Saturday, August 07, 2010

Sri Lanka: Police oppose bail for arrested slum dwellers

By W.A. Sunil | World Socialist Web Site

A month after the July 4 mass arrest of more than 200 slum dwellers at Mattakkuliya Summitpura in northern Colombo, the Sri Lankan police are continuing to oppose the granting of bail for the 23 people who remain in custody.

On July 28, Magistrate Lal Ranasinghe Bandara granted a police request to extend the prisoners’ detention until August 11. The court ordered more than 175 other “suspects”—who were bailed out earlier—to appear in court when they receive summonses. The court room was overcrowded because most of those arrested have been summonsed.

In a police-state operation on July 4, police and military officers rounded up the local population on a field. The previous day, residents had protested outside a police station against a police attack on a young man, M. Nishantha, who had been arrested. Having herded around 8,000 residents onto the field, hooded informers picked out more than 200 people, including women, who were arrested.

The previous night hundreds of police and army personnel, who had been mobilised to quell the police station protest, went on a terrifying rampage through the area. They damaged the homes and vehicles of many residents, and physically attacked them.

The police have accused those arrested of conducting an “unlawful assembly,” damaging public property at the Mattakkuliya police station and stealing three revolvers. Those found guilty of damaging public property can be jailed for up to 20 years and those convicted of unlawful assembly can be imprisoned for five years.

The police-military operation in Mattakkuliya followed the announcement of a plan by President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government to evict tens of thousands of poor families from Colombo to clear the way for developers. In May, police and security personnel forcibly evicted 45 families from Slave Island in central Colombo. Another several hundred families have been given notice in other suburbs.

The repressive measures being used against the Mattakkuliya slum dwellers are a warning of the repressive methods being used by the government to enforce its agenda. It is facing growing unrest as it begins to implement the austerity program demanded by the International Monetary Fund.

The Mattakkuliya prosecution involves blatant manipulation of the legal system. According to the Bail Act, the offences of damaging public property and stealing firearms are non-bailable. Moreover, the police can prolong the period of remand for up to 12 months before bringing the case to trial, and for even longer with the approval of the attorney general. Judges can review police requests for continued remand and grant bail. In this case, no charges have been framed against the prisoners, despite a month passing since July 4.

Objecting to bail, the police argued that the “investigation has not yet been concluded” and that there were 20 more suspects to arrest. When defence lawyers challenged the police to name those suspects, the police were unable to do so. Instead, they only read nicknames of the “wanted”.

The police claimed to have “identified” 20 people among the 23 remanded, and to have witnesses who saw the involvement of the three unidentified prisoners. However, the court granted bail for a teenager when a defence lawyer produced his birth certificate. Police could not object to his release, because he was under the legal age for detention.

Another person, K.P. Gayan Priyasantha, who surrendered to the court in July, has also been remanded. The police claimed that Priyasantha is the “main suspect” in relation to the attack on the police station and that he had stolen three revolvers and 15 live cartridges.

Defence lawyers told the court that despite accusing their clients of various offences, the police had refused to take complaints from victims of the July 3 police-military rampage. Lawyers cited 13 houses and 10 vehicles that had been damaged.

The magistrate ordered the police to inquire into all complaints, and rejected a police claim that the damage was done by an unidentified group. “Such devastation cannot be done secretly,” he noted. “The police should identify those unidentified men.” These remarks indicate concern among some sections of the legal establishment over the open violation of the legal system by the police.

Residents in Mattakkuliya have expressed anger about continuing police intimidation. One told the WSWS that several residents went three times to lodge complaints but the police refused to take them. “They kept us there for hours each day and we were told to come back the next day,” he said. “Sometimes they talked in a threatening manner.”

According to the wife of one detainee, the damage done by the police to her house amounts to around 150,000 rupees ($US1,335). “They crushed everything in the house, and they stole 78,000 rupees in cash and jewelry,” she added.

Another resident said the damage to his house and property exceeded 1.7 million rupees. “Three families live in our house,” he explained. “The police destroyed three TVs, a radio set, furniture, kitchen utilities, the front door and windows, and a motor bicycle. They stole jewelry and clothes. We complained to the human rights commission because the police refused to take our statements.”

A day worker at a tea-packing company recounted his experience: “I was beaten and arrested by the police. Being an innocent man who works hard to feed my family, I am highly angered. Why does all the evil come unto the poor like us?”

The tea worker added that he formerly worked at a pencil company. “In 2006, when we struck demanding a pay rise, the owners sacked 1,700 workers. We struck as members of a trade union affiliated to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). After sacking us, the only step that the union took was to file a case in the labour courts. Years have gone by but we haven’t received a single cent as compensation. The JVP leaders have no program to fight for our jobs. They advised us to depend on the court’s decision.”

Sunil Handunneththi, an MP from the JVP, a Sinhala chauvinist party, had come to the police station to see the arrested Mattakkuliya prisoners, the tea worker said. “They are trying to pretend that they are for us. According to my experiences, we can’t rely on them.”

A female tea-packing worker condemned the police and the media for seeking to justify the arrests by depicting the neighbourhood as dominated by drug dealers and drug addicts. “There may be some people addicted to drugs. But the media’s attitude toward us is not sympathetic. They use that word to insult us. We are also people who want to stop this drug menace. The government and the police turn blind eyes toward the drug-smuggling big businessmen who finance the election campaigns of politicos.

“I worked abroad for about 10 years. The last time, I earned 500,000 rupees and spent 200,000 to build a house on land identified as ‘unauthorised’ because we have no other place. If the authorities chase me out, I have no place to go with my four children. In 1976, during the period of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, my parents were chased from central Colombo to this area because they lived on ‘unauthorised land’. Now the Rajapakse government is attempting to chase us from the periphery to outer Colombo. We are being treated as unauthorised forever.”

A housewife, who was taken into police custody, said she had seen a police assault with her own eyes. “When we were being loaded onto a bus a 13-year-old boy fell on the floor after a policeman pushed him hard. The policemen ordered us to walk over him, trampling him. The poor boy shouted loudly, begging the policemen. Finally he fainted. How many Tamils in the north [during the civil war] have had to undergo this type of brutality?”


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Saturday, August 07, 2010

India: Home alone in the neighbourhood

By Arati R. Jerath | The Times of India

India was once the undisputed big power in the south Asian region, wielding substantial influence over its smaller neighbours. But, over the years, New Delhi's strategic and diplomatic clout in its own backyard has weakened.

In April this year, a high-pitched anti-India campaign by the Maoists in Nepal forced President Ram Baran Yadav's government to cancel a passport deal that had important security implications for us. The deal was a contract with India's government press to print four million machinereadable passports for Nepal to stop misuse and forgery by suspected terror agents. New Delhi was perturbed enough by the cancellation of the deal to lodge a formal protest with the Nepalese government through its ambassador in Kathmandu. The contract has now gone to a French firm, Oberthur Technologies.

Maldives turned not to India but to the United States and Sri Lanka for help when a political crisis this month plunged the Indian Ocean island nation into turmoil with angry street protests and a constitutional impasse that saw the entire cabinet resign. Where once upon a time India used to rush special envoys at the first sign of trouble, this time it was Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapakse, who played mediator along with the US ambassador to Colombo, Patricia Butenis, and US assistant secretary of state Robert Blake.

Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have no qualms about using China as an outside balancer to India's dominance in South Asia. Both buy arms from Beijing and are recipients of whopping sums of money from China for the development of infrastructure like ports, roads and airports in their countries. Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, candidly admitted during her New Delhi visit in January this year that there is an anti-India mindset in her country and she cannot change it.

Last year, Myanmar decided to divert to China gas that India had been eyeing. Although ONGC and GAIL helped to develop the gas fields, located in the resource-rich Arakan province of that country, and own equity in some blocks, India couldn't get its act together on transportation issues. Tired of New Delhi's shuffling, Myanmar offered the gas to China, which accepted it with alacrity and has already started constructing a pipeline from Arakan to feed its booming, energy-hungry western provinces of Yunan and Guizhou.

Despite receiving a reconstruction and rehabilitation package worth over $800 million from India, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has decided to ignore New Delhi's objections and do business with Pakistan and the Taliban. He has received Pakistan's avowedly anti-India army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, twice in Kabul this year and also visited Islamabad to seek assistance in building bridges with the Taliban.

All of these developments point to the fact that over the years, India's ability to win friends and influence people in its neighbourhood has taken a massive hit. Call it benign neglect. Or put it down to thrills from the first flush of romance with the United States and the tantalising prospect of joining the international high table. Despite a rapidly growing economy, a flourishing democracy, the unrivalled soft power of its popular culture and an army that boasts of being the third largest in the world, India's geopolitical influence across south Asia falls sadly short of expectations. As a rising China, with an economy poised to become the world's largest by 2025, casts its giant shadow over Asia and as Beijing eagerly fills the gaps New Delhi has unthinkingly left in its backyard, the question being asked in strategic and diplomatic circles is this: is India dealing itself out in south Asia?

"Yes," is the emphatic response from Observer Research Foundation analyst Sameer Saran. "Clearly, we are. We should be creating more robust integration with our neighbourhood. But are we devoting enough time to this? I don't believe we are." Says a retired senior diplomat who wished to remain unidentified, "The concepts are all there and they are bandied around regularly. It's important for our security and economic growth that we manage our periphery. But to do this, we need to be continuously engaged with our neighbours. The trouble is we keep taking our eyes off the ball."

Today, with the exception of Bhutan, India cannot count a single all-weather friend in the region. From tiny Maldives in the west to Bangladesh and Myanmar in the east to Sri Lanka in the south, national interest need not converge with Indian interests and a little bit of China on the side adds heft to smaller nations when dealing with big brother India. As for Pakistan and China, former national security advisor Brajesh Mishra believes that both are jointly following a containment policy designed to keep India embroiled in tensions with all its neighbours.

"China's presence has grown all around us. It shows the paucity of India's influence in her neighbourhood," Mishra says.

Analysts are perplexed and concerned by the apparent disinterest of successive governments in developing and nurturing an intense engagement with the neighbourhood, especially the south Asian nations that comprise SAARC. Consider these facts: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not paid a bilateral visit to a single SAARC country during his six years in office. Nor did his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee, save for one famous trip to Lahore when the India-Pakistan bus link opened in February 1999.

A secret note prepared by the external affairs ministry four years ago lists countries in order of strategic importance to India. The US tops the list, followed by the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Russia, in that order. Surprisingly, China, a budding superpower and a neighbour with which we share a disputed border, ranks sixth, while Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka round off the top ten. Despite Bhutan being India's closest ally in the immediate neighbourhood, the ministry put it way down on the list along with countries like Belgium and Australia. Bewildering?

It's inexplicable, certainly. Just as India's Pakistan's policy is, with its diminishing returns. This is the one neighbour in which every prime minister since Independence has invested personal time and energy. And ironically, it has proved to be our most troublesome, with sections of the Pakistani establishment pursuing a policy that is downright hostile. "Somehow, we always seem to forget that the first task should be to secure our neighbourhood. This is an imperative if we want to play a global role," says Mishra.

Analysts believe that India's neighbourhood conundrum is largely self-created, thanks to our fatal fascination for the West, particularly the United States. While they acknowledge that it was necessary to mend fences with Washington to remain relevant in the new world order that emerged with the end of the Cold War, they feel that policy-makers in New Delhi lost sight of priorities in the chase for a seat at the high table. The last five years were a turning point, as the Manmohan Singh government locked up all its capital in pushing the Indo-US nuclear deal through.

"In our excitement at being feted by Western powers and joining the G-20, the East Asia Summit and so on, we've ended up ignoring our traditional constituencies. We seem to see our neighbours as pesky countries rather than important strategic partners in our growth trajectory," said a former diplomat who did not want his name disclosed.

A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office downplayed warning notes about the hiatus that has crept into relations with neighbouring countries. He also pooh-poohed the China factor in south Asia, pointing out that Beijing is very cautious about its activities in India's neighbourhood. For instance, although it built the Gwadar port in Pakistan, a Singapore company is running the facility, he said, adding that the US put pressure on Pakistan to take the port out of the Chinese ambit. "So, you see, there are natural balancers in every country," he insisted.

Explaining the dip in engagement levels, he said that virtually all the neighbouring countries have been in political turmoil for the past several years, making it difficult for India to build longterm assets in the region. While Nepal is still in crisis, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have stabilised and the Manmohan Singh government is trying to repair ties with both by loosening its purse strings. Economic assistance to the two countries has been stepped up several times. Rajpakse returned to Colombo after a state visit to India in June with an assistance package amounting to $1 billion.

But the elephant moves slowly. Although India-friendly Sheikh Hasina's victory in the Bangladesh elections last year presents New Delhi with just the opportunity it needs, signs of strain are already there. A recent article in a leading Bangladesh newspaper carried a report that blamed India for non-implementation of trade agreements concluded during Hasina's January visit to India. In a goodwill gesture to Hasina, India had conceded a long-standing demand from Dhaka on the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers on Bangladeshi goods. The newspaper report said that bureaucrats on both sides were holding things up.

"It's unfortunate," says former diplomat G Parthasarathi. "If India doesn't deliver to Bangladesh in the next five years, it will weaken Hasina and the price will be paid by us. I don't know why we can't be more generous with our neighbours. China sees all its neighbouring countries as an extension of its market and places no restrictions on the movement of goods. We demand reciprocity with every neighbour instead of adopting a larger philosophical approach like China."

Saran puts this niggardly attitude down to an inability to shake off old mindsets. "We worked in poverty mode for so long that we haven't come out of it yet, although our economy is growing at 8-9 per cent every year. We need to realize that not only has the world changed, so have we," he says.

Mishra warns, however, that economics alone cannot give India the clout it should have as an emerging power. It is equally important to develop military muscle. "We must be able to defend our borders by building up our military strength. There is an impression that India can be taken for granted because it's a soft state. We've neglected our military for too long," he says. He acknowledged that the Vajpayee government was as much to blame as the Manmohan Singh government for going slow on the much-touted fighter aircraft deal under which the Indian Air Force is slated to acquire 126 war planes as part of its modernization plans.

While agreeing with Mishra, Parthasarathi laments that emotions get in the way of India's dealings with its neighbours. "We make a mistake when we ask them to love us. No big country can have a comfortable relationship with smaller neighbours. We will have to learn to be realistic and ignore anti-India sentiments around us. Our neighbours should respect us. We need to create long-term assets everywhere to give them a stake in maintaining good ties with us, everywhere, that is, except Pakistan. That needs to be put in a different basket," he declares.

© The Times of India

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Sri Lanka: Villagers driven out to develop tourist sector

By Melani Manel Perera | Asia News

On 17 July, masked men wielding weapons destroyed the homes of residents in Panama and Ragamvila, two coastal villages in northeastern Sri Lanka. Police and troops who now occupy the area have prevented residents from coming back. Locals accuse the government of taking their land to promote tourist development.

Colombo is confiscating the land of residents of the villages of Ragamvila and Panama, Ampara Province, northeastern Sri Lanka, to give a boost to the local tourist sector, a decision slammed by the residents before the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) last Sunday.

PPTs were set up back in July by the Praja Abhilasha Network, a body created by the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NFSM) to focus on land issues, especially seizures, in order to denounce them to public opinion and bring them before the courts.

Panama and Ragamvila are coastal villages. The local tourist sector was badly damaged by the civil war between the government and Tamil Tigers that ended in May 2009. Currently, the government in Colombo is taking over land and cutting down forests to built facilities to increase tourism in war-affected areas.

On the night of 17 July, armed men wearing masks attacked the villages. They set houses on fire, destroyed a village temple and drove people out. Police and troops moved in and took over the area and have prevented residents from coming back.

Altogether 35 families, both Tamil and Sinhalese, called the place home. “We condemn this unjust act by police of stealing our land,” some residents, who preferred to remain anonymous, said to AsiaNews. “We have lived here for 20 years and tended coconut and cashew nut trees, our sole source of income. The government does not care about our lives; it only wants to boost tourism.”

On 27 July, residents of the two villages protested in the streets. Edision Gunatilake, senior deputy inspector general of the Eastern Province, promised he would meet them. So far, he has not yet set a date for a meeting.

“It is a bad thing that land is being grabbed with police protection,” a PPT judge told AsiaNews. “People who live along the coast are in real danger because they can be driven from their land at any time.”

“We urge politicians and investors to stop grabbing land and violating the rights of residents,” said Herman Kumara, secretary general of the World Forum for Fisher People.

© Asia News


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Saturday, August 07, 2010

'Sri Lanka is now safe for travellers' says UK

Photo courtesy: Indi Samarajeewa

BBC South Asia

A security assessment carried out by the British High Commission in Sri Lanka has concluded that the whole country is now safe for travellers.

It is the first time in about 30 years that travel restriction advice has been completely lifted.

The British government had previously warned against travelling to northern areas, principally because of the danger of unexploded mines.

The Sri Lankan army defeated Tamil Tiger rebels in May last year.

The rebels were fighting for a separate state for the island's Tamil minority from their heartlands in the north and east of the country.

Their use of suicide bombers, in particular, meant that many countries officially designated them a proscribed organisation.

It also meant that tourists were put off from travelling to the country, which is renowned for having some of the best beaches in South Asia.

The Sri Lankan government has welcomed the lifting of the travel restriction advice.
Caution remains

"This latest change means we no longer advise against travel to any part of Sri Lanka," a High Commission statement said.

"But Britons wishing to travel to the north should be aware that there remains a risk from mines and unexploded ordinance and that they need to obtain permission from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence before they travel."

The Foreign Office in London is a little more cautious in its advice to travellers.

It says that a "general threat from terrorism" remains, despite the defeat of the Tamil Tigers.

"The government maintains its state of emergency, under which it has extensive anti-terrorism powers, and increased security measures, including checkpoints and a highly visible military presence, remain throughout the country.

"Isolated attacks cannot be ruled out and could be indiscriminate," it says.

© BBC South Asia


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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Rajapaksa dynasty doing as they please in Sri Lanka

By Samanmalee Unanthenna | Groundviews

The story about Minister Mervyn Silva tying a Samurdhi Officer to a tree as punishment for not participating in a dengue prevention programme in the Kelaniya district was bad enough. The statement made by the UPFA General Secretary, Susil Premajayantha that the party or the government is not responsible for the actions of Minister Mervyn Silva opens up far more serious issues. What we can infer from what the UPFA General Secretary said, is that neither the UPFA nor the government has any control over its Ministers. The pertinent question then is: who is in control? Surely, we not are supposed to believe that the Cabinet of Ministers act as individuals and are not accountable to anyone in the government?

Minister Premajayantha consciously or unconsciously has just revealed the true state of affairs in Sri Lanka under the Rajapakse regime. And the state of affairs simply is that anyone who has the goodwill of the Rajapakse dynasty can pretty much do as they please. Everyone else had better watch out. Consider if you will, the following:

1. Former Army Commander and current MP Sarath Fonseka is charged with engaging in politics while in the Army; the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse who campaigned openly during the Presidential and General elections, goes on international television saying that Sarath Fonseka will be ‘hung’ for his crimes. (This is of course just one of the charges being trumped up against Sarath Fonseka but in order to keep this article to a reasonable length let’s just stick with this one).

2. KP, the leader of the LTTE’s international network, who raised funds and procured arms for the organisation is allowed to meet representatives of the Tamil diaspora, travel to the North and East, speak on the telephone, conduct news conferences and has other special privileges. He was smart enough apparently to admire a Buddha statue in the Defence Secretary’s office. In the meantime, thousands of young women and men who are suspected of being linked to the LTTE (including those who were forcibly recruited) and who have no opportunity to charm the Defence Secretary, are detained with no notification to their families, proper charges or access from independent observers.

3. The same KP is allowed (no, escorted) on a tour of detention centres and refugee camps in the North while elected members of parliament from the JVP are refused entry and are obstructed while on a fact finding tour of war affected areas in the North.

4. Journalists critical of the government and the Rajapakse dynasty are constantly threatened, intimidated and harassed while those who are willing to lie and sing paeans of praise of the dynasty and its doings are feted as ethical journalists.

5. Students , trade unions and civil society members exercising their right to express opinions and protest are beaten, tear gassed and arrested; MP Wimal Weerawansa who makes Sri Lanka the laughing stock of the world and leads a riot against the UN staff in Sri Lanka is tenderly resurrected by the President after a three day ‘fast’. And the police who were on the scene trying to maintain law and order are peremptorily ordered to back off by the Defence Secretary.

6. Duminda de Silva, who has been accused of rape, sexual harassment and drug dealing among many other things, campaigned with no restrictions during the provincial council and general elections recently while UNP Colombo district candidate Susil Kindelpitiya was arrested for sexual harassment and refused bail for the duration of the general election campaign.

This list could go on but I think the point is clear enough. The Rajapakse dynasty systematically and mercilessly hunts down its opponents while protecting its supporters. In the process there is no law, procedure, custom, tradition, value or ethic that is safe from violation. The only law or value that is of any significance is that which will strength and protect the dynasty. Poor old Minister Susil Premajayantha; how he must have hated being asked his opinion of Mervyn Silva’s actions! Unable to speak the truth, that is that Mervyn Silva is the President’s Thug-in-Chief, can therefore do anything he wants and that the UPFA exits as a political party merely in name, he says something incredibly stupid, which just reveals to the world, the extent to which the Rajapakse dynasty has strangled systems of accountability, due process, law and order within the political and governing systems in this country.

I wonder what those within the UPFA, the SLFP and others supporting this regime and people like Vasudeva Nanayakkara or Tissa Vitharana, who claim to come from a radical political tradition, think about all of this: How do they feel when Wimal Weerawansa and Mervyn Silva seem to take turns at exposing this regime’s crassness, mediocrity and callousness? What drug are they on that enables them to continue to support and justify this regime? How do the Ministers and MPs feel when they are constantly sidelined, overruled and ignored by members of the family dynasty? What do they feel when the dynasty’s youngest member has more power than the most senior member of the SLPF? Do they not fear for their own lives and their political futures? That there must be some rumblings of discontent is evident by the recent news report of a three day ‘workshop’ down south that is being planned for the UPFA MPs. We can all imagine what kind of a ‘workshop’ that is going to be!! But is there no one among those MPs and advisors with an ounce of self-respect, who might feel a twinge of conscience, a pang of guilt, a sense of duty to his or her constituents, who will stand up to the President’s charm offensive, the wining and the dining?

But there is something that is more powerful than any drug in the world that makes it possible to condone and justify the most horrific acts; and that is self-deception. Just think of all those who supported Nazi Germany. There are those among us who believe the President when he says that not a drop of civilian blood was shed while defeating the LTTE. There are those among us who believe that the streets of Colombo look better without beggars or street children and can ignore the atrocities that happened to those human beings in order to clear the streets for our visual pleasure. They can whizz down the newly repaired roads to Arugam Bay, Nilaveli and Nagadipa and not see the oppression and the fear among the people around them. They also believe that journalists kill themselves or cook up stories to obtain visas to foreign countries and burnt down media institutions to claim insurance. These are the same people who believed that the Beeshanaya of the late 1980s and early 1990s was justified because the state had to maintain law and order. These are also the same people who believe that torture is justified if it is a means of arriving at the ‘truth’ since the truth will ‘protect’ us. They believe that Sri Lanka doesn’t have to respect human rights because the USA and the UK do not. This self-deception is what makes it possible for Mervyn Silva to be regarded as a joke, a media personality and even a ‘protector’ of people, using every means to take care of his electorate instead of seeing him for the cruel, arrogant and conscienceless thug that he really is. It is also what makes it possible for this totalitarian and corrupt regime to be considered to have brought peace and stability to Sri Lanka.

Self- deception may be comforting, but it is a temporary comfort. It is also dangerous because by the time we rouse ourselves from its stupor, it may be too late. But just remember, one day we will have to wake up – and what we see around us then will be far from pretty.

© Groundviews

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