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Thursday December 8th, 2022

Detained Sri Lanka human rights lawyer’s work conflated with terrorism: UN special rapporteur

Hejaaz Hizbullah/Facebook.com

ECONOMYNEXT – Detained Sri Lankan lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah’s human rights work and legal practice may have been conflated with terrorism and his detention may be used to prevent him from further engaging in ongoing human rights cases, Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said Tuesday (07).

Referring to a joint communication issued on July 08, 2021, signed by seven United Nations (UN) special rapporteurs that included herself, Lawlor sought clarification on the circumstances of Hizbullah’s arrest and subsequent detention.

“We are deeply concerned by the vague terrorism charges brought against Mr Hizbullah and believe that his previous human rights work and practice of his legal profession may have been conflated with terrorism. We find this particularly concerning in light of the changing focus of the investigation and allegations that minors and clerics have been pressured to give false statements.

“We are further concerned by the reported irregularities in due process partly facilitated by the PTA which allowed Mr Hizbullah to be held without charge for almost a year with severely restricted access to lawyers. We find additionally concerning that the COVID-19 pandemic has been used on multiple occasions as an apparent pretext of bypassing due process, reportedly without sufficient notice or explanation, leaving Mr Hizbullah for a prolonged period of time in adequate prison conditions,” the rapporteurs said in their July 08 communication.

The lawyer was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on April 14, 2020, and was detained under provisions in the PTA for allegedly “aiding and abetting” the 2019 Easter Sunday bombers and for engaging in activities deemed “detrimental to religious harmony among communities.”

The PTA permits authorities to detain a suspect without any charges for 18 months.

On July 14 this year, Amnesty International declared Hizbullah a prisoner of conscience.

Related: Amnesty International declares detained Sri Lanka lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah prisoner of conscience

In the joint communication, the rapporteurs sought clarification on the factual and legal grounds for Hizbullah’s arrest and detention, how the charges are in line with the definition of terrorism as elucidated by international law norms, the rationale for prevoiusly preventing Hizbullah from confidential access to his lawyers, and the conditions in which he is being held and whether they are in line with the Mandela Rules.

The rapporteurs also sought information on measures in place to ensure that witness statements are recorded freely and not under duress, measures taken to ensure the safety of Sri Lanka’s human right defenders and steps taken to tackle allegations of rising hate speech and discrimination against Muslims and other minorities.

“As previously communicated, the evidence allegedly incriminating Mr Hizbullah was related to phone calls he made with a suicide bomber at the Easter Sunday attacks. It has been alleged that Mr Hizbullah made 14 phone calls to this individual over a period of five years, being his legal representative in civil property dispute cases.

“Mr Hizbullah later faced accusations that he radicalised children at the charity, Save the Pearls. He is the only member of the organisation that has been arrested. Since his arrest, leading figures of the organisation have sworn affidavits attesting to the falsity of rumours that children were radicalised,” Lawlor said in her statement on Tuesday.

During the first nine months of his arrest and detention, claimed Lawlor, Hizbullah was permitted just four visits from his legal counsel, all of which were supervised by the authorities.

“His lawyers filed a petition to the Court of Appeal, which was granted on 15 December 2020, allowing him to speak with his lawyers confidentially for the first time since his arrest. His access to lawyers is still reportedly limited and he can speak only occasionally to his family over the phone,” she said.

“Mr Hizbullah was scheduled to appear in court on 18 March 2021, however this was later postponed. He was due to appear in court again on 11 June, but he was reportedly not produced in court on the day, which authorities claimed was due to the new wave of COVID-19 infections in the country,” she added.

Lawlor further claimed that allegations have emerged that some children who received Save the Pearls scholarships have been taken to the CID premises, threatened, and forced to sign false statements.

“There are reports that members of the clergy have also reportedly been pressured to falsely testify against Mr Hizbullah,” she claimed.

“Mr Hizbullah is being held in a cell measuring six feet in length, three feet in width and seven feet high. He reportedly has no bed and is only permitted to leave his cell to use the bathroom. There is reportedly no ventilation in the cell,” she added. (Colombo/Sep09/2021)

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Sri Lanka in deep talent drain in latest currency crisis

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka businesses are facing a drain of talent, top business executives said as the country suffers the worst flexible exchange rate crisis in the history of its intermediate regime central bank and people lose hope.

“We are seeing a trend towards migrating,” Krishan Balendra, Chairman of Sri Lanka’s John Keells Holdings told an economic policy forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“We have seen an impact mainly on the tourist hotels side, quite an exodus of staff (migrating) to countries we have not seen in the past. 

“We have seen people go to Scotland, Ireland. It has usually been the Middle East and Maldives. Australia seems like a red hot labor market at the moment.”

Sri Lanka’s rupee collapsed from 200 to 360 to the US dollar after macro-economists printed money to suppress rates.

Sri Lanka operates a ‘flexible exchange rate’ where errors in targeting interest rates are compensated by currency depreciation especially after the 1980s.

Classical economists and analysts have called for the power to mis-target rates and operate dual anchor conflicting monetary regimes should be taken away to prevent future crisis.

Currency crises are problems associated with flexible exchange rate central banks which are absent in hard pegs and clean floats.

“Something new we are seeing is that older people, even those in their 50s, which was a surprise, are looking at migrating,” Balendra said.

Businesses are trying to retain talent as real wages collapse.

Balendra said as businesses they see some stability returning and based on past experience growth is likely to resume, and they were communicating with the workers.

“We have a degree of conviction that the economy should get better, its the stability phase now and it will get better going forward so without the way our businesses are placed we should see good growth,” Balendra said.

“We can’t chase compensation that’s just not practical and we are not trying to do that especially if people are looking to immigrate but what we can do is show the career opportunities in the backdrop of the situation that people would rather stay here because its home.” 

Sri Lanka unit of Heineken says it is also trying to convince workers not to leave, with more success.

“We are all facing the effects of brain drain and it’s not just the lower levels… What we are doing is a balance of daring and caring,” Maud Meijboom-van Wel – Managing Director / CEO, Heineken Lanka Ltd told the forum.

“Why I say daring is, you have to be clear in what you can promise people, when you make promises you have to walk the talk. So with the key talents and everyone you need to have the career and talent conversations.

“I am a bit lucky because I am running a multinational company so my career path goes beyond Sri Lanka so I can say if you acquire certain skills here, then you can move out of here and then come back too, that is a bit easier for me but it starts with having a real open conversation with walking the talk – dare and care.” (Colombo/Dec7/2022)

 

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Despite losses, Sri Lanka to resume “park & ride” transport after complaints  

ECONOMYNEXT –  Sri Lanka’s state-run Transport Board will resume its loss-making City Bus service from January 15, 2022 Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena said, after the service abruptly discontinued with the state-run firm’s director board citing losses.

The City Bus service was introduced in 2021, under the government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from Makubura to Pettah and Bambalapitiya.

The service was started to reduce the number of automobiles travelling to and from Colombo and suburbs by providing a comfortable, convenient and safe public bus transportation for passengers and riders who use cars and motorcycles as their means of transportation.

During the time period in which the service was initiated, there were 800 hundred vehicles that would be parked and would use the system, Gunawardena, who is also the Transport Minister, said.

The service was later collapsed due to inconsistencies in scheduling and it was completely stopped after

“Without informing the Secretary or the Minister of the relevant Ministry, the Board of Directors have come to a conclusion that this is loss making route and must be halted,” Gunawardena said.

“The users of the City Bus service brought to our notice and therefore I gave the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport the approval to start the City Bus service from January 15.”

“If we stop all loss making transport services then massive inconveniences will occur to the people in far parts of the island.”

The chairman of the state run Ceylon Transport Board has been asked to handover the resignation letter by the Minister Gunawardana citing that the head has failed to implement a policy decision approved by the government. (Colombo/ Dec 06/2022)

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Sri Lanka may see rates falling next year: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s interest rates are high and hurting small businesses in particular but interest rates are required to maintain stability, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

“One is, all of you want to know what’s going to happen to the interest rates?,” President Wickremesinghe told an economic policy forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“I wish I know. The governor has told me that the inflation has peaked. It’s coming down. You all understandably want some relief with the interest rates to carry business on.”

“I understand that and appreciate the viewpoint. It’s not easy to carry business on with such high interest rates. On the other hand, the Central Bank also has to handle the economy. So maybe sometimes early next year we will have a meeting of minds of both these propositions.”

Sri Lanka’s interest rates are currently at around 30 percent but not because the central bank is keeping it up. The central bank’s overnight policy rate is only 15.5 percent but the requirement to finance the budget deficit and roll over debt is keeping rates up.

Rates are also high due to a flaw in the International Monetary Fund’s debt workout framework where there is no early clarity on a whether or not domestic debt will be re-structured.

After previous currency crises, rates come down after an IMF deal is approved and foreign loans resume and confidence in the currency is re-stabilished following a float.

This time however there has been no clear float, though the external sector is largely stable and foreign funding is delayed until a debt re-structure deal is made.

Sri Lanka’s external troubles usually come because the bureaucrats do not believe market rates are correct when credit demand picks up and mis-uses monetary tools given in 1950 by the parliament to suppress rates, blowing the balance of payments apart.

The result of suppressed rates by the central bank are steep spikes in rates to stop the resulting currency crisis.

A reserve collecting central bank has little or no leeway to control interest rates (monetary policy independence) without creating external troubles, which is generally expressed as the ‘impossible trinity of monetary policy objectives’.

However, it has not prevented officials from trying repeatedly to suppress rates, perhaps expecting different results.

After suppressed rates – supposedly to help businesses – trigger currency crises, the normalization combined with a currency collapse leads to impoverishment of the population.

The impoverishment through depreciation leads to a consumption shock, which also leads to revenue losses in businesses.

The suppressed rates then lead to bad loans.

In the 2020/2022 currency crisis the sovereign default has also led to more problems at banks. Several state enterprises also cannot pay back loans.

“…[T]he bad debt that is being carried by the banks is mainly from the private sector or the government sector,” President Wickremesinghe said.

“Keep the government sector aside. We’re dealing with it. How do you handle it? Look, one of our major areas of are the small and medium industries. You can’t allow them to collapse, but they’re in a bad way.”

Classical economists and analysts have called for new laws to block the ability to central bank to suppress rates in the first place so that currency crises and depreciation does not take place in the first place.

Then politicians like Wickremesinghe do not have to take drastic and unpopular measures to fix crises and there will be stability like in East Asia.

Sri Lanka had stability until 1950 when the central bank was created by abolishing an East Asia style currency board. The currency board kept the country relatively stable through two World Wars and a Great Depression.

In 1948 after the war (WWII) was over “we stood second to Japan” Wickremesinghe said.

“But we started destroying it from the sixties and the seventies,” he said. :We started rebuilding an economy, which was affected by a (civil) war, and thereafter the way we went, is best not described here.”

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