Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sri Lanka: Political supporters clash in streets of Colombo

By Bharatha Mallawarachi - Government supporters hurled stones at thousands of opposition activists demonstrating against the arrest of their defeated presidential candidate in Sri Lanka's capital Wednesday.

Clashes began outside the country's Supreme Court, where opposition supporters gathered to protest the arrest of former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who was taken into custody by military police Monday on sedition charges.

The opposition says the detention is illegal and an attempt to harass them ahead of new parliamentary elections scheduled for April 8.

Government supporters — who decided to hold a counter rally at the Supreme Court — threw rocks and chased away the opposition demonstrators. Police were deployed in the area but did not intervene until opposition members started fighting back. They then shot tear gas at them.

"We were walking peacefully when we were attacked by government goons," said Marina Abdeen, an opposition supporter.

An Associated Press photographer said some opposition members had bloody head wounds. A hospital official, Pushpa Soyza, said three civilians and two policemen were treated for minor wounds.

Thousands of opposition supporters demanded Fonseka's release while burning life-sized posters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They also smashed coconuts, a local tradition based on a belief it could bring divine intervention to their cause.

The clash is the first salvo in what promises to be a bruising pre-election period leading up to the parliamentary poll. It follows an acrimonious presidential election in which Rajapaksa secured a landslide victory over Fonseka.

One-time allies, Fonseka and Rajapaksa were both considered heroes by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority for crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting for a homeland for minority Tamils. However, their relationship deteriorated after the war ended in May.

Opposition members said Tuesday they would launch a series of countrywide protests following Fonseka's detention.

The arrest of the former army chief will likely serve as a warning to others who might seek to challenge the ruling party's grip on power. Already, media rights groups rank Sri Lanka among the most dangerous places in the world for dissenting journalists.

Rajapaksa's ruling coalition is hoping to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament, giving it virtually unfettered control of this island nation, off the southern tip of India.

© Associated Press

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sri Lanka's President dissoves parliament

Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's president, has dissolved parliament amid mounting political tensions over the arrest of General Sarath Fonseka, his main rival in last month's presidential elections.

The dissolution came into effect on Wednesday, according to Lucien Rajakarunanayake, the president's spokesman.

It clears the way for legislative elections two months ahead of schedule.

Officials say new polls are expected around April 8, but a formal announcement of the new election date is due later in the month.

Hours earlier, the Sri Lankan defence ministry had declared that Fonseka, who as a senior general helped defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels last May, would be court-martialled for allegedly planning to overthrow the government while serving as the head of the army.

"The broader charges were that he engaged with political leaders and political parties that were working against the government," Keheliya Rambukwella, a defence ministry spokesman, said on Tuesday.

'Dragged away'

Fonseka was defeated by Rajapaksa at the polls on January 26, with a result of six million votes to four million.

The retired general accused the government of rigging the election and vowed to challenge the result in the Supreme Court.

But with just one week left to file the relevant legal papers, supporters of Fonseka say military police stormed the offices of the opposition alliance in Colombo which had backed his candidacy on Monday night and "dragged him" away.

Anoma Fonseka, the defeated presidential candidate's wife, is accusing the government of abducting him and treating him "like an animal".

"He's the man who rescued Sri Lanka from the culture of terrorism and I can't believe they're doing this type of thing to him - I don't know what type of law exists in this country," she said on Tuesday.

"We always knew that the government will try to arrest my husband, but we never thought they would do it in such a disgusting manner."

War crimes charges

In an official statement, the government said that the former army chief was "hell-bent" on betraying the country's "gallant armed forces".

It cited as evidence the general's remarks on Monday that he would be ready to give evidence in an international court on war crimes charges against the state.

More than 7,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the fighting that crushed the rebels last May.

Human rights groups have accused the military of shelling hospitals and heavily populated civilian areas during the fighting, and the rebels of holding the local population as human shields.

A US state department report has also accused both sides of possible war crimes, and the issue remains a sensitive subject for the government.

Many credit Fonseka with winning the war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but he fell out with Rajapaksa soon after and the pair fought a bitter election campaign.

Earlier this month, Rajapaksa sacked a dozen senior military officers described by the defence ministry as a threat to national security. More were arrested from Fonseka's office.

© Al Jazeera

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sri Lanka: Arrest the opposition

Not content with trouncing his main opponent, General Sarath Fonseka, in Sri Lanka’s presidential election last month, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has had him arrested. General Fonseka was nabbed—brutishly, by over 100 soldiers, according to his supporters—on Monday February 8th. Officials say he will be charged in a court martial with conspiring to topple the government.

He was accused shortly after he lost an acrimonious election on January 26th of plotting to assassinate Mr Rajapaksa and seize power. That heralded a purge in the army that General Fonseka led until recently, with 14 senior officers retired and around 40 serving and former soldiers arrested. But the government has given no details of General Fonseka’s alleged plot, which it says he hatched while still in uniform. A statement released by the defence ministry explained that the general had been detained “in connection with condemnation [sic] acts and other military offences”. A government spokesman also suggested that General Fonseka’s crime was in fact to have got involved in politics while still in uniform.

Neutrals, of whom there are few in Sri Lanka, a place sorely divided by a long, ethnically based war and now by politics, may reserve judgment. Mr Fonseka has an inclement reputation. He was the architect of the army’s annihilation of the Tamil Tiger rebels in a brutal military campaign that ended last May. It saw many atrocities, including an alleged slaughter of at least 8,000 civilian refugees in the war's last months. Yet his arrest, in the absence of any obvious evidence against him, is also consistent with the autocratic and vindictive habits of Mr Rajapaksa’s regime.

It follows an ugly election in which the president’s team, sensing an unexpectedly strong challenge from General Fonseka, set goons on his supporters and commandeered state resources to get out the vote. The general and his backers, including every main opposition party, claim that the vote-count was also rigged—though, even if true, this would perhaps not have affected the result, given Mr Rajapaksa’s thumping victory margin. Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, to which both candidates belong, mostly voted for the president, whom they credit with ending the war. They also seem largely complacent about the erosion of their civil liberties that he has overseen.

Recent weeks in Sri Lanka have provided more evidence of this. To pay back the president’s election-time critics, journalists have been assaulted, threatened and arrested. The government has stepped up its efforts to discredit those, including General Fonseka, who harp on about its alleged war crimes. On the campaign-trial—perhaps surprisingly given his former commanding role—the general accused Mr Rajapaksa’s brother and defence chief, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of ordering that all Tiger leaders should be shot and not allowed to surrender. He later retracted this; but on Monday said he would be happy to appear as a witness in any war-crimes investigation against the army. According to the government this confirmed “beyond doubt that the retired general was hell-bent on betraying the gallant armed forces of Sri Lanka who saved the nation from the most ruthless terrorist group in the world.”

For those hoping for better from the re-elected Mr Rajapaksa these events are dismaying. His regime’s wartime ruthlessness was repellent yet at least comprehensible—being largely driven by a justified fear of the terrorist Tigers’ capacity for survival. Yet the Tigers are no more. And Mr Rajapaksa is Sri Lanka’s unchallenged ruler: he will have another seven years as president and will expect his Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its allies to win a majority in parliamentary elections that are scheduled for April 8th. On Tuesday the president dissolved parliament ahead of the polls. With plenty more challenges ahead—including an urgent need for reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and members of the bruised Tamil minority—many had looked to him for more careful leadership. Yet his government is looking as clumsy and paranoid as ever.

© The Economist

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Illegal dealers jailed over weapons sold to Sri Lanka

Two arms dealers who illegally supplied bombs, armour-piercing ammunition and other weapons to Sri Lanka's military and Israel have been jailed.

Gideon Sarig, 58, of west London, was jailed for nine years while 64-year-old Howard Freckleton, of north London, was sentenced to seven years.

Sarig and Freckleton were found guilty of trading in controlled goods with intent to evade prohibition.

Weapons sold to Sri Lanka in 2005 were used in the civil war, jurors heard.

Both Sarig, of Maida Vale, and Freckleton, of Enfield, had denied the charges.

Sentencing at Southwark Crown Court Judge James Wadsworth QC said the men had knowingly traded in "large amounts of ammunition for totally war-like, destructive and death-dealing use" without a UK licence.

'No remorse'

He said: "You both knew exactly what you were doing.

"Each of you exercised what is your undoubted right to fight this case to the full, but by doing that you have, of course, removed from me the opportunity of giving you any proper credit in your sentence as a result of regret, remorse, or even acceptance of your guilt."

The self-employed arms dealers sold 1,000 bombs from the Ukraine to the Sri Lankan Army in 2005 and 3,900 rounds of 30mm armour-piercing incendiary ammunition from Serbia and Montenegro to Sri Lanka between February 2005 and May 2006.

The weapons were used in Sri Lanka's "long, protracted and bloody civil war" with the Tamil Tigers, the jury heard.

Sarig, a UK national with joint Israeli-British citizenship, was also found guilty of trading 391 pump-action shotguns from Turkey to Israel, Venezuela and Burkina Faso, and 1,000 anti-riot shields from Turkey to Israel.

But he was cleared of another charge of supplying 1,000 semi-automatic pistols and ammunition to Venezuela and Sri Lanka.

Peter Millroy, head of HM Revenue and Customs' specialist unit on military exports, said: "These were flagrant breaches of UK trade controls on the supply of military equipment between third countries, some of which were areas of armed conflict and others of which were close to such areas."

© BBC News

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sri Lanka’s Election Aftermath – Media Under Attack

Analysis by IPS Correspondents - Sri Lankan journalists, for whom intimidation, threats, assault and killings seem to have become unavoidable professional hazards, are bracing themselves for a fresh confrontation with the government as curbs on reporting intensify.

In recent weeks, one journalist has disappeared, a newspaper has been sealed, only to be forced open by a court order while a few journalists and media workers have been in hiding since last month’s presidential election, which was won handily by incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

"The situation had worsened after a brief respite (general feeling of freedom) a few weeks before the polls," one veteran journalist and editor, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions, told IPS. "There was a sense of freedom or a kind of lull during the election campaign, but when the authorities feared opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka could win, intimidation against the media resumed."

Lakshman Gunasekera, a senior journalist and former editor of the state- owned ‘Sunday Observer’, said the media not only continues to face serious repression but also may "anticipate worsening conditions … as the country enters yet another phase of intense political contest for the parliamentary elections expected in April."

Newspaper reports this week said three journalists have been arrested in connection with an alleged coup conspiracy against the President by the losing candidate and former Army commander Fonseka. The official website of the government’s Information Department, in a report on Sunday, said several journalists were also to be questioned over the alleged coup plot, which the defeated candidate said was a cover-up for an election fraud.

Fonseka, the candidate of a string of opposition parties, polled 40 percent of the votes against Rajapaksa’s sweeping 57 percent. Both had banked on their role in ending in May 2009 the near 30-year-long battle with Tamil separatist guerrillas.

However, the losing candidate and other opposition leaders who backed him allege manipulation of votes and claim Rajapaksa lost the poll.

Reporters present at a Colombo hotel where Fonseka, the former army commander who led the military troops to victory against the rebels, and his team were staying on the eve of the election, are to be questioned to ascertain further details of the alleged plot to assassinate the president, the government website said.

The government also placed curbs on media reporting of military matters while issuing a special directive in which chiefs of the armed forces and other military officers are barred from giving interviews relating to promotions and transfers unless approved.

In the Feb. 2 directive to the media, Lakshman Hulugalle, director general of the Media Centre for National Security, said only designated military spokespersons were permitted to give such information.

The government is said to be purging the army and the police of any elements seen loyal to Fonseka and those who are believed to have refused to carry out ‘illegal’ orders by the authorities during the elections.

The ‘Sunday Times’ newspaper said this week that more than 150 police officers had been transferred while 14 army officers, including five just next to the rank of the army commander, had been sent on compulsory leave for their alleged involvement in politics, essentially in helping Fonseka during the campaign.

Last week, eight media groups, including publishers and editors, appealed to President Rajapaksa to intervene in the media crisis and ensure the restoration of public confidence in democracy and that "this unhealthy trend is curbed." They urged him to help locate the whereabouts of Pradeep Ekneliyagoda, a journalist at a Sinhala-language newspaper critical of the President, who has been missing since Jan. 24, two days before the poll.

"All these incidents taken as a whole are creating a sense of terror within the media industry … due to the intimidation and suppression taking place in different parts of the country by unruly groups targeting members of the opposition. We believe that if this escalating situation is not brought under control immediately, there will be unforeseen repercussions," the joint letter said.

Sunil Jayasekera, secretary of the Free Media Movement (FMM), which was among the signatories of the letter and Sri Lanka’s biggest media defender, is doubtful of a government response to the Feb. 1 letter.

"We have sent four letters in the past 18 months to the President urging him to intervene, but there has been no response and neither has the intimidation stopped," he told IPS.

Media groups say 33 journalists and media workers have been killed since the election of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance to power in 2004 with the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa as its prime minister. Scores of others have been assaulted, harassed or threatened, at least 34 journalists have fled abroad and sought asylum, mostly in Europe.

The biggest case to date involved the assassination in January 2009 of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the award-winning editor of the English-language ‘Sunday Leader’, allegedly by elements of the military. His assailants are still at large.

Some political and defence correspondents also fear that their phones are tapped.

FMM’s Jayasekera said: "Some media workers have been assaulted while some journalists are in hiding (after the election)."

The government blocked at least three news websites before the Jan. 26 poll while the editor of another website is in hiding.

"Several websites had been blocked, the Sinhala-language Lanka newspaper editor was arrested while the newspaper was sealed by police. However, the newspaper reopened on Tuesday after the management won a court order," Jayasekera said.

Tough action is also being taken against dozens of journalists working at state-owned newspapers, radio and television stations who called for fair and impartial reporting of the polls campaign.

"What we did was to heed the Elections Commissioner and the Supreme Court, which ordered state media institutions to be impartial and give equal coverage to all candidates contesting the poll. We are now being victimised for it," said Herbert Kumara Alagiyawanna, a senior producer at a state- owned television, who was sacked arbitrarily.

He said of the 70 journalists who joined the call for impartial reporting, one has been sacked, nine interdicted, three sent on compulsory leave while 21 others were required to explain their actions. A couple of journalists were also assaulted by individuals identified with ruling party.

"We want to file a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court. Some senior officers working in state television also insulted the judges, saying they don’t care about judgments," he said.

Under election rules, state media, being publicly funded institutions, are obligated to give fair and equal coverage to all contestants. When government media appeared biased for the President, the Elections Commissioner ordered the institutions to toe the line.

When the state media refused to comply, the Commissioner protested to the Supreme Court, which in turn upheld the election body’s order. But even the Supreme Court’s ruling was ignored by the media bosses at these institutions, noted Alagiyawanna.

Journalist Gunasekera, who is also the president of the Sri Lanka chapter of the South Asian Free Media Association, says the open flouting by government authorities of both Supreme Court and the Election Commissioner directives in relation to the media has added to the restrictions and intensified the intimidation imposed on the mass media.

"The sense that attackers against the media enjoy impunity from prosecution, which had existed even before the election, has now been heightened," he said, through this manifest disregard of the Supreme Court directives.

© Inter Press Service

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