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Violence: HRW urges world to pressure Sri Lanka to respect fundamental freedoms

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The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged foreign governments and international institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which are offering assistance, to address Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, to insist that the government respect fundamental freedoms.

The following is the text of a New York date-lined statement issued by HRW on May 10: Clashes broke out in Sri Lanka on May 9, 2022 after government supporters attacked peaceful anti-government protest sites in Colombo, the capital, and elsewhere. The government should uphold the right to peaceful protest, ensure that the security force response to public disorder is proportionate and rejects excessive force, and promptly investigate and appropriately prosecute acts of violence.

Several hundred people, identifying themselves as supporters of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, arrived by bus, in Colombo, on May 9, and advanced to the Galle Face Green, where protesters, calling for the resignation of the government, have been peacefully camped for several weeks. Witness accounts and video footage show government supporters attacking the protesters with clubs and other weapons and setting fire to tents. Hours later, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as Prime Minister.

“The attack on peaceful protesters by Sri Lankan government supporters has sparked a dangerous escalation, increasing the risk of further deadly violence and other abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “It is vitally important for the security forces to fully respect the right to peaceful assembly, and for those responsible for violence to be held to account.”

Kasumi Ranasinghe Arachchige, a protester who was at Galle Face Green, when the attack occurred, said that police forces at the scene, which included a water cannon truck, “retreated” when government supporters attacked protesters with knives and sticks. “They [government supporters] started destroying everything,” she said, describing damage to tents and other facilities, including temporary showers and a small library. “It seemed as if they knew what and who to look for.”

Over 150 people have been reported injured and at least five dead in different incidents, including the attack on Galle Face Green, and the government has imposed a nationwide curfew. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Bar Association, as well as foreign diplomats, condemned the attack on protesters and called for an impartial investigation.

In recent months, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has provoked widespread protests calling for political reform and for the resignation of the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his brother Mahinda, the Prime Minister. On April 1, President Rajapaksa imposed a State of Emergency, lifting it five days later. The government reimposed a State of Emergency on May 6 after police fired teargas and arrested students protesting near Parliament, which was adjourned until May 17. Although the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, the police fatally shot a protester on April 19, and on several occasions have used teargas and water cannon against protesters. The authorities have made numerous arrests and repeatedly imposed curfews.

Following the attack on the protesters’ camp at the Galle Face Green, there were numerous violent incidents in Colombo and elsewhere in the country, including clashes between government supporters and anti-government protesters, and attacks on the property of ruling party politicians. In Nittambuwa, 50 kilometers from Colombo, police said that Amarakeerthi Athukorala, a government member of Parliament, opened fire on protesters blocking his car, wounding one and killing another, then fatally shot himself.

Concerned governments and international institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which are offering assistance to address the country’s economic crisis, should insist that the government respect fundamental freedoms, Human Rights Watch said.

The latest State of Emergency was imposed on May 6, but the government did not immediately publish the emergency regulations laying out the special powers assumed. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a party, certain rights may be derogated, or restricted, under a State of Emergency, while other rights, including the right to life and prohibition of torture, may not under any circumstances be limited. Any derogation must be limited and proportionate. Foreign governments, including the United States and Canada, as well as the European Union, have questioned President Rajapaksa’s decision to assume emergency powers.

Sri Lanka has a poor record under successive administrations of investigating and prosecuting countless grave violations of human rights. During a previous government between 2005 and 2010, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa, as well as other senior figures in the current administration, were implicated in the killing and enforced disappearance of journalists and political activists and in numerous war crimes during the civil war that ended in May 2009.

“In recent weeks, thousands of Sri Lankans have peacefully protested against corruption and called for accountable governance and respect for human rights,” Ganguly said. “Pro-government supporters have responded to those calls with violence, which those in authority need to stop.”



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Weerawansa’s wife sentenced to RI

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Lawyers appearing for Shashi Weerawansa, MP Wimal Weerawansa’s wife, yesterday (27) appealed against a Colombo Magistrate’s Court decision to sentence their client to two years rigorous imprisonment.Colombo Chief Magistrate, Buddhika Sri Ragala found her guilty of submitting forged documents to obtain a diplomatic passport circa 2010. The Colombo Magistrate’s Court also imposed a fine of Rs. 100,000 on Mrs. Weerawansa. If the fine is not paid she will have to serve an extra six months.

Additional Magistrate Harshana Kekunawala announced that the appeal would be called for consideration on 30 May.The case against Mrs. Weerawansa was filed by the CID after a complaint was lodged on 23 January 2015 by Chaminda Perera, a resident of Battaramulla.

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Unions predict end of energy sovereignty

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

A government decision to allow all privately-owned bunker fuel operators to import and distribute diesel and fuel oil to various industries was a rollback of the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry and another severe blow to energy sovereignty of the country, trade union activist of the SJB Ananda Palitha said yesterday.Earlier, Minister of Power and Energy, Kanchana Wijesekera Tweeted that ‘approval was given to all the Private Bunker Fuel Operators to Import and provide Diesel and Fuel Oil requirements of Industries to function their Generators and Machinery. This will ease the burden on CPC and Fuel Stations provided in bulk’.Commenting on the decision, Palitha said that according to the existing law those companies only had the power to import, store and distribute fuel for ships. Those companies did not have the authority to distribute fuel inside the country, Palitha said.

“Only the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) can distribute fuel inside the country. There is a controversy about the licence given to the LIOC as well. If the government wants other companies to import fuel, it needs to change the laws. The Minister does not have the power to make these decisions. A few months ago the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration used to rush Bills that adversely affected the country through Parliament. Now, since they don’t have a majority in parliament, they are using the Cabinet to make decisions that are detrimental to the country’s interests.”

Palitha said that the controversial government move would further weaken the CPC, and that the ultimate aim of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government was to make the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) purchase fuel from private distributors. With a weakened CPC and a CEB under the mercy of private companies, the Sri Lankan state would have little control over the country’s energy sector, he warned.

“The CEB already can’t pay the CPC, and therefore how can it pay private companies? It will have to sell its assets. This is another step in the road to fully privatise the energy sector. When this happens no government will be able to control inflation or strategically drive production through fuel and energy tariffs. The people will be at the mercy of businessmen and the government will only be a bystander,” he said.

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Modi government moves to ‘solve’ Katchatheevu issue

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The Narendra Modi government is mulling restoring the traditional rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen in Katchatheevu, an uninhabited island of 285 acres, sandwiched between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Bay, with the BJP hoping the move could lift its political fortunes in the southern state.The government will push Sri Lanka to implement “in letter and spirit” the 1974 agreement reached between Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then prime ministers of India and Sri Lanka, on the island.This will have to be done by withdrawing the “Executive Instructions” issued in 1976 without questioning Sri Lanka’s “sovereignty” over Katchatheevu, sources aware of the internal discussions in the BJP told the Indian newspaper, Deccan Herald.

Sources added that the discussions were “ongoing” at “various levels” including reaching out to Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka. The recent visit of TN BJP chief K Annamalai to Sri Lanka is also part of the outreach. Many feel the instructions issued in 1976 “superseded the provisions of the legally valid” pact between India and Sri Lanka, thus making Katchatheevu a subject of dispute in the Palk Bay.While the 1974 agreement gave away Katchatheevu, which was part of the territory ruled by the Rajah of Ramanathapuram, to Sri Lanka, the 1976 pact drew the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal.

“We cannot disturb the agreement signed in 1974. We are now finding ways and means to implement the agreement in letter and spirit. All we plan is to ask Sri Lanka to invoke Article 6 of the Katchatheevu pact. If Sri Lanka agrees, the issue can be sorted through Exchange of Letters between foreign secretaries of both countries,” a source in the know said.Another source said the time is “ripe” to push forward on the issue. “With fast-changing geopolitical situation in the region, we believe Sri Lanka will slowly come around and accept the rights of our fishermen,” the source said.

“The opinion within the party is that time is ripe to push this cause, with Sri Lanka beginning to realise that India can always be relied upon, given PM Ranil (Wickremesinghe) is pro-India.”

Articles 5 and 6 of the 1974 agreement categorically assert the right to access of the Indian fishermen and pilgrims to Katchatheevu and state that the “vessels of Sri Lanka and India will enjoy in each other’s waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed therein”.

However, fishermen from India were prohibited from fishing in the Sri Lankan territorial waters around Katchatheevu in 1976 following the signing of an agreement on the maritime boundary. The battle for fish in the Palk Bay has often ended in Indian fishermen being attacked by Sri Lankan Navy for “transgressing” into their waters.The BJP, which is yet to make major inroads in Tamil Nadu, feels a “solution” to the long-standing issue will give the party the much-needed momentum ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and provide a chance to get into the Tamil psyche. Political analysts feel that it might also allow the BJP to needle the DMK and the Congress by pointing out that it has restored the rights “surrendered by them,” to Tamil fishermen

Senior journalist and Lanka expert R Bhagwan Singh said: “If BJP succeeds in its efforts, it will certainly help the saffron party in the coming elections.”

But a source said the move will “take time”. “We don’t want to rush and create an impression we are forcing Sri Lanka. We will take it slow. We will take every stakeholder into confidence and reach an amicable settlement with Sri Lanka. All we want to do is restore traditional rights of our fishermen,” the source said.CM Stalin also raised the issue at an event on Thursday, telling Modi that this is the “right time” to retrieve Katchatheevu.

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