COLOMBO: Working in Colombo, Hashan Gunasekera has not gone home to see his family in Kandy since mid-April, as he has already given up on searching for gasoline to fuel his car.
A video production manager, Gunasekera, 32, used to drive three hours every week to spend Saturdays and Sundays at home, but for the past few months, he has not been able to drive, as his country — in the middle of the worst economic turmoil in memory — has run out of petrol.
Like many other middle-class Sri Lankans in the capital, he was forced to switch to a bicycle for his daily commutes.
“I have given up going home now,” Gunasekera told Arab News. “There is no use in even trying.”
The most basic bicycle he bought to reach his Colombo office cost him over 37,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($100) in June, but it had no gears and soon Gunasekera had to buy a new, slightly better one, which sold for 88,000 rupees — some three times more than before the crisis.
“A bike like this would have cost about 25,000 to 30,000 rupees last year,” he said.
Despite the soaring prices, the number of bikes on Colombo’s streets has increased manifold.
“The current market demand has greatly increased,” Sangeeth Suriyage, who runs Suriyage Bike Shop in Colombo, told Arab News, estimating that it may be even five times higher than last year.
“The market is able to meet a fair percentage of that demand,” he said, adding that the supply-demand imbalance has fueled informal sales, with bicycles sold for at least double the current market price. “There is a thriving black market operating through people that buy and resell at exorbitant costs.”
Desperate Colombo residents in need of an accessible mode of transport are still willing to fork out the extra expense.
Marini, an English teacher based in Colombo, said she spent 188,000 rupees for a bike for her nephew to be able to go to school.
“This was really expensive,” she said. “But given the current situation I considered it an investment.”
But the price is not the only problem. Bicycles are now joining the list of items the country is running out of.
At a shop in Borella, the largest suburb in Colombo, bikes sold like hot cakes last month, but now demand has outstripped supply, with import restrictions slapped on almost all commodities as the country’s foreign exchange reserves have dried.
“We are running out of bicycles,” one of the Borella shop’s sellers told Arab News. “After fuel was completely stopped for the past month and a half or so, crowds are coming to (buy) bicycles for adults. Before this, people came to buy bicycles for children, mostly.”
While the island nation of 22 million is seeking a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund to put its economy and public finances back on track, it is unlikely that the situation will get back to normal soon.
Some, like Hakiem Haniff, a 28-year-old marketeer who lives on the outskirts of Colombo, are trying to see positive aspects of having no choice but to take more exercise when transport options are limited.
But if it were to be long-term, he would like to see cycling infrastructure introduced in the city, which authorities promised earlier this year would be rolled out in Sri Lanka’s capital.
“If they want to take this thing seriously, they really need to invest in infrastructure so that more people will start cycling,” he said. “There’re no cycling lanes and it can be pretty crazy.”
WASHINGTON: The US Justice Department on Monday said it opposes unsealing the affidavit that prosecutors used to obtain a federal judge’s approval to search former President Donald Trump’s Florida home, where they seized classified documents.
“If disclosed, the affidavit would serve as a roadmap to the government’s ongoing investigation, providing specific details about its direction and likely course, in a manner that is highly likely to compromise future investigative steps,” prosecutors wrote in their filing.
Trump’s Republican allies in recent days have ramped up their calls for Attorney General Merrick Garland to unseal the document, which would reveal the evidence that prosecutors showed to demonstrate they had probable cause to believe crimes were committed at Trump’s home — the standard they had to meet to secure the search warrant.
On Friday, at the Justice Department’s request, a federal court in south Florida unsealed the search warrant and several accompanying legal documents that showed that FBI agents carted away 11 sets of classified records from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
Some of the records seized were labeled as “top secret” — the highest level of classification reserved for the most closely held US national security information.
Such documents usually are typically kept in special government facilities because disclosure could damage national security
The Justice Department on Monday cited this as another reason to keep the affidavit sealed, saying the probe involves “highly classified materials.”
The agency said it would not oppose the release of other sealed documents tied to the raid, such as cover sheets and the government’s motion to seal.
The warrant released on Friday showed that the Justice Department is investigating violations of three laws, including a provision in the Espionage Act that prohibits the possession of national defense information and another statute that makes it a crime to knowingly destroy, conceal or falsify records with the intent to obstruct an investigation.
Trump has since claimed, without evidence, that he had a standing order to declassify all of the materials recovered at his home.
The decision by Garland to unseal the warrant was highly unusual, given the Justice Department’s policy not to comment on pending investigations.
On the same day Garland announced his decision to seek to unseal the warrant, an armed man with right-wing views tried to breach an FBI office in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was later shot dead by police following a car chase.
Prosecutors on Monday cited the recent violence and increasing threats against the FBI as another reason not to release the affidavit.
“Information about witnesses is particularly sensitive given the high-profile nature of this matter and the risk that the revelation of witness identities would impact their willingness to cooperate with the investigation,” they wrote.
Also on Monday the Justice Department said a Pennsylvania man was arrested on charges of making threats on the social media service Gab against FBI agents. Adam Bies, 46, was taken into custody on Friday in connection with the social media posts, the DOJ said.
ATLANTA: Rudy Giuliani is a target of the criminal investigation into possible illegal attempts by then-President Donald Trump and others to interfere in the 2020 general election in Georgia, prosecutors informed attorneys for the former New York mayor on Monday.
The revelation that Giuliani, an outspoken Trump defender, could face criminal charges from the investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis edges the probe closer to the former president. Willis has said she is considering calling Trump himself to testify before the special grand jury, and the former president has hired a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta.
Law enforcement scrutiny of Trump has escalated dramatically. Last week, the FBI searched his Florida home as part of its investigation into whether he took classified records from the White House to Mar-a-Lago. He is also facing a civil investigation in New York over allegations that his company, the Trump Organization, misled banks and tax authorities about the value of his assets. And the Justice Department is investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters as well as efforts by him and his allies to overturn the election he falsely claimed was stolen.
Giuliani, who spread false claims of election fraud in Atlanta’s Fulton County as he led election-challenging efforts in Georgia, is to testify Wednesday before a special grand jury that was impaneled at Willis’ request. Giuliani’s lawyer declined to say whether he would answer questions or decline.
Special prosecutor Nathan Wade alerted Giuliani’s team in Atlanta that he was an investigation target, Giuliani attorney Robert Costello said Monday. News of the disclosure was first reported by The New York Times.
Speaking on a New York radio show Monday, Giuliani said he had been serving as Trump’s attorney in Georgia.
“You do this to a lawyer, we don’t have America anymore,” he said.
Earlier Monday, a federal judge said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham must testify before the special grand jury. Prosecutors have said they want to ask Graham about phone calls they say he made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his staff in the weeks following the election.
Willis’s investigation was spurred by a phone call between Trump and Raffensperger. During that January 2021 conversation, Trump suggested that Raffensperger “find” the votes needed to reverse his narrow loss in the state.
Willis last month filed petitions seeking to compel testimony from seven Trump associates and advisers.
In seeking Giuliani’s testimony, Willis identified him as both a personal attorney for Trump and a lead attorney for his campaign. She wrote that he and others appeared at a state Senate committee meeting and presented a video that Giuliani said showed election workers producing “suitcases” of unlawful ballots from unknown sources, outside the view of election poll watchers.
Within 24 hours of that Dec. 3, 2020, hearing, Raffensperger’s office had debunked the video. But Giuliani continued to make statements to the public and in subsequent legislative hearings claiming widespread voter fraud using the debunked video, Willis wrote.
Evidence shows that Giuliani’s hearing appearance and testimony were “part of a multi-state, coordinated plan by the Trump Campaign to influence the results of the November 2020 election in Georgia and elsewhere,” her petition says.
Two of the election workers seen in the video, Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, said they faced relentless harassment online and in person after it was shown at a Dec. 3 Georgia legislative hearing where Giuliani appeared. At another hearing a week later, Giuliani said the footage showed the women “surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they are vials of heroin or cocaine.” They actually were passing a piece of candy.
Willis also wrote in a petition seeking the testimony of attorney Kenneth Chesebro that he worked with Giuliani to coordinate and carry out a plan to have Georgia Republicans serve as fake electors. Those 16 people signed a certificate declaring falsely that Trump had won the 2020 presidential election and declaring themselves the state’s “duly elected and qualified” electors even though Joe Biden had won the state and a slate of Democratic electors was certified.
All 16 of those fake electors have received letters saying they are targets of the investigation, Willis said in a court filing last month.
As for Graham, attorneys for the South Carolina Republican have argued that his position as a U.S. senator provides him immunity from having to appear before the investigative panel. But U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May wrote in an order Monday that immunities related to his role as a senator do not protect him from having to testify. Graham’s subpoena instructs him to appear before the special grand jury on Aug. 23, but his office said Monday he plans to appeal.
May last month rejected a similar attempt by U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., to avoid testifying before the special grand jury.
Graham’s office said in a statement Monday that the senator disagrees with the judge’s interpretation of the provision of the Constitution he believes protects him from being questioned by a state official. His lawyers have said he was making inquiries that were part of his legislative duties, related to certification of the vote and to a proposal of election-related legislation.
But the judge wrote that that ignores “the fact that individuals on the calls have publicly suggested that Senator Graham was not simply engaged in legislative factfinding but was instead suggesting or implying that Georgia election officials change their processes or otherwise potentially alter the state’s results.”
In calls made shortly after the 2020 general election, Graham “questioned Raffensperger and his staff about reexamining certain absentee ballots cast in Georgia in order to explore the possibility of a more favorable outcome for former President Donald Trump,” Willis wrote in a petition.
Graham also “made reference to allegations of widespread voter fraud in the November 2020 election in Georgia, consistent with public statements made by known affiliates of the Trump Campaign,” she wrote.
Republican and Democratic state election officials across the country, courts and even Trump’s attorney general have found there was no evidence of voter fraud sufficient to affect the outcome of his 2020 presidential election loss.
Trump-allied lawmakers were planning to challenge the tallies from several battleground states when Congress convened on Jan. 6, 2021, to certify the results under the Electoral Count Act, but after the Capitol attack that day Georgia’s tally was never contested.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and has described his call to Raffensperger as “perfect.”
BAMAKO: An Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group claimed to have killed four mercenaries from the Russian private security group Wagner in an ambush in central Mali, the SITE Intelligence monitoring group said Monday.
The terrorist group (GSIM), the main militance alliance in the Sahel, said it ambushed a group of Wagner soldiers on Saturday as they rode motorcycles in the Bandiagara region from the village of Djallo toward the mountains, according to a statement by its propaganda arm authenticated by SITE.
Its fighters killed four of the group while the rest fled, the statement said.
Two local elected officials confirmed the incident to AFP, while a senior Malian army official refused to confirm or deny it.
“Four Russians were killed over the weekend by terrorists near Bandiagara,” one of the local officials, who requested anonymity, told AFP.
A hospital source in the region also confirmed the “death in combat of four Russians,” adding that one had “passed through Mopti hospital.”
Russia has become a close ally of Mali’s ruling junta in its fight against a long-running terrorist insurgency.
The regime has brought in Russian paramilitary fighters — described by Bamako as military instructors but by Western nations as mercenaries — to support the beleaguered armed forces.
Their deployment was a key factor in prompting France, Mali’s former colonial power and traditional ally, to pull its military forces out of the country.
The GSIM, whose influence on the ground continues to expand, includes myriad terrorist groups and operates mainly in Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso.
NAIROBI: William Ruto was declared the winner of Kenya’s close-fought presidential poll on a day of high drama Monday, with violent protests in his defeated rival’s strongholds, claims of rigging and a split in the commission that oversaw the vote.
As tensions ran high after his narrow victory in the August 9 race against Raila Odinga, the 55-year-old president-elect issued a conciliatory message, vowing to work with “all leaders.”
“There is no room for vengeance,” said Ruto, who will become Kenya’s fifth president since independence from Britain in 1963. “I am acutely aware that our country is at a stage where we need all hands on deck.”
The dispute will test Kenya’s stability after previous elections in the East African political and economic powerhouse were blighted by claims of rigging and vicious bouts of deadly violence.
Ruto secured 50.49 percent of the vote in his first-ever attempt at the top job, just ahead of Odinga on 48.85 percent, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission head Wafula Chebukati said after an anxious days-long wait for results.
He will succeed his estranged boss President Uhuru Kenyatta, 60, the son of Kenya’s first post-independence leader, who has served two terms and could not run again.
But it was yet another bruising defeat for 77-year-old Odinga, the veteran opposition leader who had hoped it would be fifth time lucky as he ran with the support of former foe Kenyatta and the weight of the ruling party machinery behind him.
Odinga was nowhere to be seen on Monday, but his party agent described the election as “shambolic,” saying it had been marred by irregularities and mismanagement.
Odinga has accused his opponents of cheating him out of victory in the 2007, 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, and analysts say it is likely he will appeal to the Supreme Court over this year’s results.
“It is not over till it is over,” Odinga’s running mate Martha Karua said on Twitter.
Chaos erupted at the IEBC’s national tallying center in Nairobi before the results were announced, with chairs hurled and scuffles between party rivals.
Four of the IEBC’s seven commissioners disowned the results, saying the process was “opaque” but without elaborating.
In Odinga’s lakeside stronghold of Kisumu, angry supporters took to the streets, hurling stones, setting fire to tires and building roadblocks, with police responding with tear gas.
“We were cheated,” Isaac Onyango, 24, said on a street sealed off by two large bonfires and broken rock.
Protests also erupted in slums in Nairobi where Odinga is popular, with police firing live rounds, although no casualties were reported.
Several African leaders offered their congratulations to Ruto, while the US embassy in Kenya reserved its plaudits instead for the people of Kenya and the IEBC.
It called on party leaders to urge their supporters to refrain from violence, and for any concerns about the election to be resolved through “existing dispute resolution mechanisms.”
The row over the results is likely however to further dent the IEBC’s reputation after it had faced stinging criticism over its handling of the 2017 election which was annulled by Kenya’s top court in a historic first for Africa.
Chebukati, who was also in charge of the IEBC in 2017, insisted he had carried out his duties according to the law of the land despite facing “intimidation and harassment.”
Despite a divisive campaign and swirling disinformation, polling day had passed off generally peacefully.
But turnout was historically low at around 65 percent of the 22 million registered voters, with disillusionment over corruption by power-hungry elites prompting many Kenyans to stay home.
Power transfers can be fraught in Kenya, and any challenge to the Supreme Court will leave the country of about 50 million people facing weeks of political uncertainty.
It is already struggling with soaring prices, a crippling drought, endemic corruption and growing disenchantment with the political elite.
Ruto, a shadowy rags-to-riches businessman, had characterised the vote as a battle between ordinary “hustlers” and the Kenyatta and Odinga “dynasties” who have dominated Kenyan politics since independence from Britain in 1963.
With memories of previous post-poll violence still fresh, Odinga and Ruto had pledged to accept the outcome of a free and fair election, and air their grievances in court rather than on the streets.
If there is no court petition, Ruto will take the oath of office in two weeks’ time.
But no presidential ballot has gone uncontested in Kenya since 2002.
Any challenge must be made within seven days to the Supreme Court. The country’s highest judicial body has a 14-day deadline to issue a ruling, and if it orders an annulment, a new vote must be held within 60 days.
In August 2017, the Supreme Court annulled the election after Odinga rejected the results that gave Kenyatta victory, with dozens of people killed by police in the protests that followed.
Kenyatta went on to win the re-run after an opposition boycott.
The worst electoral violence in Kenya’s history occurred after a disputed vote in 2007, when more than 1,100 people were killed in bloodletting between rival tribes.
WASHINGTON: Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sued the US Central Intelligence Agency and its former director Mike Pompeo on Monday, alleging it recorded their conversations and copied data from their phones and computers.
The attorneys, along with two journalists joining the suit, are Americans and allege that the CIA violated their US constitutional protections for confidential discussions with Assange, who is Australian.
They said the CIA worked with a security firm contracted by the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where Assange was living at the time, to spy on the WikiLeaks founder, his lawyers, journalists and others he met with.
Assange is facing extradition from Britain to the US, where he is charged with violating the US Espionage Act by publishing US military and diplomatic files in 2010 related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Robert Boyle, a New York attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the alleged spying on Assange’s attorneys means the WikiLeaks founder’s right to a fair trial has “now been tainted, if not destroyed.”
“The recording of meetings with friends, with lawyers and the copying of his attorneys’ and friends’ digital information taints the criminal prosecution because now the government knows the contents of those communications,” Boyle told reporters.
“There should be sanctions, even up to dismissal of those charges, or withdrawal of an extradition request in response to these blatantly unconstitutional activities,” he said.
The suit was filed by attorneys Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Deborah Hrbek, and journalists Charles Glass and John Goetz.
They all visited Assange while he was living inside the Ecuadoran embassy in London under political asylum, since withdrawn.
The suit named the CIA, former CIA director and former US secretary of state Pompeo, and the security firm Undercover Global and its chief executive David Morales Guillen.
It said Undercover Global, which had a security contract with the embassy, swept information on their electronic devices, including communications with Assange, and provided it to the CIA.
In addition it placed microphones around the embassy and sent recordings, as well as footage from security cameras, to the CIA, the suit alleges.
This, the attorneys said, violated privacy protections for US citizens.
Assange is awaiting a ruling on his appeal of the British extradition order to the United States.
The charges he faces could bring a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
The suit said that Spain-based Undercover Global was recruited to work with the CIA in 2017 by officials from the Las Vegas Sands casino group.
Las Vegas Sands was at the time controlled by the late tycoon Sheldon Adelson, a powerful conservative backer of the Republican Party who, the suit said, “had cooperated with the CIA on similar matters in the past.”
The suit said that while Undercover Global controlled security at the embassy, each visitor had to leave their electronic devices with a guard before seeing Assange.
“The information contained on the plaintiff’s devices was copied and, ultimately, given to the CIA,” they said.
“Defendant Pompeo was aware of and approved the copying of information contained on plaintiffs’ mobile electronic devices and the surreptitious audio monitoring of their meetings with Assange,” the suit alleged.
It said the defendants became aware of the spying only when the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported in September 2019 that Morales and Undercover Global were under criminal investigation in Spain.
El Pais revealed information on the London operations that had previously been sealed in the case.