Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes

Updated 06 January 2015
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Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa will face an unprecedented challenge from a newly galvanised opposition when he seeks re-election this week, five years after his crushing military victory over Tamil guerrillas.
South Asia's longest-serving leader had appeared politically invincible after his forces crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a decades-long conflict and ushering in a new era of prosperity for the island nation.
Rajapaksa won a landslide election victory in 2010, but critics say the 69-year-old has failed to bring about reconciliation with Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the years that followed.
His second term has been dogged by accusations of corruption, including undermining the independence of the judiciary and lining the pockets of political cronies through lucrative contracts.
The surprise decision of his health minister Maithripala Sirisena to defect from the ruling party and stand as the main opposition candidate has turned what might have been a walk-over into a real contest.
Political commentator Victor Ivan said the low-profile Sirisena had become a symbol of simmering discontent over corruption.
"He (Rajapaksa) failed to ensure reconciliation," Ivan said.
"His focus was in mega-highways and ports. That was good for GDP growth, but not enough to heal a society wounded by decades of conflict."
Sri Lanka's economy has grown by an annual average of over seven percent since the war ended, partly thanks to hefty investment from close Rajapakse ally China.
But the opposition says Chinese contractors have employed few local people, and household incomes have not kept pace with national growth rates.
Opposition parties including the main Tamil party have rallied behind Sirisena, a 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician who is from the majority Sinhalese community.
While he still has support among Sinhalese voters, Rajapakse is widely detested by members of the country's biggest minority, who account for 13 percent of its 15 million people and usually vote as a bloc.
The president has taken drastic measures to shore up support, slashing fuel prices, cutting water and electricity tariffs and giving subsidised motorcycles and hefty pay increases to 1.6 million public servants.
Rajapakse has also promised a judicial inquiry into allegations that his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, although he still refuses to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
Last week he told voters in the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna that he was committed to improving their livelihoods, listing a series of infrastructure projects in the war-ravaged region.
Describing himself as the "known devil", the president urged people not to vote for the "unknown" Sirisena. "I am the known devil, so please vote for me," he said through a translator.
The Tamils could be king-makers if the majority Sinhalese constituency is split down the middle between Rajapakse and Sirisena.
"We will vote for Sirisena not because we like him, but because we don't like the president," said Colombo-based Tamil company executive Ratnavale Chandrasekaran.
Rajapakse called snap elections two years ahead of schedule in the hope of preempting an opposition fight-back.
Close associates say the timing was decided partly on advice given by his personal astrologer.
The 69-year-old, who has been accused of growing authoritarianism, had removed the two-term limit on the presidency and given himself more powers soon after winning a second term in 2010.
Sirisena's defection was carefully choreographed by Rajapakse's bete noire, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who returned to politics after a nine-year retirement, and has split the ruling party.
A hardline party of Sinhalese Buddhist monks that had cheered Rajapakse's refusal to bow to an international probe defected to the opposition in November, accusing him of unprecedented corruption and nepotism.
The president's eldest brother Chamal is speaker of parliament, another brother Basil is economic development minister while a third, Gotabhaya, serves as the defence secretary.
Other family members dominate state institutions and government-owned companies, with the Rajapakse tentacles extending even to sporting bodies.
Rajapakse himself holds a host of ministerial portfolios including finance, ports and highways.
The pro-government media are predicting a close fight, while diplomats in Colombo say they sense a shift in favour of the opposition.
Last week one of Sirisena's top supporters accused the government of deploying thousands of troops to Tamil-majority areas as part of a strategy to intimidate voters against backing Rajapakse's main challenger.
The military has denied accusations of campaigning for Rajapakse.
As signs of opposition strength grew, the privately-run Sunday Times newspaper questioned the wisdom of Rajapakse's decision to call a snap election.
"It was his own calling," the paper said. "President Mahinda Rajapakse for once goes as the underdog."


Harvey Weinstein charged with rape

Updated 4 min 9 sec ago
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Harvey Weinstein charged with rape

  • Seven months after allegations of sexual misconduct destroyed his career and catalyzed the #MeToo movement, the once-powerhouse movie producer turned himself in to face charges.
  • Manhattan Assistant Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon: “This defendant used his position, money and power to lure young women into situations where he was able to violate them sexually.”

NEW YORK: Flinching when he heard himself described as a man who used power to prey on women, Harvey Weinstein was arraigned Friday on rape and other charges in the first criminal prosecution to result from the wave of allegations against him that sparked a national reckoning over sexual misconduct.
Seven months after the allegations destroyed his career and catalyzed the #MeToo movement, the once-powerhouse movie producer turned himself in to face the charges, which stem from encounters with two of the dozens who have accused him of sexual misdeeds ranging from harassment to assault.
“This defendant used his position, money and power to lure young women into situations where he was able to violate them sexually,” Manhattan Assistant Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said in court. Weinstein raised his eyebrows as he heard it.
Weinstein has consistently denied any allegations of nonconsensual sex. His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, didn’t elaborate further on the denials Friday, saying he wasn’t there “to try the case” at this point.
A judge agreed to release Weinstein on $1 million bail, with constant electronic monitoring and a ban on traveling beyond New York and Connecticut.
A make-or-break Hollywood producer until the allegations destroyed his career last fall, Weinstein, 66, found himself surrounded by lights and cameras in a spectacle he couldn’t control.
“You sorry, Harvey?” came a shout from a throng of media as the once powerful movie mogul walked into a lower Manhattan courthouse in handcuffs, his head bowed. Asked “What can you say?” he mildly shook his head and softly said “No.”
Weinstein was charged with rape and a criminal sex act as well as lower-level sex abuse and sexual misconduct charges.
Weinstein lumbered into a police station early Friday wearing a blazer and carrying books including “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution,” about the Broadway musical duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and “Elia Kazan,” about the famed film director,
A law enforcement official told The Associated Press that the criminal sex act charge stems from a 2004 encounter between Weinstein and Lucia Evans, a then-aspiring actress who has said the Hollywood mogul forced her to perform oral sex on him in his office. She was among the first women to speak out about the producer.
The rape charge relates to a woman who was not identified. A court complaint says Weinstein raped her in a Manhattan hotel in 2013.
Brafman has previously said that Weinstein has consistently denied any allegations of “nonconsensual sex.”
Evans confirmed to The New Yorker that she was pressing charges.
“At a certain point, you have to think about the greater good of humanity, of womankind,” she told the magazine.
Evans told The New Yorker in a story published in October that Weinstein forced her to perform oral sex during a daytime meeting at his New York office in 2004, the summer before her senior year at Middlebury College.
“I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t,’” she told the magazine. “I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t want to kick him or fight him.”
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance had been under enormous public pressure to bring a criminal case against Weinstein. Some women’s groups, including the Hollywood activist group Time’s Up, accused the Democrat of being too deferential to Weinstein and too dismissive of his accusers.
A grand jury has been hearing evidence in the case for weeks.
In March, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took the extraordinary step of ordering the state’s attorney general to investigate whether Vance acted properly in 2015 when he decided not to prosecute Weinstein over a previous allegation of unwanted groping, made by an Italian model. That investigation is in its preliminary stages.
More than 75 women have accused Weinstein of wrongdoing around the globe. Several actresses and models accused him of criminal sexual assaults, but many of the encounters happened too long ago for any prosecution. Film actress Rose McGowan said Weinstein raped her in 1997 in Utah, “Sopranos” actress Annabella Sciorra said he raped her in her New York apartment in 1992 and Norwegian actress Natassia Malthe said he attacked her in a London hotel room in 2008.
McGowan told the AP on Thursday that “the justice system has been something very elusive.”
“I hope in this case, it works. Because it’s all true. None of this was consensual,” she said.
The statute of limitations for rape and certain other sex crimes in New York was eliminated in 2006, but not for attacks that happened prior to 2001.
New York City police detectives said in early November that they were investigating allegations by another accuser, “Boardwalk Empire” actress Paz de la Huerta, who told police in October that Weinstein raped her twice in 2010. She is not one of the victims in the case on Friday; hers was still pending, officials said.
Authorities in California and London also are investigating assault allegations. Britain has no statute of limits on rape cases; some of the allegations under investigation there date to the 1980s.
Harvey and his brother Bob Weinstein started his now-bankrupt company after leaving Miramax, the company they founded in 1979 and which became a powerhouse in ‘90s indie film with hits like “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love.” The Weinstein Co. found success with Oscar winners “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech.”