Sri Lanka’s surprise finance minister has a mountain to climb

Ali Sabry, newly appointed minister of finance, speaks during an interview with Reuters, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 9, 2022. (REUTERS)
Ali Sabry, newly appointed minister of finance, speaks during an interview with Reuters, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 9, 2022. (REUTERS)
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Updated 11 April 2022

Sri Lanka’s surprise finance minister has a mountain to climb

Ali Sabry, newly appointed minister of finance, speaks during an interview with Reuters, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 9, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • Faced with the challenge of immediately finding $3 billion to pay for essential goods that he describes as “Herculean,” Sabry said he has the full backing of the president, the prime minister and his ruling party leaders

COLOMBO: When former justice minister Ali Sabry visited Sri Lanka’s president last Monday, it was for talks amid an economic crisis that has brought thousands of protesters on to the street and left the island nation short of fuel, medicine and power.
By the time Sabry left the meeting with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to his surprise he was finance minister, thrust into the center of a financial storm that will not be easy to calm.
“I was not ... ready for that when I went there,” Sabry said in an interview over the weekend, giving the first insider account of a dramatic week of political maneuvering.
“Normally I wear my jacket to go for any official function. I took oath even without my jacket, because I went for a discussion and then, I had to take that (oath).”
The country of 22 million people has been hit by crippling power cuts, sometimes lasting 13 hours, and other shortages. Foreign exchange reserves have plummeted to $1.93 billion and debt payments several times that amount are looming.
Ordinary people have taken to the streets in recent weeks calling for Rajapaksa and his family to quit. The president’s elder brother, Mahinda, is prime minister.
Before Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved his cabinet, Sabry, 51, had been his trusted justice minister.
Even after accepting the new job, Sabry had doubts. Some 24 hours later, amid questions about his suitability and concerns within his family over whether it was the right decision, he said he sent a resignation letter to the president.
“I’m also a human being. My family also matters to me,” Sabry said, seated in front of a wall of books at his law chambers in the commercial capital Colombo.
For four days after his resignation offer, no other candidate stepped forward, he said, and by Friday he had resolved to go ahead, following further discussions with family, the president and officials.
“My conscience was troubling me,” he recalled.
On Friday, when Sabry rose to speak in parliament, a lawmaker pointedly asked what capacity he was talking in.
Sabry confirmed that he was still finance minister.
“As I told ... parliament, what you need is not to be an economist. If that is the case, you need to be either a motor mechanic or a driver to run the transport ministry,” Sabry said, breaking into laughter.
Before the drama of the last weeks, Sabry, who is a member of Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community, had enjoyed a 25-year career in law that had taken him to the top of the legal system.
He attended school in his hometown in Kalutara and Colombo’s Zahira College. At Sri Lanka Law College, he was general secretary of the law students’ union and later deputy president of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the country’s largest collective of lawyers.
From a family with deep roots in politics, Sabry has also had a long relationship with the Rajapaksas, particularly the president, whom he has represented in court.
Faced with the challenge of immediately finding $3 billion to pay for essential goods that he describes as “Herculean,” Sabry said he has the full backing of the president, the prime minister and his ruling party leaders.
He must also lead what are expected to be complicated negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a much-needed loan program.
Sabry said he had confidence in a team of key officials, including a new central bank governor and treasury secretary, alongside an advisory committee.
“I’m willing to do this as long as it takes,” Sabry said.
Udeeshan Jonas, Chief Strategist at Colombo-based investment bank CAL Group, said Sabry had shown courage taking on a job that no one else appeared to want.
“He will have to be the person to take unpopular and difficult decisions. The economic reforms that Sri Lanka needs to make will not come easy,” Jonas said.
Some analysts said the finance minister could be hamstrung by the public’s loss of confidence in the Rajapaksa family and what people saw as government inertia.
“Individuals cannot do much. The government has to take the right steps,” said Sirimal Abeyratne, a professor of economics at the University of Colombo. “We can now see the light at the end of the tunnel but nothing more than that.”


Italian lawmakers slam Iranian oppression against ‘freedom and democracy,’ calls on EU to act

Italian lawmakers slam Iranian oppression against ‘freedom and democracy,’ calls on EU to act
Updated 16 sec ago

Italian lawmakers slam Iranian oppression against ‘freedom and democracy,’ calls on EU to act

Italian lawmakers slam Iranian oppression against ‘freedom and democracy,’ calls on EU to act

ROME: Italian legislators have strongly condemned repression in Iran and called on the EU to act against “a regime which denies freedom and democracy.”

Members of all political parties from the Chamber of Deputies, along with senators, assembled in the Senate for a conference attended remotely by Maryam Rajavi, president of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Sen. Marco Scurria said: “It is a duty of the Italian Parliament to express support to the Iranians who have been courageously demonstrating against the regime which has already killed nearly 700 people, mostly young.

“We do not ask for Iran to become a Western country; we only call for the right of the self-determination of Iranian people.

“They have the right to enjoy their freedom and rights in a state based on the rule of law.”

Scurria added that the Speaker of the Senate Ignazio La Russa “expressed his support for this initiative.”

Sen. Giulio Maria Terzi di Sant’Agata, who chairs the EU Affairs Parliamentary Committee in the Senate, said that the EU and its member states “cannot keep on turning their face away from the tragedy which has been going on in Iran for too long.”

He added: “The EU must act now in a concrete way so that freedom and democracy are guaranteed in Iran.

“We fully support the work of the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran.

“Nobody must underestimate the regime’s capacity for violent repression.

“The regime that is responsible for infinite atrocities has killed 30,000 political prisoners. Its alliance with Moscow is even more nefarious.

“The revolt which has taken place following the killing of Mahsa Amini confirms how necessary the reaction of the people and the international community is against a regime which has activated a terrorist network in Europe, supported by its embassies.”

MPs Elisabetta Gardini and Luana Zanella expressed their support for Iranian women “who are paying the highest toll in the repression.”

Zanella added: “In Iran, women are excluded from human rights, and dozens of them are executed every year.

“As they are fighting a very difficult battle there, we have no other option but to be on their side.”

Rajavi said that in the past five years poverty in Iran “has increased threefold and so has the unemployment rate.”

She added: “Why does Europe appear unable to do anything to get rid of this regime?

“Apart from nice declarations, so far the European Union has had a condescending attitude toward the regime. The EU must take concrete action now.”


Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap
Updated 09 December 2022

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap
  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further
  • The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden

SAN ANTONIO, United States: Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star’s detention in Russia made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad and set off a political firestorm.
Griner’s status and prominence in women’s basketball and her imprisonment heightened concerns for her and brought tremendous attention to the case. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further.
The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But the US failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
Asked if more such swaps could happen, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that “everything is possible,” noting that “compromises have been found” to clear the way for Thursday’s exchange.
Biden’s authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, was seen getting off a plane that landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
“So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
The WNBA star, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The US State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case. She was sentenced to nine years.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday’s swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner. US officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the US in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that USofficials said were to be used against Americans.


Italy to become ‘energy hub of Europe’ under EU-Tunisian power line plans 

Italy to become ‘energy hub of Europe’ under EU-Tunisian power line plans 
Updated 09 December 2022

Italy to become ‘energy hub of Europe’ under EU-Tunisian power line plans 

Italy to become ‘energy hub of Europe’ under EU-Tunisian power line plans 
  • EU announces $324m in funding for submarine power line
  • Italian PM: New energy corridor will promote energy supply security, increase production from renewable sources

ROME: A 200-km-long underwater power line project connecting Italy and Tunisia to import electricity generated from renewable energy sources will be funded by the EU.

The European Commission announced on Thursday its green light to €307 million ($324 million) of funding for the project, which should cost around €850 million in total.

Terna, the Italian power grid operator that will run the project along with Tunisian company Steg, said that the Italian Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security has started the authorization process for the project, which will be partly funded by the Connecting Europe Facility program for the development of key projects to strengthen the union’s energy infrastructures.

“This new submarine power line will allow Italy to become the energy hub of all Europe,” Gilberto Pichetto Fratin, Italian environment minister, told Arab News.

Pichetto explained that his ministry will act quickly “to grant all the necessary authorizations so that the project can be completed as soon as possible.”

He added: “Italy and Europe need energy. Thanks to this power line coming from Africa, we are taking another step to eliminate our dependence on Russia for gas.”

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni praised the EU’s support for the project, which she called a “historic success.”

The new underwater energy corridor between Africa and Europe “will promote energy supply security and increase the production of energy from renewable sources,” Meloni added.


Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera

Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera
Updated 09 December 2022

Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera

Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera
  • Customs agents seized the 17-metre "La Petite Ourse II" on March 21
  • The Rouen appeals court ruled that customs officers had not followed correct procedures when they boarded the vessel yacht

PARIS: A French court on Friday ordered the customs agency to release a second impounded yacht owned by a Russian billionaire hit by European sanctions, citing procedural errors made during its seizure.
Customs agents seized the 17-meter “La Petite Ourse II” on March 21 after its owner, Alexey Kuzmichev, one of the main shareholders of Russia’s Alfa Bank, was sanctioned by the EU for his ties to President Vladimir Putin.
The Rouen appeals court ruled that customs officers had not followed correct procedures when they boarded the vessel, which was moored at Cannes on the Cote d’Azur.
His other yacht, La Petite Ourse, which is moored in nearby Antibes and was also seized in March, was released in October after a similar ruling by the Paris appeals court.
Customs agents in both cases had cited fraud investigations when they presented themselves to shipyard authorities, which under French law permits customs to search a vessel but did not apply in this context.
According to his lawyer, Philippe Blanchetier, Kuzmichev has not used La Petite Ourse since the first ruling in October and wanted to sue the French authorities to win back access to both boats in order to make a point, not to go out to sea.
“We want the respect of the law. We cannot take measures against countries, saying rights are not respected, and then not respect the law (ourselves),” he said.
The ruling underlines the challenges faced by European nations in freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs.
The customs agency did not reply to requests for comment immediately.


UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses

UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses
Updated 09 December 2022

UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses

UK sanctions Russian and Iranian officials, citing human rights abuses
  • ‘Today our sanctions go further to expose those behind the heinous violations of our most fundamental rights’

LONDON: Britain on Friday announced sanctions against 30 people worldwide, including Russian and Iranian officials, targeting those it deems responsible for acts of torture, sexual violence, and the violent repression of street protests.
The move came a day after France announced plans for new European Union sanctions against Iran over human rights abuses in its security crackdown on popular unrest there as well as its supply of drones to Russia before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The British government said its sanctions were coordinated with international partners to mark International Anti-Corruption Day and Global Human Rights Day. They encompassed individuals involved in activities including the torture of prisoners and the mobilization of troops to rape civilians.
“Today our sanctions go further to expose those behind the heinous violations of our most fundamental rights,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.
Those sanctioned include Russian Col. Ramil Rakhmatulovich Ibatullin for his role as the commander of the 90th Tank Division, which has been involved in fighting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
The government said there have been multiple allegations made against serving members of the 90th Tank Division, including the conviction in Ukraine of a senior lieutenant on sexual abuse charges during the conflict.
Russia, which has said it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine to eliminate threats to its security, has denied committing war crimes or targeting civilians.
Britain also sanctioned 10 Iranian officials connected to Iran’s prison systems. This included six people linked to the Revolutionary Courts that have been responsible for prosecuting protesters with sentences including the death penalty.
Nationwide protests that erupted after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 have posed one of the biggest challenges to the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979.
The British government sanctioned Ali Cheharmahali and Gholamreza Ziyayi, former directors of Evin prison in Tehran, which it said was a facility notorious for the mistreatment of both Iranian and foreign detainees.
The foreign office said the sanctions against 11 countries across seven sanctions regimes were the most that Britain has ever imposed in one package.
Britain also sanctioned figures involved in Myanmar’s military, which it said were involved in committing massacres, torture and rape.
Among those sanctioned by Britain were Myanmar’s Office of the Chief of Military and Security Affairs, which it said had been involved in torture since last year’s military coup, including rape and sexual violence.