothers. ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP.

 

Sri Lanka’s president vowed Wednesday to abolish a controversial constitutional provision restricting his powers as he opened a new parliamentary session following his party’s sweeping election victory.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, campaigned for voters to give their party a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the August 5 poll so they could roll back reforms brought in by the previous administration.

Their Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) won 145 seats and secured the support of six allies, one seat more than the minimum number needed to change the constitution in the 225-seat legislature.

“The people have given us the mandate we wanted for a constitutional amendment,” Rajapaksa said in his address to parliament, adding it would be “our first task”.

He also repeated a previous assertion, without giving further details, that he wanted an entirely new constitution to replace the current one introduced in 1978 when Sri Lanka changed to a presidential system.

The Rajapaksa brothers are adored by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority for spearheading the defeat of Tamil separatist militants in 2009 to end the bloody 37-year civil war when Mahinda was president and Gotabaya was secretary to the ministry of defence.

But they have also attracted criticism from the international community, with the security services they controlled accused of war crimes committed in the final months of the conflict.

Mahinda was ousted from the presidency after a decade in power when he lost the 2015 elections.

But with Gotabaya’s election in the November 2019 presidential poll, and his appointment of Mahinda as PM, analysts warn that the brothers would try to ensure they do not lose power again.

– Murderer, accused killer in new parliament –

Gotabaya’s remarks came as the new parliament opened its first session Thursday with a murderer and an accused killer among its ranks.

One member of the new legislature was convicted of murder only after nominations closed for the August 5 polls — allowing him to run for a seat — while another is awaiting trial.

Premalal Jayasekara, a returning MP from the ruling SLPP, was found guilty in the killing of a political activist in 2015.

Jayasekara — who did not appear in person for the first parliamentary session — is appealing against the verdict as well as the death sentence he was given.

He is the first convicted murderer to serve as an MP in Sri Lanka, where there is no provision under the law to disqualify him until he serves six months behind bars.

Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, in parliament for the first time after winning a seat for a minor party in an alliance with the SLPP, was escorted from prison to attend Thursday’s parliamentary session.

He is awaiting trial for allegedly killing a legislator during a 2005 Christmas mass.

Brushes with the law are no bar to a career in politics in South Asia.

More than 40 percent of lawmakers in neighbouring India’s parliament face criminal charges — some as serious as murder and rape –- according to an electoral reform group, the Association of Democratic Reforms.

AFP

Sri Lanka Shuts Schools Again As COVID-19 Cases Surge

Students wearing facemasks gesture as they pray inside their school after it was reopened in Colombo on July 6, 2020.  LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP
Students wearing facemasks gesture as they pray inside their school after it was reopened in Colombo on July 6, 2020. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP

 

Sri Lanka ordered government schools across the nation to shut Monday, just a week after they re-opened, following a surge in new coronavirus cases.

The country has reported just 2,617 cases with 11 deaths, but army chief Shavendra Silva said nearly half the 1,100 residents and staff at a drug rehab facility near the capital had tested positive in the past week, and some visitors may also have been infected.

At least 16 cases had emerged in villages elsewhere across the nation, officials said, most in the central-northern region.

“Based on the direction of health authorities, it is decided to close schools this week,” the education ministry said in a statement, adding that private colleges were also encouraged to shut their doors.

“We will review the situation next week.”

Postal voting for next month’s parliamentary elections would be delayed in villages affected by the virus, the independent election commission said.

Sri Lanka’s ruling party on Sunday called off its rallies ahead of the upcoming poll and postponed the re-opening of the international airport, which was planned for early August.

A repatriation programme that has brought home some 12,000 Sri Lankans from overseas has also been suspended.

 

AFP

Sri Lanka Cancels Election Rallies Over New Virus Wave

File photo: A health worker sprays disinfectant in a classroom at the Anula school, in the suburb of Nugegoda in Colombo on June 19, 2020. (Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP)

 

Sri Lanka’s ruling party Sunday called off its rallies ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections and delayed the international airport’s reopening over a surge in virus cases.

The South Asian country of 21 million lifted its coronavirus lockdown in late June after declaring there was no longer any community spread of the virus.

But a swathe of cases emerged last week, including an outbreak at a drug rehabilitation centre last week that saw 253 patients test positive in a single night.

“All public meetings where the president and the prime minister were due to attend today, tomorrow and the day after have been cancelled,” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party said in a statement.

Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda is the country’s prime minister.

The party said all their candidates were also told to call off upcoming public gatherings ahead of the August 5 poll.

Aviation Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said Sunday the international airport, which authorities had planned to reopen on August 1, would remain closed.

“We have decided in the interest of safety and well-being of our citizens to put off the reopening of airports,” he said.

A repatriation programme that has brought home some 12,000 Sri Lankans from overseas so far would also be suspended, Ranatunga added.

The elections were to be held on April 25, but were postponed twice before being rescheduled for August.

The country has reported 2,605 cases with 11 deaths so far.

AFP

 

Sri Lanka Slashes Key Interest Rates To Aid Virus-Hit Economy

Sri Lanka
File Photo

 

Sri Lanka’s central bank on Thursday cut interest rates for the fifth time this year in a new bid to breathe life into the coronavirus-stricken economy.

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka monetary board reduced its lending rate by 100 basis points to 5.5 percent. The deposit rate was cut by the same amount to 4.5 percent.

A bank statement said the board wanted to “aggressively enhance lending to productive sectors of the economy, which would reinforce support to COVID-19 hit businesses as well as to the broader economy”.

Sri Lanka’s economy has been slumbering since last year’s Easter Sunday suicide bombings by militant Islamists which badly hit tourism.

Sri Lanka’s economic growth slowed to 2.3 percent last year compared to 3.3 percent in 2018.

The government imposed a nationwide coronavirus lockdown on March 20 which lasted until last month and that has extended the damage to the tourism industry.

The International Monetary Fund in April predicted the economy would contract by 0.5 percent in 2020.

Faced with a serious foreign exchange crisis, the country has slapped an indefinite ban on non-essential imports, including vehicles.

The bank said this had helped stabilise the local currency which hit record lows in April prompting the government to ask public employees to donate their May salary to the state.

AFP