Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis

Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis
Sri Lanka’s new prime minister on Monday proposed privatizing the country’s loss-making national airline as part of reforms aimed at solving the country worst economic crisis in decades. (AP/File)
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Updated 17 May 2022

Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis

Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis
  • President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister last Thursday in a bid to quell the island nation’s political and economic crisis

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka’s new prime minister on Monday proposed privatizing the country’s loss-making national airline as part of reforms aimed at solving the country worst economic crisis in decades.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a message to the people that he plans to propose a special relief budget that will take the place of the development-oriented budget earlier approved for this year, He said it would channel funds previously allocated for infrastructure development to public welfare.
He said the country’s financial health is so poor that the government has been forced to print money to pay the salaries of government workers and buy other goods and services.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister last Thursday in a bid to quell the island nation’s political and economic crisis.
The president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, stepped down as prime minister on May 9 amid violence that left nine people dead and more than 200 wounded. Protesters have demanded the powerful Rajapaksa family resign to take responsibility for leading the country into the economic crisis.
For months, Sri Lankans have been forced to wait in long lines to purchase scarce imported essentials such as medicines, fuel, cooking gas and food because of a severe shortage of foreign currency. Government revenues have also plunged.
Wickremesinghe said Sri Lankan Airlines lost about $123 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which ended in March, and its aggregate losses exceeded $1 billion as of March 2021.
“Even if we privatize Sri Lankan Airlines, this is a loss that we must bear. You must be aware that this is a loss that must be borne even by the poor people of this country who have never stepped on an airplane,” Wickremesinghe said.
Sri Lankan Airlines was managed by Emirates Airlines from 1998 to 2008.
Sri Lanka is nearly bankrupt and has suspended repayment of about $7 billion in foreign loans due this year out of $25 billion to be repaid by 2026. The country’s total foreign debt is $51 billion. The finance ministry says the country currently has only $25 million in usable foreign reserves.
Wickremesinghe said about $75 billion is needed urgently to help provide people with essential items, but the country’s treasury is struggling to find even $1 billion.
Shortages of medicines are so acute that it is difficult to buy anti-rabies medicines and drugs to treat heart disease, he said.
“I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public. Although these facts are unpleasant and terrifying, this is the true situation. For a short period, our future will be even more difficult than the tough times that we have passed,” Wickremesinghe said.
“We will face considerable challenges and adversity. However, this period will not be long,” he said, adding that countries with which he has spoken have pledged to help in the next few months.
Wickremesinghe is struggling to form a new Cabinet, with many parties reluctant to join his government. They say Wickremesinghe’s appointment goes against tradition and the people’s will because he was defeated in 2020 elections and joined Parliament only through a seat allocated to his party.
However, parties have said they will support positive measures by Wickremesinghe to improve the economy while they remain in the opposition.
The main opposition United People’s Force party has introduced a no-confidence motion against the president for “not having properly exercised, performed and discharged the powers of the president under the constitution.”
The motion, to be taken up Tuesday, accuses Rajapaksa of being responsible for the economic crisis by introducing untimely tax cuts and prohibiting the use of agrochemicals, which resulted in crop failures.
Passage of the motion would not legally bind Rajapaksa to quit, but his refusal to do so could intensify anti-government protests and rock negotiations with other countries on economic aid. A challenge of Wickremesinghe’s appointment could also endanger the negotiations, which he leads.


UN rights chief urges Taliban to respect women’s rights

Updated 4 sec ago

UN rights chief urges Taliban to respect women’s rights

UN rights chief urges Taliban to respect women’s rights
ZURICH: The United Nations human rights chief urged the Taliban authorities on Friday to respect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, which she said were facing the biggest erosion in decades.
Women face hunger, domestic violence, unemployment, curbs on movement and dress, and lack of access to education in a country where secondary schooling for 1.2 million girls has stopped, Michelle Bachelet told a UN Human Rights Council debate in Geneva.
“While some of these concerns pre-date the Taliban take-over in August 2021, reforms at that time were moving in the right direction, there were improvements and hope,” she said.
“However, since the Taliban took power, women and girls are experiencing the most significant and rapid roll-back in enjoyment of their rights across the board in decades. Their future will be even darker, unless something changes, quickly.”
The Taliban seized power for a second time in Afghanistan last August as international forces who had backed a pro-Western government pulled out. Their taking of the capital Kabul marked the end of a 20-year war stemming from a US invasion that toppled a previous Taliban government.
Bachelet said authorities she met during a visit to Kabul in March said they would honor their human rights obligations as far as they were consistent with Islamic sharia law. She decried the progressive exclusion of women and girls from the public sphere.
She urged the Taliban to set a firm date to reopen schools for girls and remove restrictions on women’s movement and attire.
Governors in some regions were applying policies in ways that provide options for women and girls, she said, offering a window to expand women’s role in society and economic life.
Richard Bennett, special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, criticized forced and child marriage and curbs on attire, movement and employment.
“Despite public assurances from the Taliban that they would respect women’s and girls’ rights, they are reinstituting step by step the discrimination against women and girls’ characteristic of their previous term and which is unparalleled globally in its misogyny and oppression,” he told the debate.
When Bennett visited Afghanistan in May, the Taliban deputy spokesman denied human rights concerns.

Lawyer for Paris attacker questions life term with no parole, hints at retrial

Lawyer for Paris attacker questions life term with no parole, hints at retrial
Updated 39 min 56 sec ago

Lawyer for Paris attacker questions life term with no parole, hints at retrial

Lawyer for Paris attacker questions life term with no parole, hints at retrial
  • Daesh attacks on Bataclan theater, Paris cafes and France’s national stadium killed 130 people
  • Abdeslam was found guilty Wednesday of murder and attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise

PARIS: The lawyer for the only surviving attacker from the November 2015 terrorist massacre in Paris criticized her client's murder conviction and life prison sentence without the possibility of parole, saying Thursday the verdict “raises serious questions.”
Olivia Ronen did not say if Salah Abdeslam would appeal the verdict and sentence. He has 10 days in which to do so.
Abdeslam was found guilty Wednesday of murder and attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise, among other charges, over his involvement in the Daesh attacks on the Bataclan theater, Paris cafes and France’s national stadium that killed 130 people.
Ronen argued throughout the marathon trial of Abdeslam and 19 other men that her client had not detonated his explosives-packed vest and hadn’t killed anyone the night of the deadliest peacetime attacks in French history.
Nevertheless, Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian, was given the most severe sentence possible in France for murder and that “raises serious questions," Ronen said in an interview with public radio station France Inter.
During his trial testimony, Abdeslam told a special terrorist court in Paris that he was a last-minute addition to the nine-member attacking squad that spread out across the French capital on Nov. 13, 2015, to launch the coordinated attacks at multiple sites.
Abdeslam said he walked into a bar with explosives strapped to his body but changed his mind and disabled the detonator. He said he could not kill people “singing and dancing.”
The court found, however, that Abdeslam's explosives vest malfunctioned, dismissing his claim that he decided not to follow through with his part of the attack because of a change of heart.
The other eight attackers, including Abdeslam's brother, either blew themselves up or were killed by police. Abdeslam drove three of them to the locations of the attacks that night.
The worst carnage was in the Bataclan. Three gunmen burst into the venue, firing indiscriminately. Ninety people died within minutes. Hundreds were held hostage — some gravely injured — for hours before then-President Francois Hollande ordered the theater stormed.
Abdeslam was nowhere near the Bataclan at any time that night, defense lawyer Ronen said, suggesting he therefore did not deserve France’s most severe murder sentence possible.
“We have condemned a person we know was not at the Bataclan as if he was there,” Ronen said. “That raises serious questions.”
The chief prosecutor at the special terrorism court Jean-Francois Ricard said the trial of the 20 extremists, the court's verdicts and sentences, including the harshest one for Abdeslam, were a “triumph for the rule of law” in France.
“Abdeslam dropped off three human bombs and killed by proxy,” Ricard said on Thursday in an interview with another public broadcaster, France Info. “His punishment is just.”
The sentence of life without parole had only previously been given four times in France, for crimes related to rape and murder of minors.
The special terrorism court also convicted 19 other men involved in the attacks. Eighteen were given various terrorism-related convictions, and one was convicted on a lesser fraud charge. Some were given life sentences; others walked free after being sentenced to time served.
Abdeslam apologized to the victims at his final court appearance Monday, saying that listening to their accounts of “so much suffering” changed him.
Georges Salines, who lost his daughter Lola in the Bataclan, felt Abdeslam’s remorse was insincere. “I don’t think it’s possible to forgive him,” he said.
But for Salines, life without parole is going too far.
“I don’t like the idea of in advance deciding that there is no hope,” he said. “I think it is important to keep hope for any man.”


‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance

‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance
Updated 50 min 50 sec ago

‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance

‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance
  • Akhundzada was addressing a major gathering of religious scholars in Kabul

KABUL: Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada called Friday for the world to stop telling them how to run Afghanistan, insisting sharia law was the only model for a successful Islamic state.
Akhundzada, who has not been filmed or photographed in public since the Taliban returned to power in August, was addressing a major gathering of religious scholars in the Afghan capital called to rubber-stamp the hard-line Islamist group’s rule.
Over 3,000 clerics have gathered in Kabul since Thursday for the three-day men-only meeting, and Akhundzada’s appearance had been rumored for days — although media are barred from covering the event.
“Why is the world interfering in our affairs?” he asked in an hour-long speech broadcast by state radio.
“They say ‘why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that?’ Why does the world interfere in our work?“
Akhundzada rarely leaves Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace and spiritual heartland, and apart from one undated photograph and several audio recordings of speeches, has almost no digital footprint.
But analysts say the former Sharia court judge has an iron grip on the movement and he bears the title “Commander of the Faithful.”
His arrival at the meeting hall was greeted with cheers and chants, including “Long live the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s name for the country.
Akhundzada’s appearance comes a week after a powerful earthquake struck the east of the country, killing over 1,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
No women are attending the clerics’ meeting, but a Taliban source told AFP this week that thorny issues such as girls’ education — which has divided opinion in the movement — would be discussed.
Akhundzada did not mention the subject in his speech, which was confined largely to telling the faithful to strictly observe Islamic principles in life and governance.
Since the Taliban’s return, secondary school girls have been barred from education and women dismissed from government jobs, forbidden from traveling alone, and ordered to dress in clothing that covers everything but their faces.
They have also outlawed playing non-religious music, banned the portrayal of human figures in advertising, ordered TV channels to stop showing movies and soap operas featuring uncovered women, and told men they should dress in traditional garb and grow their beards.
Akhundzada said the Taliban had won victory for Afghanistan, but it was up to the “ulema” — the religious scholars — to advise the new rulers on how to properly implement sharia law.
“The sharia system comes under two parts — scholars and rulers,” he said.
“If scholars do not advise authorities to do good, or the rulers close the doors against the scholars, then we will have not an Islamic system.”
Believed to be in his 70s, Akhundzada spoke in strong measured tones, occasionally coughing or clearing his throat.
He warned that non-Muslim nations would always be opposed to a pure Islamic state, so the faithful had to endure hardships to get what they wanted.
“You have to compete, you have to endure hardships... the present world will not easily accept you implementing the Islamic system,” he said.
Women’s rights activists have slammed their lack of participation.
“Women should be part of the decisions about their fate,” Razia Barakzai told AFP Thursday.
“Life has been taken away from Afghan women.”
The Taliban have thrown a dense security blanket over the capital for the meeting, but on Thursday two gunmen were shot dead near the venue.


Tear gas fired as Sudan anti-coup protests flare again

Tear gas fired as Sudan anti-coup protests flare again
Updated 01 July 2022

Tear gas fired as Sudan anti-coup protests flare again

Tear gas fired as Sudan anti-coup protests flare again
  • Sudan’s police meanwhile accused protesters of wounding 96 police and 129 military officers
  • The “violence needs to end,” demanded UN special representative Volker Perthes

KHARTOUM: Sudanese security forces fired tear gas Friday at hundreds of protesters who rallied for a second day in a row in the capital against last year’s military coup, witnesses said.
Demonstrators massed again near the presidential palace in Khartoum a day after at least nine people were killed during mass rallies against the military takeover led by army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan last October.
“The people want to bring down Burhan,” activists chanted while others, carrying photos of people killed in protest-related violence, yelled: “We call for retribution!“
The death toll from protest-related violence has reached 113 since the coup, with the latest fatality reported Friday after a protester died from wounds sustained at a June 24 protest, according to pro-democracy medics.
Sudan’s police meanwhile accused protesters of wounding 96 police and 129 military officers, “some critically,” on Thursday, as well as damaging vehicles and setting fires.
Thursday’s crackdown defied calls by the international community urging Sudanese authorities to refrain from violence.
The “violence needs to end,” demanded UN special representative Volker Perthes.
US senior diplomat Lucy Tamlyn said she was “deeply concerned” by the reported protester deaths and the “use of live fire by authorities and aggression against medical professionals.”
Last year’s coup plunged Sudan into deepening turmoil which has seen rising consumer prices and life-threatening food shortages and sparked near-weekly protests as well as ethnic clashes.
The United Nations, African Union and regional bloc IGAD have tried to facilitate talks between the generals and civilians, but they have been boycotted by the main civilian factions.
On Friday, the three bodies jointly condemned the violence and “the use of excessive force by security forces and lack of accountability for such actions, despite repeated commitments by authorities.”
The protests Thursday came on the anniversary of a 1989 coup that toppled Sudan’s last elected civilian government and ushered in three decades of iron-fisted rule by Islamist-backed General Omar Al-Bashir.
It was also the anniversary of 2019 protests demanding that the generals who had ousted Bashir in a palace coup earlier that year cede power to civilians.
Those protests led to the formation of the civilian-military transitional government that was toppled in last year’s coup.


North Korea suggests balloons flown from South brought COVID-19

North Korea suggests balloons flown from South brought COVID-19
Updated 01 July 2022

North Korea suggests balloons flown from South brought COVID-19

North Korea suggests balloons flown from South brought COVID-19
  • In what it called “an emergency instruction,” the epidemic prevention center ordered officials to “to vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons” along the border

SEOUL: North Korea suggested Friday its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with balloons flown from South Korea — a highly questionable claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival responsible amid increasing tensions.
Activists for years have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and North Korea has often expressed fury at the activists and at South Korea’s leadership for not stopping them.
Global health authorities say the coronavirus is spread by people in close contact who inhale airborne droplets and it’s more likely to occur in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces than outdoors. South Korea’s Unification Ministry said there was no chance South Korean balloons might have spread the virus to North Korea.
Ties between the Koreas remain strained amid a long-running stalemate in US-led diplomacy on persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for economic and political benefits.
The state media report said North Korea’s epidemic prevention center had found infection clusters in the town of Ipho near the southeastern border and that some Ipho residents with feverish symptoms traveled to Pyongyang. The center said an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year kindergartener had contact with “alien things” in the town in early April and later tested positive for the omicron variant.
In what it called “an emergency instruction,” the epidemic prevention center ordered officials to “to vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons” along the border and trace their sources to the last. It also stressed that anyone finding “alien things” must notify authorities immediately so they could be removed.
The reports did not specify what the “alien things” were. But laying the blame on things flown across the border likely is a way to repeat its objections to the ballooning activities of North Korean defectors and activists in South Korea.
Leafletting campaigns were largely halted after South Korea’s previous liberal government passed a law criminalizing them, and there were no public balloon attempts made in early April.
An activist who is standing trial for past activities flew balloons carrying propaganda leaflets across the border in late April after halting them for a year. Park Sang-hak floated balloons twice in June, switching the cargo on those attempts to COVID-19 relief items such as masks and painkillers.
Police are still investigating the recent leafleting activities by the activist, Cha Duck Chul, a deputy spokesperson at the South’s Unification Ministry, told reporters Friday.
Cha also said the consensus among South Korean health officials and World Health Organization experts is that infections via contact with the virus on the surface of materials is virtually impossible.
Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute said North Korea wants its people to believe the coronavirus originated from leaflets, US dollars or other materials carried across the border by the balloons.
Cheong said North Korea will likely sternly punish anyone taking such South Korean items covertly. He said North Korea could also try to shoot down incoming South Korean balloons, a move that would prompt South Korea to return fire and would sharply escalate animosities between the countries.
North Korea is infuriated by the leafletting campaign because it’s designed to undermine Kim’s authoritarian rule over a population that has little access to outside information. In 2014, North Korea fired at propaganda balloons flying toward its territory and South Korea returned fire, though there were no casualties.
Laying blame on objects flown across the inter-Korean border contradicts the outside view that the virus spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to freight traffic in January and it surged further following a military parade and other events in Pyongyang in April.
After maintaining a widely disputed claim to be coronavirus-free for more than two years, North Korea on May 12 admitted to the COVID-19 outbreak, saying an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang tested positive for the omicron variant.
North Korea has since reported about 4.7 million fever cases out of its 26 million population but only identified a fraction of them as COVID-19. It says 73 people have died, an extremely low fatality rate. Both figures are believed to be manipulated by North Korea to keep its people vigilant against the virus and prevent any political damage to Kim.