Court Drops Corruption Charges Against New Sri Lanka President

Sri Lanka’s President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrives to take the oath of office during his swearing-in ceremony at the Ruwanwelisaya temple in Anuradhapura on November 18, 2019. Lakruwan WANNIARACHCHI / AFP

 

 

Corruption charges against Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa were dropped Thursday by a court, which handed his passport back as he acquired immunity from prosecution after being elected last weekend.

Under Sri Lanka’s constitution, no court proceedings can be maintained against a serving president. However, action could be taken after he leaves office.

The High Court had indicted Rajapaksa in September last year on charges of siphoning off 33 million rupees (around $185,000) in state funds to build a memorial for his parents.

The court also released his passport which had been impounded, allowing him to make his first overseas trip as president to India next week at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Rajapaksa was being tried before a special court established by the former government to expedite high-profile corruption cases. Rajapaksa, 70, had pleaded not guilty.

Six others were also charged along with Rajapaksa and their fate will be decided when the case is taken up for a hearing on January 9, the court said.

Official sources said Rajapaksa was also entitled to claim foreign sovereign immunity in respect to two civil cases filed against him in California for allegedly causing the death of a senior newspaper editor and torture.

He has denied responsibility for the killing of anti-establishment editor Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009 and torturing suspects when he headed the defence ministry under brother Mahinda’s presidency between 2005 and 2015.

Wickrematunge was murdered days before he was due to testify in a defamation case brought by Gotabaya Rajapaksa after his paper accused him of corruption in a deal to buy MiG jets from Ukraine.

Rajapaksa was elected president on Saturday and was due later Thursday to swear in his brother Mahinda as prime minister.

Gunmen Fire At Buses Carrying Muslim Sri Lankan voters

 

Gunmen fired at buses carrying minority Muslim voters on Saturday as Sri Lankans elected a new president, with the powerful Rajapaksa clan eyeing a comeback seven months after Islamist extremists staged deadly bombings.

Minority Tamils and Muslims are seen as crucial in the close election, and the attack in the northwest of the island — in which no one was injured — was likely aimed at deterring people from heading to the polls.

But election chief Mahinda Deshapriya said over 80 percent of the 15.99 million electorate was estimated to have turned out Saturday, compared to 81.5 percent at the previous presidential poll in 2015.

“Comparatively this is the most peaceful presidential election we have had in this country,” Deshapriya told reporters at the end of the 10-hour voting period.

However, two women voters were injured when unidentified attackers pelted stones at their bus in the northwest region of Medawachchiya, police said.

The victims were travelling in a convoy of busses which had come under gunfire in the same region earlier in the day.

In the first attack, assailants burned tyres on the road and set up makeshift roadblocks before shooting at and pelting with stones two busses in a convoy of more than 100.

In the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna, meanwhile, police said they arrested 10 men they suspected of “trying to create trouble”, while also complaining that the army had illegally set up roadblocks that could stop people getting to polling stations.

Such tactics are nothing new in Sri Lanka, which emerged from a horrific civil war only a decade ago. At the 2015 election, there was a series of explosions in the north.

Supporters from rival parties meanwhile clashed in a tea plantation area 90 kilometres (55 miles) east of the capital Colombo, with two people taken to hospital with cuts, the election commission said.

Terminator vs Padman

Some 85,000 police were on duty for the election with a record 35 candidates running for president, an office with considerable power similar to the French political system.

Results could come as early as midday (0630 GMT) on Sunday if there is a clear winner, but Deshapriya said floods in three out of the 22 electoral districts had disrupted counting and warned of delays in releasing the final tallies.

One of the two frontrunners is grey-haired retired army lieutenant colonel Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, younger brother to the charismatic but controversial Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005-15.

Dubbed the “Terminator” by his own family, “Gota” is promising an infrastructure blitz and better security in the wake of the Islamist attacks in April that killed 269 people.

“Gotabaya will protect our country,” construction worker Wasantha Samarajjeew, 51, said as he cast his ballot in Colombo.

His main rival is Sajith Premadasa, 52, from the governing liberal United National Party (UNP), son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa.

He is also pushing development and security as well as free sanitary pads for poor women, earning him the nickname “Padman” after a famous Bollywood movie.

The Rajapaksas are adored by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority for defeating Tamil Tiger separatists and ending a 37-year civil war in 2009.

They are detested and feared by many Tamils, who make up 15 percent of the population. The conflict ended with some 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly killed by the army.

During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, Gotabaya was defence secretary and effectively ran the security forces, even allegedly overseeing “death squads” that bumped off political rivals, journalists and others.

He denies the allegations.

What also concerns Western countries, as well as India, is that strategically located Sri Lanka moved closer to China under Mahinda Rajapaksa, even allowing two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014.

Under its Belt and Road Initiative spanning Asia and beyond, China loaned and granted Sri Lanka billions of dollars for infrastructure projects, many of which turned into white elephants and became mired in corruption allegations.

Mahinda says credit was unavailable elsewhere.

Western capitals “should give a fair chance to us”, Basil Rajapaksa, another brother, told reporters. “They can’t be monitors of this country. They must be partners.”

Outrage As Sri Lanka President Pardons Killer Of Swedish Teen

FILE PHOTO: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations at the National Convention Center in Beijing on May 15, 2019. PHOTO: NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP

Sri Lanka’s president has pardoned a death-row prisoner who murdered a Swedish teenager just a week before he leaves office, officials said Sunday, in a move that sparked national outrage.

Convicted killer Jude Jayamaha, from a wealthy, high-profile family, walked out of Welikada prison Saturday following the highly unusual amnesty granted by President Maithripala Sirisena.

Sirisena, who is stepping down after Saturday’s presidential election at which he is not a candidate, announced last month he was considering a request to grant Jayamaha a pardon.

Victim Yvonne Jonsson, who was holidaying in Sri Lanka, was beaten to death at a high-rise apartment in Colombo in 2005 after she and Jayamaha had an argument.

The court had been told her skull was fractured into 64 pieces.

Jayamaha was initially sentenced to 12 years in prison. He appealed to a higher court, which rejected his plea and instead sentenced him to death, which was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2014.

Jonsson’s sister Caroline wrote in a Facebook post about her concerns over Jayamaha’s pardon before the amnesty announcement.

“He showed and continues to show absolutely no remorse for what he has done,” she wrote.

“We’ve worked hard to rebuild our lives and here we are, going into 15 years, still fighting for justice. Unfortunately, we now have to prepare ourselves for the worst possible outcome, the pardon of my sister’s murderer.”

Many Sri Lankans took to social media to condemn Sirisena.

“Monstrous act by a failed president,” said a Twitter user identified as Thass.

“This news makes me sick,” added Shamila Cooray.

Others speculated Sirisena may have pardoned Jayamaha to test the water ahead of possibly pardoning another high-profile death-row inmate whose family owns radio and television stations that support him.

Sirisena failed to secure support from his own party to contest the November 16 election and must leave soon after results are declared, a day or two after the polls.

AFP

Easter Bombings: Sri Lanka Parliament Blames President For Lapses

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations at the National Convention Center in Beijing on May 15, 2019. NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP

 

A Sri Lankan parliamentary report accused President Maithripala Sirisena Wednesday of “actively undermining” national security and of failing to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings earlier this year that killed 269 people.

A cross-party committee which probed alleged intelligence lapses related to the suicide bombings said Sirisena had not given proper guidance or support to the country’s security establishment and police.

It also found fault with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and deputy defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene, who it said had “failed in their duties”.

Some 269 people were killed on April 21 in a series of suicide attacks on hotels and churches blamed on a local jihadi group.

“The PSC observes that the president failed on numerous occasions to give leadership and also actively undermined government (security and intelligence) systems,” the 1,649-page report said.

The parliamentary select committee has no powers to indict, but its findings can form the basis of criminal prosecutions or civil action against those identified as being responsible for serious lapses.

The inquiry said Sirisena — who is also the minister of defence — had excluded the police chief from crucial national security council meetings.

The report added that the country’s spy agency — the State Intelligence Service (SIS) which falls directly under Sirisena’s remit — had received advance information on the attacks, but failed to act on it.

SIS director Nilantha Jayawardena had been warned on April 4 by a foreign intelligence agency — identified previously by officials as from India — of a possible attack.

“This failure by the SIS has resulted in hundreds of deaths, many more injured and immeasurable devastation to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, and that must not be treated lightly,” the report said.

Sirisena has long blamed police chief Pujith Jayasundara and ministry of defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando for lapses, and initiated criminal prosecutions against them.

The inquiry acknowledged they shouldered some of the blame, but added that the “greatest responsibility” lay with the SIS director.

There are two other ongoing investigations into the attacks — an independent panel headed by an Appeal Court judge and a probe set up by the police.

The parliamentary report released Wednesday said there was also no evidence linking the National Thowheeth Jama’ath group, which was blamed for the blast — with the Islamic State group, despite the latter claiming responsibility days later.

Seven Elephants Killed In Sri Lanka After Alleged Poisoning By Villagers

Villagers stand next to the dead body of an elephant laying in a field near Sigiriya village, some 177 kms north of the capital of Colombo on September 27, 2019.PHOTOS: STR / AFP

 

Wildlife officials found three more dead wild elephants in central Sri Lanka Saturday, raising the number believed to have been poisoned by angry villagers to seven.

The animals were found at a forest reserve near Sigiriya, a fifth-century rock fortress and UNESCO-protected heritage site, police said.

“Since Friday, we have found the remains of seven cow elephants, including a tusker,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

Nearly 200 elephants are killed every year on the island, many by farmers after the animals stray onto their land.

Marauding elephants kill roughly 50 people annually, mostly when the creatures stray into villages near their habitat.

A pregnant female and a male were among the four carcasses found on Friday.

Wildlife experts and vets will carry out autopsies, said a police official in Sigiriya, north of Colombo, as they suspect the animals may have been poisoned.

Police said there had been a spate of incidents involving wild elephants storming villages and destroying crops in the area.

Killing the animals is in theory punishable by death.

Sri Lanka’s elephant population has dwindled to just over 7,000, according to the latest census, down from an estimated 12,000 at the beginning of the last century.

Two Die, 13 Critical After Sri Lanka Faith Healing

 

Two people died from heat exhaustion after attending a mass open air faith healing session in northeast Sri Lanka which left 13 others fighting for their lives, police said Sunday.

Around 10,000 people, some of whom were seriously ill, had gathered at a school to listen to a man who claimed he could use “powers of the gods and the Buddha” to cure the sick.

Police in the town of Horowupotana, 260 kilometres (162 miles) north-east of Colombo said 18 people were taken to hospital, with 13 in a critical condition.

Officials at the local hospital said the two who died suffered heat exhaustion while others were treated for dehydration. Temperatures have soared to about 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the area this weekend.

The faith healer, Deegoda Kumara, used his YouTube channel to deny he had caused the deaths and accused local media of causing unrest by spreading mistrust about his work.

In one video, Kumara claimed to have revived a road accident victim who had been in a coma in a Californian hospital. He said he blessed the victim after speaking to her relatives on the phone.

Sri Lanka Army Chief’s Appointment Violates Human Rights – UN

Sri Lanka army 58 division chief, Brigadier Shavendra Silva (R) marches to collect his scroll from Sri Lanka army chief Sarath Fonseka (L) in Colombo on May 28, 2009. Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP

 

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Monday she is “deeply troubled” by Sri Lanka’s appointment of an accused war criminal as army chief, as global concern mounts over the nomination.

Major General Shavendra Silva, 55, was elevated to the army’s second-highest position of chief of staff in January before his latest promotion by President Maithripala Sirisena to commander of the Sri Lankan army.

“The promotion of Lieutenant-General General Silva severely compromises Sri Lanka’s commitment to promote justice and accountability,” Bachelet said in a statement.

Silva, who commanded an army division in the long-running civil war with Tamil separatists, has been accused by the United Nations of war crimes during the conflict’s final stages.

“I am deeply troubled by the appointment … despite the serious allegations of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against him and his troops during the war,” Bachelet said.

The US embassy in Colombo, along with civil society groups, have also criticised the appointment as a move likely to undermine reconciliation efforts.

Sri Lanka’s armed forces crushed the separatist rebels in 2009 in a no-holds barred offensive that ended a 37-year war which killed 100,000 people.

There were mass atrocities against civilians in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil north towards the end of the conflict, with rights groups saying some 40,000 ethnic Tamils were killed by government forces.

A UN report said Silva played a major role in orchestrating war crimes.

AFP

Sri Lanka President Rejects Military Deal With US

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena 
NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP

 

Sri Lanka’s President Saturday announced he will not allow his government to conclude a proposed military deal that would allow US troops free access to the island’s ports.

Maithripala Sirisena said he was opposed to the draft Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that the two countries are negotiating to further strengthen their military ties.

Sirisena is at loggerheads with his pro-Western Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

“I will not allow any agreement that undermines our independence and sovereignty,” Sirisena told a public rally in the island’s south. “Several agreements currently being discussed are detrimental to our country.”

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“I will not allow the SOFA that seeks to betray the nation. Some foreign forces want to make Sri Lanka one of their bases. I will not allow them to come into the country and challenge our sovereignty.”

The SOFA seeks to ensure reciprocal access to port facilities and allow freer entry to military personnel and their contractors.

Sirisena said there will be no bilateral agreements “against Sri Lanka’s national interest” as long as he was in office. His term ends in January.

He did not name the powers he accused of trying to gain a military foothold in his Indian Ocean island republic of 21 million people.

However, it was a thinly veiled reference to the US which is keen on strengthening their existing military cooperation.

A year ago, Washington announced it was granting $39 million to boost maritime security in Sri Lanka as China developed its strategic hold on the Indian Ocean island.

Increased US interest in Sri Lanka comes as China is upping investment in ports and other building projects on the island, which is a key link in Beijing’s ambitious “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative.

The US had stopped arms sales to Sri Lanka during the height of the island’s Tamil separatist war that ended in 2009. The global power has also been highly critical of the human rights record of the former government of strongman president, Mahinda Rajapakse.

Several senior military commanders from the Rajapakse regime have been denied visas to visit the US.

China has vowed to keep providing financial help, including loans, to Sri Lanka despite warnings about the island nation’s mounting debt.

Sri Lanka in 2017 granted a 99-year lease on a strategic port to Beijing because of it could not repay Chinese loans for the $1.4 billion project.

The port in Hambantota straddles the world’s busiest east-west shipping route and also gives a strategic foothold to China in a region long dominated by India.

South Africa Dent Sri Lanka World Cup Hopes

South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis (C) and South Africa’s Hashim Amla (2L) leave the field with the Sri Lankan cricketers at close of play during the 2019 Cricket World Cup group stage match between Sri Lanka and South Africa at the Riverside Ground, in Chester-le-Street, northeast England, on June 28, 2019. South Africa beat Sri Lanka by nine wickets.
Lindsey PARNABY / AFP

 

Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis powered South Africa to a nine-wicket victory over Sri Lanka on Friday, dealing a huge blow to the Asian side’s hopes of reaching the World Cup semi-finals.

Amla (80) and captain Du Plessis (96) put on an unbeaten 175 for the second wicket as South Africa cruised to victory in the 38th over, finishing on 206 for one.

Sri Lanka were struggling after defeats to New Zealand and Australia and two washouts before reviving their World Cup chances with a shock win against hosts England last week.

But, with six points from seven games, the 1996 champions have now slipped behind England, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the race to qualify from the round-robin phase.

“It feels like it’s a long time coming,” said Du Plessis, whose side were already out of contention for the semi-finals before the match.

“It feels bittersweet, it doesn’t feel like it means too much,” he added. “But the basics of batting were shown today. We’ve not had guys bat long and build big partnerships. One big partnership and everything looks much easier.”

Sri Lanka’s batting let them down against an inspired South African pace attack led by recalled seamer Dwaine Pretorius, who returned figures of 3-25 from his 10 overs.

Playing for pride, South Africa rarely put a foot wrong after electing to field first in Chester-le-Street, bowling out Sri Lanka for 203 in the 50th over.

Chris Morris also finished with three wickets while pace spearhead Kagiso Rabada took two.

Sri Lanka had a disastrous start to their innings when skipper Dimuth Karunaratne was caught at slip by Du Plessis off the first ball of the match, delivered by Rabada.

Kusal Perera and Avishka Fernando batted positively to take the score to 67 for one in the 10th over before Fernando (30) mistimed a shot, sending the ball steepling into the air before it was taken by Du Plessis.

Perera (30) was next to go, chopping a Pretorius delivery onto his stumps as Sri Lanka slipped to 72-3 in the 12th over.

Angelo Mathews was bowled by Morris for 11 and Kusal Mendis departed for 23.

A swarm of bees briefly interrupted play towards the end of the innings, forcing the players and umpires to lie flat on the ground.

Veteran paceman Lasith Malinga struck in the fifth over of South Africa’s innings, bowling Quinton de Kock for 15, but it only proved a minor hiccup.

Amla and Du Plessis took control as they mixed the right dose of caution and aggression to blunt the opposition attack.

“We needed to take wickets to stand a chance of winning and build pressure,” said Karunaratne. “We’ve got to think about that going forward — how we can build pressure and create mistakes.”

South Africa will sign off with a final league match against Australia.

Sri Lanka have two more games — against West Indies on July 1 and India on July 6.

Finch Hits World Cup Ton As Australia Dominate Sri Lanka

Australia’s captain Aaron Finch hits a four during the 2019 Cricket World Cup group stage match between Sri Lanka and Australia at The Oval in London on June 15, 2019. Ian KINGTON / AFP

 

Australia captain Aaron Finch equalled his highest one-day international score of 153 as he powered the World Cup holders to 334-7 against sloppy Sri Lanka on Saturday.

Finch took the misfiring Sri Lanka attack apart with a dazzling display at the Oval that included 15 fours and five sixes.

It was his 14th one-day international century and the second of his World Cup career.

The 32-year-old’s 132-ball demolition job took him level with his previous best score of 153 against Pakistan in March.

“I feel like I’m playing reasonably well,” said the skipper. “When you hit a few drives early on it gives you some confidence.

“They used the big side of the ground really well and it was a bit windy so it was hard to target the small boundary.

“We didn’t have a target in mind, we knew their death bowling would be good. We’re pretty happy with what we’ve got, Maxy (Glenn Maxwell) did well at the end.”

Finch was well-supported by Steve Smith’s 73 from 59 balls and the pair put on 173 runs for the third wicket to set Sri Lanka a formidable total.

Australia are searching for their fourth win from five matches after beating Afghanistan, the West Indies and Pakistan.

Their lone defeat in the 10-team tournament came against India and a victory over Sri Lanka would put them well on course for a semi-final berth.

Together with opening partner David Warner, Finch took the attack to the Sri Lankans after being put in to bat under cloudy skies in south London and the pair passed fifty for the opening wicket for the fourth time in five games at the World Cup.

Warner was the first Australian to perish when he was bowled by spinner Dhananjaya de Silva for 26.

De Silva struck again when Usman Khawaja (10) played a loose shot straight down the throat of Isuru Udana at deep square leg to leave Australia 100-2.

That brought Smith to the crease and triggered the now-standard smattering of boos from the non-Australians in the crowd in reference to his role in the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa last year.

But Smith has been in fine form since returning from his ban for the incident and his composed presence freed Finch to go for broke.

Gum-chewing Finch stepped on the gas to take 20 runs, including two sixes, off De Silva’s eighth over and he brought up his hundred with a six off Milinda Siriwardana.

Sri Lanka had no answer to his brutal assault and by the time he departed, caught by Dimuth Karunaratne off Udana, he had put Australia in a commanding position.

Glenn Maxwell’s quick-fire 46 not out capped a depressing outing for Sri Lanka, who have one win from four games after their previous two matches were abandoned due to rain.

Sri Lanka President Sacks Intelligence Chief Over Easter Attacks Probe

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena (C) waits next to Navy officers for a group photo during a ceremony commissioning P 626 ship,/ AFP

 

Sri Lanka’s president has sacked the national intelligence chief and will not cooperate with a parliamentary investigation into security lapses before the Easter suicide bombings, officials said Saturday.

Maithripala Sirisena summoned an emergency cabinet meeting on Friday night to oppose a parliamentary select committee probe into the April 21 attacks that killed 258 people, including 45 foreigners and wounded nearly 500.

Chief of National Intelligence Sisira Mendis was sacked after testifying to the inquiry last week that the attacks could have been averted.

He also said the president had failed to hold regular security meetings to assess the threat from Islamic radicals who carried out the bombings on three hotels and three churches.

Sirisena’s office did not give a reason for the sacking. Halfway through the testimony, the live telecast of the proceedings was stopped on the president’s orders, official sources said.

A ministerial source told AFP Sirisena has refused to allow any police, military or intelligence personnel to testify before the committee.

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The source added that the heated cabinet meeting ended “inconclusively” without taking a decision on whether to suspend the parliament probe.

Sirisena’s office did not comment on the meeting but said the president had told senior police officers on Friday that he will not allow any serving officer to testify.

Sirisena’s defence secretary and police chief have suggested that the president, who is also defence minister, did not follow proper protocols in dealing with intelligence warnings about the Easter Sunday bombings.

Sirisena has repeatedly denied he was aware of an impending threat.

A local jihadist organisation and the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks. The country has been under a state of emergency since the bombings.

Sirisena said last week that he met with the national police chief and his top brass 13 days before the attacks but no officer raised warnings passed on by India and based on information from a detained jihadist.

The crisis erupted ahead of a visit to Sri Lanka by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday.

The Indian premier is to make a brief stopover in Colombo on his return from an official visit to the Maldives on Saturday.

The Sri Lankan government has admitted there were intelligence failures before the attacks.

Sirisena suspended police chief Pujith Jayasundara and dismissed his top defence official Hemasiri Fernando after the bombings.

UK Relaxes Sri Lanka Travel Advice Issued After Attacks

Sri Lankan security personnel walk past dead bodies covered with blankets amid blast debris at St. Anthony’s Shrine following an explosion in the church in Kochchikade in Colombo on April 21, 2019. ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP

 

Britain on Thursday relaxed its travel adviceon Sri Lanka after earlier warning against “all but essential travel” following the April terror attacks that claimed more than 250 lives.

“If you’re visiting or resident in Sri Lanka, you should continue to remain vigilant and keep up to date with developments,” the Foreign Office said on its website.

Tourists were still warned that “terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks.

“Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners,” it said.

Over 250,000 Britons visited Sri Lanka in 2018, making it the third-highest source of tourism behind India and China, with the two countries retaining strong links since Sri Lanka became independent of colonial rule in 1948.

The suicide bombings against three Christian churches and three luxury hotels were blamed on a local jihadi group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath.

Police say just over 100 people, including 10 women are in custody in connection with the attacks.

Security forces also detained a further 100 suspects in four days of cordon-and-search operations, according to military officials.

AFP