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Sri Lanka elections: Voting to elect new Parliament now closed




Sri Lankans voted on Wednesday to elect a new parliament, wearing masks and adhering to strict social distancing guidelines at polling stations across the country, in an election President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hopes will boost his powers.

More than 16 million people are eligible to vote in the island nation, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism and has struggled deeply since deadly attacks on hotels and churches last year killed more than 260 people.

This year, strict curfews and lockdowns in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have further slowed economic growth, with the World Bank estimating the country’s GDP could contract by as much as 3 percent in 2020.

Polls opened at 07:00 local time (01:30 GMT), with voters forming queues outside polling stations as per the Election Commission’s (EC) coronavirus guidelines. More than 750,000 Sri Lankans voted by postal ballot this year, according to the EC’s data.

Police spokesman Priyantha Weerasuriya said the voting, which ended at 5 pm, was largely peaceful and that police officers were escorting the ballot boxes to the counting centres.

Votes are to be counted on Thursday and the results should be known later that day.

Constitutional changes

Rajapaksa, 71, was elected in November after a landslide victory in a presidential poll, and is seeking a two-thirds majority for his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA) in the 225-member parliament.

Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the nation, at the presidential swearing-in ceremony in Anuradhapura

Since coming to power, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he has felt hobbled by the constitutional amendment that reduced president’s powers [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

More than 7,400 candidates are standing for 196 seats in Wednesday’s poll, with the remaining 29 to be filled by proportional representation based on the results of the election.

Gaining more than 150 seats in total would allow Rajapaksa to enact constitutional changes, and potentially revoke the country’s 19th constitutional amendment, a long-standing campaign promise from last year.

The amendment, enacted in 2015 following 10 years of rule by Gotabaya’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, curtailed the powers of the president, distributing them more evenly with the prime minister and other democratic institutions.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is the SLPFA’s prime ministerial candidate, and the current incumbent in the position after former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe resigned after his opposition United National Party’s (UNP) humiliating defeat in the November presidential poll.

The aftermath of the poll saw deepening divisions within the UNP, with the party’s presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa leading a split from the party in February, forming the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and taking the majority of UNP legislators with him.

Strict social distancing rules

At the polls on Wednesday, election officials wore transparent face shields while medical personnel ensured voters adhered to strict social distancing rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“There will be no chance of you getting infected by the coronavirus at polling stations,” said Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, who was among the first to vote at a Colombo school early on Wednesday.

“The polling station is safer than the beach, the restaurant and the marketplace, it’s totally corona free.”

Sri Lanka had reported 2,834 cases of the coronavirus and 11 deaths as of Tuesday, as per the country’s health ministry.

Sri Lanka

President Gotabaya’s older brother and former two-time president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, right, is the prime ministerial candidate for the governing party [File: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi /AFP]

Rajapaksa claimed credit for controlling the outbreak with strict lockdowns, and the relatively low numbers have seen his public support grow.

Election observers said it was unclear what effect, if any, the coronavirus outbreak would have on voter turnout, which is generally high in the island nation.

“Normally, Sri Lankans are much interested in three things: cricket, religious activities and elections,” Manjula Gajanayake, national coordinator for the Colombo-based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) told Al Jazeera. “We always have a good turnout, but due to COVID19 it is very difficult to predict.”

Gajanayake said the CMEV was “satisfied” with the election commission’s guidelines for conducting the poll safely.

The poll had been twice-delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the opposition protesting against the extended period of direct rule by the president after he dissolved Parliament in March.

Buddhist nationalism

The Rajapaksa brothers have built their political careers as nationalist champions of the country’s majority Sinhala Buddhist community, which forms roughly 70 percent of the population.

They are best known for having crushed an ethnic minority Tamil armed separatist rebellion in the north of the country, which raged for more than three decades as armed groups fought for independence for the island’s north and east.

The conflict ended in 2009 when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president and Gotabaya was defence minister, amid allegations of torture, civilian killings and war crimes in the final stages of the war.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in a presidential election in 2015, which saw former ally Maithripala Sirisena ascend as president, with the UNP in control in Parliament. Years of economic and governance mismanagement, however, saw the UNP perform poorly in the 2019 presidential poll.

Since coming to power, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he has felt hobbled by the constitutional amendment that reduced his powers. He has appointed a number of presidential task forces, putting serving and former military officers in key bureaucratic and other positions.

“I need power to implement my economic programme which you voted for,” he told supporters last week.

Ahead of Wednesday’s poll, 10 international rights groups – including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders – called on Sri Lanka’s government to “end the targeted arrests, intimidation and threats against the lives and physical security of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists”.

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Armenian Aggression

Amnesty International verifies use of banned cluster bombs by Armenia to attack Azerbaijani Barda




Amnesty International has verified the use of banned cluster bombs by Armenia for the first time in the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, following an attack on the city of Barda in Azerbaijan.

On October 28, 2020, at approximately 1.30 pm (GMT+4) local time, one or several Smerch rockets were fired into Barda, striking a residential neighbourhood close to a hospital. The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office has stated that at least 21 people were killed, with an estimated 70 more injured.

Amnesty International’s Crisis Response experts verified pictures (taken by Vice News reporters in the city) of fragments of 9N235 cluster munitions from 9M55 Smerch rockets, that appear to have been fired into the city by Armenian forces.

“The firing of cluster munitions into civilian areas is cruel and reckless, and causes untold death, injury and misery,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“Cluster munitions are inherently indiscriminate weapons, and their use in any circumstances is banned under international humanitarian law.”

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Armenian Aggression

Lebanese human rights defenders condemn Armenian vandalism in Beirut




By Trend

Lebanese human rights defenders condemn Armenian vandalism in Beirut, well-known Lebanese lawyer, expert on foreign policy and international law, board member of the International Association of Human Rights Defenders Tareg Chandeb told Trend.

Chandeb noted that the Lebanese Center for Legal and Political Research and Defense of Freedoms condemns the actions of the Lebanese Armenian extremist groups – their burning of the Turkish flag and the image of the president of Turkey.

Ongoing vandalism of some Armenian extremist groups and their incitement to sectarian strife in Lebanon requires Lebanese security forces to arrest these terrorists and punish them appropriately, Chandeb said.

He noted that the security forces and judicial bodies of Lebanon have not yet arrested a single Armenian extremist criminal who had previously abused Lebanon's relations with friendly Turkey.

Also, the security and judicial authorities of Lebanon didn’t take any action against the Armenian extremists who violated Lebanese laws and recruited people as mercenaries, sending them to fight in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh against peaceful Azerbaijanis.

He also noted that Azerbaijan is a friendly country and Lebanon maintains official diplomatic relations with it.

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Armenian Aggression

Armenia once again violates ceasefire agreements




By Trend

If to look at the history of the Karabakh conflict, one very interesting detail can be traced – the actions of Yerevan have always been aimed at violating the agreements reached, especially the agreements on a ceasefire and a humanitarian truce, which became relevant due to the latest known events, Trend reports.

The agreement on the third ceasefire regime in Nagorno-Karabakh entered into force at 8:00 am on October 26. However, already five minutes after the regime entered into force, Armenia violated the agreements. Why?

In 1991, 1992, 1993, temporary armistice agreements were concluded:

Kazakhstan played its role during the first war in Nagorno-Karabakh and made the first attempt at peace. Former President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev and then Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin tried to end the hostilities. Despite the consensus reached, Armenia didn’t stop its attacks. Peacekeeping efforts were stopped during the crash of an Azerbaijani MI-8 helicopter with Russian, Kazakh observers, and high-ranking Azerbaijani government officials on board when it was shot down by Armenia over the village of Garakand in the Khojavand district on November 20, 1991.

On February 25, 1992, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati arrived in Baku to apply the experience of the Iran-Iraq war in Karabakh. On February 26, the parties promised each other by telephone a ceasefire from February 27 to 9 am on March 1, after which Velayati arrived in Ganja and began to wait for the promises. On February 26, Armenian militants committed the Khojaly genocide.

In May 1992, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Tehran and signed a truce. But as soon as the negotiations ended, the Armenian military stormed Shusha city.

On August 27, a meeting of the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia took place in Alma-Ata. Its holding was agreed on the eve in a telephone conversation of the presidents of these states. The ceasefire entered into force on Sept. 1, 1992, but was violated within a few days by the Armenian side.

With the mediation of Russia, the ceasefire agreement of September 19, 1992, entered into force on September 25, 1992. The ceasefire was violated by the Armenian side.

Former Iranian President Rafsanjani brokered a ceasefire agreement between the parties on October 28, 1993. Again Armenia violated the ceasefire.

Former Armenian President Robert Kocharian in his book "Life is Freedom: Autobiography of the Ex-President of Armenia and Karabakh" wrote: "We have repeatedly tried to negotiate with Azerbaijan on a truce and ceasefire. But every time for some reason it seemed to me that I needed to take advantage of inept actions. We managed to take advantage of the "truce window" in October 1993, that’s when, having agreed on a ceasefire, we established de facto control over Zangilan on October 29."

On December 5-6, 1994, at the CSCE summit in Budapest, in order to coordinate mediation efforts within the CSCE, it was decided to establish the institution of the co-chairmanship of the Minsk Conference. At the Budapest Summit, the CSCE Chairman-in-Office was instructed to negotiate to reach a political agreement to end the armed conflict. The specified political agreement was intended to eliminate the consequences of the conflict and allow the convening of the Minsk Conference.

On May 12, 1994, an agreement on a ceasefire was reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which, with the exception of local and short-term violations, lasted until April 2016;

On March 23, 1995, the OSCE Chairman-in-Office issued a mandate to the Minsk Process Co-Chairs. At the summit held on December 2-3, 1996 in Lisbon, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, and the OSCE Chairman-in-Office recommended the fundamental principles of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s settlement, which Armenia rejected, becoming the only one of the 54 OSCE member states that voted against the proposal.

On April 2, 2016, after another provocation of the Armenian army, large-scale military clashes took place. As a result, the Armenian army suffered losses and retreated, and the Azerbaijani army took control of new strategic heights. On June 20, 2016, in St. Petersburg, at the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a meeting was held between the presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia;

On July 11, 2018, the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan held their first meeting after the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Armenia in May 2018. On the eve of the new leadership of Armenia proposed to change the format of negotiations on Karabakh.

On July 12, 2020, after another provocation by Armenia, clashes began in the Tovuz direction of the Azerbaijani-Armenian border, which continued with varying intensity for about a week;

The new leadership of Armenia, trying to change the format of the negotiations, as well as declaring the inadmissibility of any concessions, actually disrupted the process of peace agreements. New statements by the Prime Minister of Armenia N.Pashinyan and the leaders of the military junta in Karabakh indicated the continuation of the aggressive policy and the existence of plans of official Yerevan in this direction;

On September 27, 2020, the Azerbaijani army reacted harshly to the new provocations of the Armenian side. Within a month, 4 cities, 3 settlements, 165 villages were liberated. In fact, the Azerbaijani army in one month returned the territories that Armenia had seized in the early 1990s for several years;

In fact, the 1994 ceasefire ceased to exist. Armenia bears full responsibility for the current situation, which has consistently thwarted all agreements both on the resolution of the conflict and on ensuring the ceasefire;

In a short time, which had existed for 27 years, the status quo and the line of contact were eliminated. A new situation has developed in which Armenia is forced to agree to the withdrawal of troops from the territory of Azerbaijan.

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