Sri Lanka mulls changes to controversial anti-terror law as EU, UN step up pressure

Sri Lanka mulls changes to controversial anti-terror law as EU, UN step up pressure
Sri Lankan police commandos patrol on the streets of Pallekele, a suburb of Kandy, on March 6, 2018, following anti-Muslim riots that has prompted the government to declare a state of emergency. (AFP)
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Updated 24 June 2021

Sri Lanka mulls changes to controversial anti-terror law as EU, UN step up pressure

Sri Lanka mulls changes to controversial anti-terror law as EU, UN step up pressure
  • Sri Lanka has been marred by a protracted 37-year-long civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers
  • Modifications to the PTA on March 9 allow for two years of detention without trial for anyone “who surrenders or is taken into custody on suspicion” of causing or intending to cause “religious, racial or communal disharmony”

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka could “either repeal or revise” a controversial anti-terror law based on a detailed review amid pressure from the EU and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) over concerns it violates human rights, a top official said on Wednesday.
Enacted in 1979, the powerful Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which a previous government promised to scrap but did not, allows authorities to make warrantless arrests and searches if a person is suspected of involvement in a “terrorist activity.”
Under the law, suspects have the right to trial but not by a jury, while the country’s defense minister can order detentions of up to three months at a time for a maximum of 18 months.
“The PTA will be either revised or repealed depending on a report by two committees appointed by the Cabinet,” Justice Minister Ali Sabry told Arab News on Wednesday.
“The first will be a ministerial committee, while the second will be a technical group of experts. We will give them three months to submit their findings, and action will be taken based on that,” he added.
Modifications to the PTA on March 9 allow for two years of detention without trial for anyone “who surrenders or is taken into custody on suspicion” of causing or intending to cause “religious, racial or communal disharmony.”
On June 8, the European Parliament passed a motion for a resolution demanding that the PTA be scrapped as it “breaches human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”
“The impunity and lack of accountability for past human rights violations by various agents and the excessive application of the PTA (do) not adhere to international practices and human rights principles,” it said.
The EU urged Sri Lanka to “amend the PTA … immediately” and threatened to withdraw its Generalized System of Preferences — a preferential tariff system that provides tariff reduction on various products — plus tax concessions amounting to $2 billion if the act was not amended.
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s government told parliament that the PTA would be revised “without compromising the country’s security.”
On what prompted the government to initiate the move now, Sabry said that the PTA “needed to be adjusted with changing times and factor in internet crimes, a high incidence of money laundering and an increasing need to ensure human rights.”

HIGHLIGHT

Government could amend Prevention of Terrorism Act to keep up with ‘changing times,’ official says.

“We want a balanced act now to meet human rights requirements in keeping with local interests and international obligations,” he added.
However, lawmaker and former Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem, who is also the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, told Arab News that the government “stands exposed” for its “abuse of the PTA for political gains” in recent years.
Sri Lanka has been marred by a protracted 37-year-long civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers.
The UN believes 80,000-100,000 people died in the conflict when the rebels sought to carve out a separate state for the Tamil minority and accused both sides of war crimes. In March, the UNHRC passed a resolution in Geneva censuring Colombo over its treatment of minorities and alleged failure to investigate atrocities during the civil war.
Hakeem said several people had been arrested under the PTA since 2009, in addition to “some 200 people who had been taken into custody” after the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, which killed 269 people and injured more than 500 in separate locations in Sri Lanka.
Human rights groups, for their part, say the PTA is a “draconian” weapon targeting dissidents and minorities in the country: Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of its total population of 22 million, while Buddhists account for 70 percent of the census.
“The recent EU resolution clearly states that the PTA must be repealed, not revised,” Shreen Saroor, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Women’s Action Network, told Arab News.
“It is a draconian piece of legislation that has been aggressively used against Muslims and to curb any form of dissent. It must be repealed fully, not revised,” Saroor added.
International lobbyist and human rights activist Muheed Jeeran agrees, adding that international pressure had “brought this government down to its knees to end this act.”  “The PTA is a monster that blatantly and grossly violates the universal declaration of human rights,” he told Arab News.
“It was introduced in 1979 as a temporary measure when the government did not have tools such as mobile phones and investigators had to work at a snail’s speed. But, today, we are in a technological era, and these investigators still detain a suspect for 540 days without any charges. The PTA must be repealed rather than reformed,” he added.


UK scientists: Future COVID-19 variants could have 35 percent fatality rates

UK scientists: Future COVID-19 variants could have 35 percent fatality rates
Updated 22 min 50 sec ago

UK scientists: Future COVID-19 variants could have 35 percent fatality rates

UK scientists: Future COVID-19 variants could have 35 percent fatality rates
  • Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE): “Realistic possibility” future strains could be as fatal as MERS
  • SAGE also warned that COVID-19 can infect common animal species including minks

LONDON: Future COVID-19 variants could have fatality rates of up to 35 percent, top UK government scientists have warned in a new report.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said it is a “realistic possibility” that future variants could prove as fatal as MERS, which has a death rate of 35 percent.
The chance of deadly COVID-19 mutations increases depending on the prevalence of the virus, the report said, adding that rapid vaccine rollouts worldwide will increase immunity levels, thereby forcing variants to mutate at a faster and more deadly pace.
The advisory body warned that future strains could become resistant to vaccines if they originate from the beta variant and combine with the alpha or delta variants, in a process called recombination.
And even with vaccines being expected to neutralize serious disease among COVID-19 patients, the report said a higher death rate is to be expected in the case of new deadly variants given that vaccines “do not provide total sterilizing immunity.”
SAGE also warned that COVID-19 can infect common animal species including minks, which some countries have taken to culling.
In response to the potential threat from animals — including dogs, cats, mice, rats and ferrets — becoming a host for future deadly variants, the group suggested that mass culling or animal vaccination programs should be considered by governments.


Turkish wildfire leaves charred home and ashes, as blazes continue

Turkish wildfire leaves charred home and ashes, as blazes continue
Updated 28 min 17 sec ago

Turkish wildfire leaves charred home and ashes, as blazes continue

Turkish wildfire leaves charred home and ashes, as blazes continue

MANAVGAT: Days after a raging wildfire in southern Turkey drove his family from the home they lived in for four decades, Mehmet Demir returned on Saturday to discover a burnt-out building, charred belongings and ashes.
Bedsprings, a ladder, metal chairs and some kitchenware were the only things left identifiable after some of the worst fires in years tore through the region, with several still burning four days after they erupted on Wednesday.
Demir’s home, near the coastal Mediterranean town of Manavgat, not far from the popular tourist resort Antalya, was hit by one of almost 100 fires which officials say erupted this week across southern and western Turkey, where sweltering heat and strong winds fanned the flames.
“The blaze spread through the highlands and raged suddenly,” Demir told Reuters as he looked around the wreckage of his home, built in 1982. “We had to flee to the center of Manavgat. Then we came back to find the house like this.”
“This was our (only) saving for the past 39-40 years. We are now left with the clothes we are wearing, me and my wife. There is nothing to do. This is when words fail.”
The death toll from the fires rose to six on Saturday, as two firefighting personnel died during efforts to control the fire in Manavgat, broadcaster CNN Turk said.
Satellite imagery showed smoke from the fires in Antalya and Mersin was extending to the island of Cyprus, around 150 km (100 miles) away.
Wildfires are common in southern Turkey in the hot summer months but local authorities say the latest fires have covered a much bigger area.
With deadly heatwaves, flooding and wildfires occurring around the world, calls are growing for urgent action to cut the CO2 emissions heating the planet.
Turkey’s Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said a total of 98 fires had broken out in the past four days, of which 88 were under control.
Fires continued in southern coastal provinces of Adana, Osmaniye, Antalya, Mersin and the western coastal province of Mugla, a popular resort region for Turks and foreign tourists, where some hotels have been evacuated this week.
Weather forecasts point to heatwaves along the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal regions, with temperatures expected to rise by 4 to 8 degrees Celsius over their seasonal average, Turkish meteorological authorities say.
They are forecast to reach 43 to 47 degrees Celsius in the coming days in Antalya, the main province of Manavgat.
“The weather is extremely hot and dry. This contributes to start of fires. Our smallest mistake leads to a great disaster,” Turkish climate scientist Levent Kurnaz said on Twitter.


Taliban and Afghan forces clash again outside Herat city

Taliban and Afghan forces clash again outside Herat city
Updated 36 min 39 sec ago

Taliban and Afghan forces clash again outside Herat city

Taliban and Afghan forces clash again outside Herat city
  • Violence has surged across Afghanistan since early May, when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive
  • The militants have seized scores of districts across Afghanistan, including in Herat province

HERAT, Afghanistan: Afghan and Taliban forces clashed again on the outskirts of Herat Saturday, a day after a police guard was killed when a United Nations compound in the western city came under attack.
Violence has surged across the country since early May, when the Taliban launched a sweeping offensive as US-led foreign forces began a final withdrawal that is now almost complete.
The militants have seized scores of districts across Afghanistan, including in Herat province, where the group has also captured two border crossings adjoining Iran and Turkmenistan.
Officials and residents reported renewed fighting on the outskirts of Herat Saturday, with hundreds fleeing their homes to seek shelter closer to the heart of the city.
Herat governor Abdul Saboor Qani said most of the fighting was in Injil and Guzara district — where the airport is located.
“At the moment the fighting is ongoing in the south and southeast. We are moving cautiously and to avoid civilian casualties,” Qani said.
During fighting Friday, the main Herat compound of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan came under attack from rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire that the UN blamed on anti-government elements.
The militants say they will not target foreign diplomats, but have blatantly violated international protocol before.
Afghan forces and militiamen of veteran warlord and anti-Taliban commander Ismail Khan have been deployed around the city of 600,000 in recent days.
Khan, who previously fought the Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s and then the Taliban during their hard-line regime in the 1990s, has vowed to fight the insurgents again to counter their staggering advances in recent months.


Ex-general takes aim at UK PM’s Afghan ‘silence’ 

Ex-general takes aim at UK PM’s Afghan ‘silence’ 
Updated 52 min 1 sec ago

Ex-general takes aim at UK PM’s Afghan ‘silence’ 

Ex-general takes aim at UK PM’s Afghan ‘silence’ 
  • Gen. Lord Richards: “Ungoverned space” will create opportunities for terror groups

LONDON: A former head of the UK armed forces has called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to outline the country’s strategy for Afghanistan as the war-torn nation slides into further conflict amid the Taliban’s advance.
Gen. Lord Richards, former chief of defense staff, said he is “fed up” with the government’s lack of planning for the next stage of supporting Afghanistan, where he served as the commander of coalition forces between 2006 and 2007. He lamented the West’s “defeat” in the country. 
With Western forces lined up to be fully removed by Sept. 11, Richards warned of the potential creation of an “ungoverned space” that could be exploited by terror groups for the planning of atrocities such as the 9/11 attacks.
He told the BBC that he takes a “share of the blame” for the West’s calamitous performance in Afghanistan, but that while NATO military force — chiefly from the US and Britain — largely achieved what was expected, politicians had failed to give Afghanistan sufficient economic and political support following the 2001 removal of the Taliban from power. 
“We have invested — as a country, as the West and the US particularly — 20 years of time and much money and many lives in Afghanistan,” said Richards.
“I’m getting a little bit fed up that I’ve not heard from our government — indeed from the prime minister — as to why we have reached this nadir. It’s really not good enough, and I would like to hear from the government — I think it’s a prime ministerial obligation now — as to why we’ve got into this position and what we are now going to do about it,” he added.
“It’s deflecting attention from our defeat. Added to what happened in Iraq, Libya, Syria, it’s a pretty sorry tale of Western failed geo-strategy over the last 20 years. And it’s time we had an explanation of why and what are we now going to do about it, to prevent it from happening in the way we all now fear might occur.”
The decorated former officer complained that following the invasion, the UN conducted a “light-touch” approach masterminded by envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, which meant the West failed to build on the military gains of 2001. 
Richards said the short supply of economic support meant that the Taliban returned as a threat five years later.
“As all soldiers will tell you, we know we can’t win these things by military means alone. What we hoped we were doing was providing an opportunity for governments, the whole of the West, to act in the way they needed, not just militarily but politically and economically,” he added.
“That didn’t happen … At the very moment, in 2002 to 2005, when the West should have poured in assets — and I’m talking primarily non-military by the way — we didn’t do so. The Taliban sensed an opportunity, they came back.”
Richards warned that the Taliban’s capture of Kandahar — Afghanistan’s second city — is “inevitable” without a change in strategy, which would lead to the group sweeping across the south of the country. 
“My biggest worry at the moment is, with the Western forces having pulled out with no adequate explanation of what is going to replace them, we are going to see a potential collapse in Afghan Armed Forces morale,” he said, adding that the resurgence of Taliban control would “almost certainly” facilitate the return of terror training camps.
“There will be ungoverned space … and in that ungoverned space terrorist acts may yet again be planned and executed,” warned Richards.
“I think we all forget too readily the scenes of 9/11, the Twin Towers and the attack in Washington. That is actually why we went into Afghanistan, and we’ve been spectacularly successful in achieving what we aimed to do,” he added.
“That is now being put at risk, along with all the wonderful gains in terms of education, health, and democracy, allowing people to hope for the future. All that is now, I’m afraid at great risk. We don’t have a substitute strategy and I want to hear what it should be.”


Bangladeshis rush back to work as factories reopen despite virus surge

Bangladeshis rush back to work as factories reopen despite virus surge
Updated 31 July 2021

Bangladeshis rush back to work as factories reopen despite virus surge

Bangladeshis rush back to work as factories reopen despite virus surge
SHIMULIA: Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers rushed back to major cities Saturday, besieging train and bus stations, after the government said export factories could reopen despite a deadly coronavirus wave.
With the economy badly hit by the pandemic, the government excluded the factories that supply top brands in Europe and North America from a nationwide lockdown order.
Authorities had ordered factories, offices, transport and shops to close from July 23 to August 5 as daily coronavirus infections and deaths hit record levels.
Officially, Bangladesh has reported 1.2 million cases and more than 20,000 deaths. Experts say the real figures are at least four times higher.
The government said however that the country’s 4,500 garment factories, which employ more than four million people, can reopen from Sunday, sparking a rush back to industrial cities.
The influential garment factory owners had warned of “catastrophic” consequences if orders for foreign brands were not completed on time.
Hundreds of thousands who had gone back to their villages to celebrate the Eid al Adha Muslim festival and sit out the lockdown, headed to Dhaka in any available transport — some just walking in the monsoon rain.
At the Shimulia ferry station, 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Dhaka, tens of thousands of workers waited hours for boats to take them to the capital.
Garment factory worker Mohammad Masum, 25, said he left his village before dawn, walked more than 30 kilometers (20 miles) and took rickshaws to get to the ferry port.
“Police stopped us at many checkpoints and the ferry was packed,” he said.
“It was a mad rush to get home when the lockdown was imposed and now we are in trouble again getting back to work,” Jubayer Ahmad, another worker, told AFP.
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest garment exporter after China and the industry has become the foundation of the economy for the country of 169 million people.
Mohammad Hatem, vice president of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said up to $3 billion worth of export orders were at risk if factories had stayed closed.
“The brands would have diverted their orders to other countries,” Hatem told AFP.