Man sentenced to death over Mashal Khan lynching

Thirty others imprisoned for the murder of young student wrongfully accused of committing blasphemy last year.

    Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani court has sentenced one man to death and handed prison terms to 30 others over the mob lynching of a university student who was wrongfully accused of blasphemy last year.

    The killing of 23-year-old Mashal Khan, which was filmed and posted to social media, ignited national outrage in Pakistan, where blasphemy cases have increasingly sparked violence in recent years.

    An anti-terrorism court in Haripur on Wednesday announced verdicts for 57 of the 61 suspects who had been charged in connection with the case.

    Judge Fazal-e-Subhan sentenced one of the accused to death; five to life in prison; and another 25 to at least three years imprisonment, according to a copy of the verdict. Twenty-six suspects were acquitted.

    One recently arrested suspect is yet to face trial, while three more are on the run.

    Khan’s family said that it would review the verdict before announcing whether they would be pursuing their option of an appeal.

    “Our legal team is meeting on this, and as soon as we reach a decision, we will announce it,” Aimal Khan, Mashal’s brother, told reporters after the verdict was announced.

    “Our demand was that all of the suspects should have been convicted … We ask the [provincial] police to arrest the remaining suspects who are still at large and to bring them to trial.”

    Sensitive subject

    Khan was an undergraduate student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in the northern town of Mardan, about 122km west of the capital, Islamabad.

    In April 2017, he was accused of committing blasphemy – a charge that carries a judicial death sentence and, increasingly, the threat of extrajudicial murder in Pakistan – by fellow students.

    Days later, a mob of hundreds attacked him at the university hostel.

    Khan was stripped of his clothes, beaten and shot by members of the mob, video footage of the lynching showed. He died of his injuries.

    In June, a police inquiry into the allegations against Khan found him innocent of having committed blasphemy. 

    Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where around 40 people are on death row or serving life sentences for the crime, according to the United States Commission of International Religious Freedom. 

    At least 74 people have been killed over alleged blasphemy in Pakistan since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.

    Those killed include people accused of blasphemy, their relatives, their lawyers, judges hearing their cases and members of their communities.

    On Wednesday, more than 250 police officers were deployed to maintain security around the anti-terrorism court, where the verdict was read behind closed doors. 

    Khan’s family has been given a security detail by the government since the case gained national prominence.

    Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets at @AsadHashim.

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    Rohingya need an 'autonomous region', not repatriation

    UK-based activists, who hail from opposite sides of Myanmar conflict, on why Rohingya repatriation plan is not solution.

      England, United Kingdom – As Myanmar’s Rohingya continue to trickle into neighbouring Bangladesh, extending a six-month exodus, talk of repatriation simmers at the diplomatic level.

      There are already about one million members of the persecuted, mostly Muslim minority struggling in overcrowded camps in the South Asian country.

      They have fled what several international leaders have termed a genocide in Myanmar, their home country where they are not granted the simplest of rights – including citizenship.

      Victims and rights groups have provided evidence of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Myanmar security forces are accused of raping Rohingya women, tossing babies into fires, burning down entire villages and slaughtering thousands.

      In January, Bangladesh and Myanmar announced a repatriation deal, prompting concerns from rights groups and members of the Rohingya.

      The Rohingya were not consulted about the agreement, which does not guarantee safety upon return or basic rights such as full citizenship.

      “Some people asked me – how can we return to this place?” says Tun Khin, a Rohingya activist and the head of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, who visited camps in Bangladesh last week.

      “It is a joke. It is not the time to talk about repatriation,” he adds. 

      On Thursday, Tun Khin will address students at the University of Oxford, a symbolic location.

      Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de-facto leader charged with complicity over killings of Rohingya, studied at the university’s St Hugh’s College. 

      Students there, angered that Aung San Suu Kyi remained a revered figure across campus as the crisis unfolded in Myanmar, recently succeeded in removing her portrait from the entrance and name from a common room.

      Tun Khin will be joined on the panel by Maung Zarni, a member of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority who hails from a military family. The scholar and activist, who is also based in the UK, says he is in “complete opposition to what my own community is doing to Tun Khin’s community”.

      Al Jazeera spoke with Tun Khin and Zarni on plans to repatriate the Rohingya, the West’s role in ending persecution and the apparent failure of the UN Security Council to stop the bloodshed.

      Al Jazeera: Earlier this month, Boris Johnson, the UKs foreign secretary, returned from Myanmar and Bangladesh and said there was no doubt industrial ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims had been taking place. Does this statement from a Western figure mark some kind of a turning point?

      Tun Khin: As a Rohingya myself, I am a victim of genocide. This is not something that is happening just right now, it’s been happening since 1978 when my mother was pregnant with me. I was born in Burma. My family fled to Bangladesh, and came back without any citizenship.

      (Note: In 1978, Myanmar drove out “illegal” residents. Many Rohingya fled to Bangladesh but returned following international pressure. In 1982, Myanmar’s Citizenship Law deprived the Rohingya of citizenship.)

      The West knows what has been happening. There are well documented UK and US embassies in Yangon – they are all aware of what’s been happening over many years to the Rohingya. 

      What’s been happening since August is clearly a genocide, which they knew about.

      It’s good to see Boris Johnson visited, but we haven’t seen any significant action from the UK government to stop this genocide.

      Maung Zarni: The Rohingya and Burmese Buddhists and other ethnic communities – we belong in the same country. Tun Khin’s community has been singled out for, essentially, intentional destruction from its very root. This has been going on for 40 years since 1978 [and] the UN and its member states and the UK, US – they know more than enough to determine that this is a classic case of a genocide.

      The problem is members states of the UN, particularly the UN Security Council. The Security Council is essentially in a coma in the case of Rohingya, in the case of Syria, in the case of Yemen.

      Before this exodus, Yangon was the place every world leader and delegation went – they wanted to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, they wanted to visit her home.

      Now, Burma is no longer democratising, Burma is actually going backward and moving in the fascist direction.

      Now, every single iconic figure with concerns about refugees is travelling to Bangladesh. Hollywood stars, heads of states, and Boris Johnson. I must say I am a little bit encouraged by the fact Johnson went there, he went strongly in support of the Rohingya and called it “industrial ethnic cleansing”.

      Maung Zarni, member of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority

      But I am very concerned [the West continues to] express support for Aung San Suu Kyi and portray her as the only hope and prospect for democratisation.

      She is part of this genocide.

      Al Jazeera: As you have mentioned, the language used by some international figures refers to “genocide”, while rights groups have spoken of an “apartheid”. Why does action not match this rhetoric?

      Zarni: As much as it sounds impractical, there needs to be a concerted push by four or five major governments. French President Macron called this genocide. Boris Johnson called it industrial ethnic cleansing. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called it ethnic cleansing.

      These are three major permanent UN Security Council members. You cannot describe a situation like this and then not consider very forceful options, even if the Burmese government and its neighbours are unprepared to act.

      [Then there are] Islamic countries such as Turkey and Egypt recognising this as a major atrocity and crime.

      We need a coalition of seriously concerned governments deciding what to do to.

      Al Jazeera: What does concrete action look like to you?

      Tun Khin: I met refugees who fled Myanmar as recently as last week. It’s a joke to talk about repatriation. It is not the time to talk about repatriation from this government. It’s time to see how we can use the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try [Myanmar military chief] Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi. They joined together to commit genocide.

      The Rohingya want safety and protection – so we need a UN-protected area for their return.

      Zarni: Before we can take any action, we need to accept the reality. The reality is that Burma – the society and military and government of Aung San Suu Kyi – has shown absolutely no indication that it will accept the Rohingya as an ethnic community who deserve full and equal citizenship as well as basic human rights, like everyone else in the country.

      When you have a situation where the entire society and entire military and entire political class have rejected an ethnic community, then it is dishonest for any politician and any UN official leader to keep saying they want to see voluntary safe and dignified return.

      Maung Zarni, member of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority

      Return is no longer an option. If the Burmese army or Aung San Suu Kyi said they want to receive the Rohingya back, that is simply a deception to try to defuse the international attention and get the international community off its back.

      What the Rohingya need is a piece of earth that they can call their home, where they don’t need to worry about being slaughtered or their houses and villages being burned.

      What we need to see is a small number of genuinely concerned leaders around the world to call a special conference to create an autonomous region for the Rohingya, where they can feel safe and protected by the UN and neighbouring government of Bangladesh and others. I don’t think any other solution will work. 

      We are not talking about [for example, the] creation of a Jewish state out of Palestine where there were already pre-existing populations that got kicked out. We are simply looking at the land where Rohingya were kicked out from, where Rohingya belong.

      Tun Khin: These people have been in trauma – they are not talking about returning. Some people ask me, “How can we return to this place?” There is no way to return.

      Some who fled recently told me the military came to their village and told them they needed to go to an immigration office. When they left, the military burned down their homes. When they got back, the military arrested them, claiming they had burned their own houses. They were arrested for 10 days until they could pay the military a big bribe.

      The people want UN protection – international protection. Everyone sees Rohingya as illegal immigrants, and says, “Just kill them all.”

      Nobody will return unless there is forced repatriation.

      Al Jazeera: While you both seek an autonomous region for the Rohingya, what other scenarios could be expected regarding repatriation?

      Zarni: It’s in the interest of the Bangladeshi government to try to get as many Rohingya as possible returned to Burma – this is a large number of humans that Bangladesh is being burdened with. We need to understand frustrations and fears of Bangladesh of shouldering one million people on top of its 166 million.

      From the Burmese military’s perspective, they would want this process of repatriation to be drawn out as much as possible.

      [Repatriation] is like telling Auschwitz survivors to go back and make a living in Auschwitz.

      Al Jazeera: In Bangladesh, as well as overcrowding issues in the camps, what other challenges do the Rohingya face?

      Zarni: The danger here is that thousands of Rohingya are facing health and existential crises. In the next three to four months, there will be monsoon season. 

      They are in a low-lying area and Bangladesh is flood-prone. They are facing the extremely dangerous prospect of being washed away.

      The outbreak of infectious diseases, diarrhoea and what not [is also a concern].

      And then you have another 500,000 trapped inside Burma, whose lives are squeezed by the Burmese military.

      Al Jazeera: In a few days, you will speak at the University of Oxford, where Aung San Suu Kyi is a noted graduate. Why is the location important?

      Zarni: Oxford University is playing this bystander role. It is looking on when genocide is happening under the watch of its most famous alumna.

      The university maintains official ties with the University of Yangon, where genocidal views are espoused.

      Oxford also has an exchange programme for Burmese scholars and researchers. They become more articulate and better educated and use the Oxford training to justify the genocide of the Rohingya and to cover up.

      We want students to tell the Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson to cut institutional ties with Yangon, to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of her doctorate. If the university doesn’t have precedent, it should make an exception.

      Tun Khin: As a Rohingya myself, I want to bring the messages of the victims to the University of Oxford.

      This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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      Sridevi: Bollywood's first female superstar

      Iconic actress made it in male-dominated Bollywood with hit after hit in a career spanning five decades.

        Sridevi, who died in Dubai of heart attack, was dubbed Bollywood’s first female superstar, appearing in a string of blockbuster hit films, including Chandni, Mr India, Sadma, Mawali and Tohfa.

        Born Shree Amma Yanger Ayyapan in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, she started acting at the age of four, appearing in several Tamil-language films in the 1960s and 1970s, and eventually dropping out of school for a career in the movies. Her father, who was a lawyer, hired private tutors for her education at home.

        Sridevi proved her talent across languages, from Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi films, and gave hit after hit in a career spanning five decades.

        “Sridevi was renowned for her naturalistic acting abilities, her comic timing, and her graceful dancing skills. She was among the few female stars in Hindi cinema who could steer a movie’s commercial fate on her own merit,” wrote Nandini Ramnath in scroll.in website.

        She made her Bollywood debut in 1979 with Solva Sawan (16th spring), but it was in 1983, with Balu Mahendra’s Sadma (Shock) that she made her mark in the Hindi film industry.

        The year, she also acted with Jeetendra in K Raghavendra Rao’s blockbuster Himmatwala (The courageous one), cementing her place as one of Bollywood’s top actresses.

        Through the 1980s and 1990s, she charmed audiences in female-centric films such as Chandni (Moonlight) and Lamhe (Moments), drawing praise for her comic timing in Chaalbaaz (Trickster) and Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India, playing feisty characters in contrast to the traditionally coy Bollywood heroine.

        Sridevi performed alongside leading men such as Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth.

        She took a break from films soon after she married producer Boney Kapoor in 1996.

        A noticeably leaner Sridevi made a successful return to the big screen 15 years later in Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish (2012), playing a housewife taking English-language lessons. Her last screen appearance was in Mom (2017), as a mother avenging her daughter’s rape.

        Sridevi was nominated for 10 Filmfare Awards and won five. The government of India awarded her Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour, in 2013.

        The actress was married to Boney Kapoor – a leading Bollywood producer – with whom she had two daughters named Jhanvi and Khushi.

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        Indonesia's overcrowded refugee detention centres

        Many refugees are left homeless in Indonesia because the detention centres are full. Some are so desperate, they are asking to be put in prison.

          More than 14,000 refugees are stuck in limbo in Indonesia as they wait for resettlement in other countries.

          Many are in detention centres, which are full to capacity, leaving many homeless and so desperate they are asking to be put in prison.

           

          Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen reports from Jakarta.

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          Wall Street rises on trade hopes, deal to avoid government shutdown

          NEW YORK (Reuters) – Wall Street rallied on Tuesday as investors were heartened by a tentative congressional spending deal to avoid another government shutdown and by positive developments in the U.S.-China trade negotiations.

          All three major U.S. stock indexes gained more than 1 percent, and the S&P 500 traded above its 200-day moving average for the first time since early December.

          President Donald Trump said he would be willing to let the March 1 tariff deadline slide as top U.S. officials arrived in Beijing for high-level talks later in the week to hammer out a solution to the trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies.

          Congress cobbled together a tentative bi-partisan border security deal on Monday to avert another government shutdown, but the White House indicated that Trump has not yet decided whether to support it. Funding for the Department of Homeland Security and a host of other agencies is due to expire on Friday.

          “It’s somewhat befuddling that the possibility of no government shutdown is driving prices up,” said Oliver Pursche, vice chairman and chief market strategist at Bruderman Asset Management in New York. “It means the narrative, pun intended, is trumping fundamentals,” he added. “We’re seeing swings based purely on emotion.”

          The fourth-quarter earnings season is nearing the home stretch, with 70 percent of companies in the S&P 500 having already reported. Of those, 71 percent have beaten consensus estimates.

          The outlook for 2019, however, is less rosy. First-quarter earnings are now expected to post a year-on-year decline of 0.3 percent, which would be the first loss since the earnings recession ended in the second quarter of 2016.

          “I think it’s 50/50 as to whether we enter another earnings recession,” Pursche said.

          The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 376.06 points, or 1.5 percent, to 25,429.17, the S&P 500 gained 36.15 points, or 1.33 percent, to 2,745.95, and the Nasdaq Composite added 104.52 points, or 1.43 percent, to 7,412.43.

          Tuesday’s gains were broad-based. Of the 11 major sectors of the S&P 500, all but real estate were trading higher. Technology stocks provided the biggest boost to the S&P 500, and they also led the Nasdaq’s advance.

          Tariff-sensitive industrials headed up the Dow’s gain, led by 3M Co, Caterpillar Inc, United Technologies Corp and Boeing Co.

          Amazon.com Inc provided the biggest lift to the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq, rising 2.6 percent after Walmart Inc ended its partnership with logistics firm Devi for a rival same-day grocery delivery service.

          Electronic Arts Inc announced its Apex Legends video game has signed up 25 million players in the week since its release, sending its stock up 4.5 percent. The video game maker’s shares have soared by nearly 27 percent since the game’s release.

          Shares of Goldman Sachs Group were up 2.0 percent after bank chief David Solomon, speaking at a conference in Florida, said the firm intends to increase its mid-size corporate client roster over the next few years.

          Under Armour Inc jumped 6.4 percent after the sportswear company beat analysts’ profit forecasts for the holiday quarter.

          Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 3.48-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 2.97-to-1 ratio favored advancers.

          The S&P 500 posted 42 new 52-week highs and one new low; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 67 new highs and nine new lows.

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          Japan's modest household spending, wages growth point to fragile outlook

          TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s household spending rose slightly and higher bonus payments lifted wages in December, though the underlying trends in these two gauges showed only modest improvement and pointed to a difficult year for the economy as risks to growth increases.

          Recent revelations that faulty polling methods were used to compile monthly wage data have also cast doubt on whether the benefits of Japan’s economic recovery have broadened as much as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says.

          Household spending was up 0.1 percent in December from a year earlier, government data showed on Friday, marking the first increase in four months but still well short of a median market forecast for a 0.8 percent increase.

          Separate data showed inflation-adjusted real wages rose 1.4 percent in December, though the gain was mostly due to an increase in winter bonuses. Regular pay, which accounts for the bulk of monthly wages, rose at a slower 0.9 percent pace in the year to December, from a 1.3 percent increase in November.

          Many analysts see a gloomy outlook as slowing global demand, trade protectionism and volatile markets give companies plenty of excuses to put off further wage hikes.

          “When you look at the October-December quarter, consumption fared fairly well and will probably contribute positively to gross domestic product (GDP) growth,” said Yoshiki Shinke, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

          “But companies may not raise wages much this year because there is so much uncertainty on the global economy,” he said. “There’s a small but likely chance the economy may contract again in January-March.”

          DATA SCANDAL

          Analysts say consumption held up in the final months of 2018 as falling gasoline and vegetable costs lifted households’ purchasing power.

          Household spending rose 0.2 percent in October-December from the previous quarter, underscoring market expectations the economy likely rebounded from a third-quarter contraction blamed on bad weather and a string of natural disasters. The government will release October-December GDP data on Feb. 14.

          But there is uncertainty on whether there will be a sufficient boost in consumption to offset weakness in exports, as slowing global demand and U.S.-Sino trade frictions hurt business sentiment.

          Exports in December fell the most in more than two years, heightening the chance Japan could slide into recession this year. Manufacturing growth also stalled in January as companies cut back production.

          Mounting external risks add to the challenge facing the Bank of Japan, which is left with diminished policy ammunition to fight another recession after years of heavy money printing failed to drive up inflation to its elusive 2 percent target.

          “Consumption may lose momentum this year as household income isn’t rising quickly enough,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

          A scandal over faulty polling methods for Japan’s wage data is also forcing Abe to defend his view that his “Abenomics” stimulus policies have improved living standards for many households.

          The labor ministry said last month the monthly wage data it published for more than a decade employed faulty polling methods and did not accurately depict the nationwide wage trend.

          The government is expected to recalculate the data later this month. A Reuters calculation showed real wages from January to November 2018 fell 0.4 percent from the year-earlier period, more than a 0.1 percent drop under the labor ministry’s data.

          The premier’s “Abenomics” stimulus policies have boosted corporate profits by lifting stocks and giving exporters a competitive advantage overseas through a weaker yen.

          But they have failed to fire up private consumption, which accounts for about 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), as companies remain reluctant to raise wages.

          “As trade frictions heighten uncertainty over the growth outlook, businesses won’t raise base pay much this year and households will become more cautious about spending,” Norinchukin Research Institute’s Minami said.

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          Renault to alert prosecutors over ex-CEO Ghosn's wedding costs

          PARIS (Reuters) – Renault is investigating a sponsorship deal with the Chateau de Versailles that included a 50,000 euro ($57,000)personal benefit to former chairman Carlos Ghosn, the carmaker said on Thursday.

          The company now plans to alert prosecutors, it said in a statement.

          French daily Le Figaro reported earlier that the sponsorship deal covered the rental of the Grand Trianon palace for Ghosn’s 2016 wedding reception.

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          Taj Mahal 'built on Hindu temple', claims Indian MP

          Member of India’s ruling BJP party calls for destruction of the monument in Agra, saying a temple should replace it.

            An Indian politician has sparked fresh controversy after saying that Taj Mahal, a popular tourist destination in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, will soon be turned into a Hindu Temple.

            The stunning white marble mausoleum was built in the 17th century by Mughal King Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, in Agra, about 200km from the Indian capital, New Delhi.

            Vinay Katiyar, a member of parliament for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told local media on Monday that “there is not much difference between Taj and Tej [Mandir]”, referring to a Hindu far-right claim that a temple existed in place of Taj Mahal. 

            “It was our temple. Taj Mahal will be converted into Tej Mandir soon,” he said.

            This is not the first time that Katiyar, who is currently facing a criminal trial for his role in the demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque in 1992, has made such a claim. In October 2017, he was again quoted as saying that Taj Mahal was actually a Shiv temple.

            Unfounded claims that Taj Mahal is a Hindu Temple have been expressed sporadically over the years, mainly by fringe, far-right groups.

            In August, replying to a petition by Hindu groups, government archaeologists told India’s Supreme Court that the monument was indeed a Muslim tomb and not a temple.

            ‘Instils hatred among Hindus and Muslims’ 

            Apoorvanand, an Indian activist and academic, told Al Jazeera that Katiyar’s “absurd and rubbish” remarks were meant to “erase this period of history from social minds and from the memory of Indian people.

            “What it does is to instil in Hindus a sense of loss,” he said.

            “[It] inspires them to believe in this theory that something has been taken away from them. And now is the time to take it back. This instils hatred among Hindus and Muslims in the country, deepens the divide and distances Hindus from Muslims,” he added

            “This is a pattern when it comes to all the monuments built by Muslims. This is what is happening in the case of Taj Mahal, claiming that originally it was a Hindu structure and the land was forcibly taken by [Muslim ruler] Shah Jahan.”

            Reacting to Katiyar’s comments, BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli said the MP “has the right to practise freedom of speech under the Indian constitution”.

            He added that Katiyar’s statement did not represent the party.

            “He has his own point of view and we cannot stop him from having an opinion,” said Kohli.

            The Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, attracts more than six million tourists a year.

            Although it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was not featured in the tourism booklet issued last year by the government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

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            Fed's Bullard says pleased with level of U.S. interest rates: CNBC

            (Reuters) – St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard told CNBC on Friday that U.S. interest rates are at a good level currently, adding that he is pleased with the Fed’s “patient” stance.

            Interest rates are at a good level to “set us up for a good couple of years”, Bullard, who is a voting member of the Fed’s policy-setting panel this year, told CNBC in an interview.

            Earlier this month, Bullard had said the Fed’s policy stance might be “too hawkish” and that the Fed has come to the “end of the road” on rate hikes.

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            Sri Lanka vote: New law sees more women standing

            A record number of 17,000 women contest local elections as law requires a quarter of all seats to be filled by women.

              Voters in Sri Lanka are choosing representatives in more than 300 local polls, with more female candidates than ever standing for election.

              A change in the law requires women to fill a quarter of all seats elected in Saturday’s vote – more than 12 times the current number.

              Rosy Senanayake, a diplomat and parliamentarian, is aiming to become the mayor of the capital, Colombo.

              She is the first woman to try.

              “I strongly believe that we cannot have democracy if we do not interest the needs of the majority of the population,” said Senanayake, a former Mrs World.

              “The majority of the population in Sri Lanka are women.”

              She is just one of 17,000 women contesting local government elections – a record number.

              Samanmalee Gunasinghe, a candidate of the Marxist People’s Liberation Front (JVP), says the changes will give more deserving women a chance.

              “In our country, it was a minister’s daughter, siblings or those from political families that could enter politics. But we think honest, talented women should come into politics where laws are made. This election can do that,” she said.

              The stakes are high for all political parties, with local issues such as roads, streets lights and rubbish disposal are taking on the intensity of a national fight.

              Crucial test

              The vote is seen as is seen as a crucial mid-term test for the uneasy coalition of President Maithripala Sirisena.

              The election heightened tensions between the president and his senior coalition partner, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as they campaigned separately for their respective parties amid a growing rift between the two men.

              The vote, the first to be conducted by the newly established independent Election Commission, was the most peaceful in decades, private monitors said.

              Sirisena was backed by Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) in January 2015 to topple the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

              But since then their alliance has fractured, with Sirisena publicly accusing the UNP of being more corrupt than the former Rajapakse regime.

              The UNP has, in turn, accused Sirisena of backstabbing and indicated it may go it alone in the next general election in 2020.

              The UNP is expected to claim the lead in Saturday’s poll for 340 local government bodies while the parties led by Sirisena and Rajapakse are expected to battle it out for the second place.

              More than 8,300 members are due to be elected under a complex hybrid voting system that combines first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems.

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