US, EU Denounce Dissolution of Sri Lanka Parliament

Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament, worsening an already major political crisis, has drawn criticism from Western powers, including the United States and the European Union.

Sirisena dissolved parliament on Friday night, only five days before it was due to reconvene. A new cabinet he installed was in danger of losing a vote of no confidence. He also called a general election for Jan. 5.

The president triggered a power struggle when he sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe late last month and appointed the island’s former leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a pro-China strongman defeated by Sirisena in an election in 2015, in his place.

Sirisena’s rivals are set to challenge his decision, which they describe as illegal and unconstitutional, in the Supreme Court on Monday.

The U.S. Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs said in a tweet that the United States was “deeply concerned by news the Sri Lanka Parliament will be dissolved, further deepening the political crisis”. It said democracy needed to be respected to ensure stability and prosperity.

A spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement that the move “risks undermining public confidence in the country’s democratic institutions and processes and further deepens the political and economic crisis in the country.”

Last week, the EU’s ambassador warned it could consider stripping Sri Lanka of its duty-free access if it backs off commitments on rights. The EU is worried the return of Rajapaksa could derail halting progress made toward national reconciliation following a war with ethnic minority Tamil separatists that killed tens of thousands, many during the final stages under his watch as president.

Mark Field, the British minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, tweeted his concern about the dissolution of parliament days before it was due to be reconvened.

“As a friend of Sri Lanka, the UK calls on all parties to uphold the constitution and respect democratic institutions and processes,” Field said.

Canada’s Foreign Policy twitter feed said that it was “deeply concerned” about the decision and referred to the risks to reconciliation work after the nation’s civil war.

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne expressed both concern and disappointment in a statement, saying the move “undermines Sri Lanka’s long democratic tradition and poses a risk to its stability and prosperity.”

Sirisena has said he fired Wickremesinghe because the prime minister was trying to implement “a new, extreme liberal political concept by giving more priority for foreign policies and neglecting the local people’s sentiment.”

Parliament test

Mangala Samaraweera, an ally of Wickremesinghe, said their party expects the court to rule that the dissolution of parliament was illegal and that eventually a vote in parliament will be held to test whether there is a majority.

“We will show that we have the parliament majority and we will show that the dictator president has dissolved a government which had a majority in the parliament,” he told reporters.

They were supported by the Tamil National Alliance, the main party representing ethnic Tamil groups in parliament, who said it too will petition the Supreme Court against the dissolution of the house.

“This is a clear violation of the constitution. The president can’t do this,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, a spokesman for the alliance.

India and the West have raised concerns over Rajapaksa’s close ties with China. Beijing loaned Sri Lanka billions of dollars for infrastructure projects when Rajapaksa was president between 2005-2015, putting the country deep into debt.

Wickremesinghe has refused to vacate the official prime minister’s residence saying he was the prime minister and had a parliamentary majority.

Before he signed the papers dissolving parliament and calling the election, Sirisena appointed allies of his and of Rajapaksa to cabinet positions.

One of them said Sirisena was right to order an election to end the political crisis. Dinesh Gunawardena, a newly appointed urban development minister, said the president had handed the country back to the people.

“It is the people’s right to vote. We have gone before the people. No force can interfere. The people’s mandate is supreme,” he said.

Independent legal experts have told Reuters that parliament could be dissolved only in early 2020, which would be four-and-half-years from the first sitting of the current parliament. The only other legal way would be through a referendum, or with the consent of two thirds of lawmakers.

Given those views, it was not immediately clear how Sirisena is on legal safe ground by dissolving parliament, though his legal experts have said there are provisions for him to do so. 

Report: Russian Charged by US Seen at Libya Military Meeting

A Russian newspaper says video released by the self-styled Libyan National Army shows a businessman allegedly linked to a private contractor that sent mercenaries to Syria at a meeting with the head of the Libyan army and top Russian military officials.

 

Novaya Gazeta reported Friday that a man seen wearing civilian dress at the meeting was Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Moscow meeting included Libyan National Army head Khalifa Hifter, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces.

 

Prigozhin is allegedly tied to a military contractor believed to have sent thousands of mercenaries to Syria, augmenting regular Russian troops deployed there. He also has been indicted by the United States over the alleged Russian “troll farm” accused of using social media to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

 

Stephen Hawking’s Wheelchair Sells for Nearly $400,000

A wheelchair used by the late British physicist Stephen Hawking has sold at auction for almost $400,000, with the money going to charity.

The motorized wheelchair, which was used by Hawking after he was paralyzed with motor neuron disease, had been expected to sell for around $20,000 in the online auction organized by Christie’s.

A copy of Hawking’s doctoral thesis, called “Properties of expanding universes” from 1965 sold for $767,000, much more than the estimate of $200,000.

Proceeds from the auction will go to two charities, the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease at age 22 and given just a few years to live. However, he lived to the age of 76, dying in March.

Hawking explored the origins of the universe, expanding scientific thinking about black holes and became a well-known figure in pop culture.

A script from one of his appearances on the television series “The Simpsons” was one of the 22 items in the auction, selling for more than $8,000.

Hawking’s daughter, Lucy, said the sale gave “admirers of his work the chance to acquire a memento of our father’s extraordinary life in the shape of a small selection of evocative and fascinating items.”

Other items sold at the auction included an early edition of Hawking’s best-selling book, “A Brief History of Time,” marked with a thumbprint, a collection of his medals and awards, and essays.

In total, the auction raised $1.8 million for charity. Hawking’s family is donating other items from Hawking’s archive to the British government in lieu of paying inheritance tax.

Russian Billionaire Gets More Time to Cut Aluminum Company Holdings

The U.S. Treasury Department has again extended a deadline for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska to reduce his holdings in the aluminum company Rusal before sanctions take effect. 

The Treasury Department said Friday that licenses allowing Rusal to continue doing business would be extended from Dec. 12 to Jan. 7. 

The department said in April that it would impose sanctions on Deripaska and several companies in which he is a large shareholder, citing “malign activities” by Russia. 

However, the agency has pushed back the sanction deadline multiple times since then as it works with the companies, who are looking to find new shareholders. 

Rusal and its parent En+ Group have been taking steps to change their management to people not linked with Deripaska to ease the sanctions. Both companies recently appointed new chief executive officers. 

Concerns about the impact of sanctions on Rusal have roiled aluminum markets. 

Rusal is the world’s largest aluminum producer outside China’s Hongqiao and is a large supplier to the aerospace and automotive industries. 

Trump Touches Down in Paris, Hits Back at His Host

The moment Air Force One touched down Friday at Orly airport, U.S. President Donald Trump blasted a caustic message for his host, terming French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for a European military “very insulting.”

In the touchdown tweet, Trump suggested Europe first pay “its fair share” of NATO before contemplating a Europe-wide force.

As he stepped off his plane, accompanied by the first lady, Melania Trump, a group of White House reporters shouted questions at him about the Twitter message. Trump stared at the journalists but did not respond before entering the presidential limousine.

The fresh dispute between the two leaders, who have had a hot and cold relationship, threatens to cast a pall on Sunday’s ceremony here marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, in which 40 million people died.

The United States and France were allies in both world wars and partners in the post-World War II security structure for Western Europe: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is composed of separate forces of varying strengths and capabilities of the member nations.

Trump, however, since taking office nearly two years ago, has repeatedly questioned the mutual defense pact and harshly criticized European countries for failing to meet pledges of contributions of 2 percent of their gross domestic product to the alliance. He has also emphasized that the United States needs to take care of itself first before the needs of other nations, rejecting the concept of globalism.

Macron, during a visit to the World War I Western Front at Verdun, told Europe 1 radio that in face of a revived threat from Moscow, Europe needed to “defend itself better alone.” Europeans, he said, cannot protect themselves without a “true European army.”

Macron, in the interview, also blasted Trump’s recent announcement that Washington would withdraw from the 1987 INF Treaty limiting nuclear weapons that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to.

The “main victim” of the withdrawal, Macron argued, is “Europe and its security.”

European force

The French president added that Europe also has to protect itself “with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.”

Nine defense ministers from European countries are discussing how such a new international force would operate.

European leaders have been rattled since a NATO summit earlier in the year, when they perceived Trump’s demands for billions of additional dollars in military spending from them as a threat that the United States would pull out of the nearly 70-year-old alliance.

But the idea of a European army has limited support in Berlin and London. Political and military analysts question whether European countries have the will, money or materiel to replace the raw power of the United States.

The issue comes into sharp focus as France commemorates the fallen of a century ago in the war that ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

As a prelude to Sunday’s ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, which will be attended by dozens of world leaders, Trump and Macron are to meet on Saturday at Elysee Palace to discuss European and Mideast security.

Trump on Saturday also will make pilgrimages to two American cemeteries.

Turkey’s Military Says 25 Soldiers Wounded in Accident

Turkey’s military says 25 Turkish soldiers were wounded in an accident that occurred while firing heavy ammunition.

In a statement Friday, the Defense Ministry said another seven soldiers were unaccounted for following the accident, which occurred at the Sungu Tepe military base in the southeastern province of Hakkari. The province borders both Iraq and Iran.

The Hakkari governor’s office said the explosion was caused by the firing of “faulty” ordnance at the base.

It is not clear whether the accident happened during a combat mission or an exercise.

The Defense Ministry said the wounded soldiers were transferred to a hospital, but did not give details on the severity of the injuries. The ministry said that an investigation has been launched.

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been the site of clashes between the Turkish army and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey also regularly carries out airstrikes on PKK bases in northern Iraq.

Russia Hosts Afghan Talks, Highlighting Growing Role

Russia hosted a group of Afghan government-linked envoys along with their Taliban rivals Friday, as the Kremlin waded into efforts to end a 17-year conflict where Western efforts have repeatedly failed.

“Russia stands for preserving the one and undivided Afghanistan, in which all of the ethnic groups that inhabit this country would live side by side peacefully and happily,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a statement opening the talks in Moscow.

“I am counting on you holding a serious and constructive conversation that will justify the hopes of the Afghan people,” Lavrov added, calling for “a new page in the history of Afghanistan.”

Despite the lofty rhetoric, Russian officials were careful to keep expectations low in advance of the event. Talks were billed as negotiations aimed at merely securing future peace talks — with success defined as merely getting the two sides to sit together at all.

Two earlier high-profile Russian efforts to organize talks were canceled at the last minute after the Afghan government refused to participate.

While this time was no different — officials in Kabul again rejected direct participation — a face-saving workaround solution came by the inclusion of envoys from the government-appointed High Peace Council. The council does not represent the government but oversees peace efforts.

In realistic terms, however, the talks produced little but acrimony.

In a statement following the talks, High Peace Council representatives said they had asked Taliban representatives “to determine a place and time for the start of those talks in the near future.” Those negotiations, the representatives added, could proceed “without conditions.”

Yet Taliban officials demanded that foreign forces — specifically, the United States and NATO — leave Afghan territory before negotiations with the government in Kabul could begin.

“If the external dimension is resolved, then we can resolve the internal, including questions about the constitution, questions of human rights, women, problems with narcotics and all internal problems,” said an official in a statement following the talks.

The council, in turn, rejected the Taliban’s “preconditions” outright.

Eleven nations were present for the talks, including regional powers China, Pakistan and Iran. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow confirmed it had sent an observer to the meeting.

Washington has repeatedly voiced skepticism of the Russian initiative, which some say undercuts the U.S.’s peace efforts, led by special adviser Zalmay Khalilzad.

Meanwhile, the Russian effort was the latest sign of the Kremlin’s growing role as a powerbroker — a role Russian officials seemed to relish as the U.S.-led NATO military operation in Afghanistan, 17 years and counting, has struggled.

“It’s unacceptable to try to turn Afghanistan into a field of competition for outside players, as it makes for bad consequences,” said Foreign Minister Lavrov, in a thinly veiled reference to Afghanistan’s reputation, dating back centuries, as the “Graveyard of Empires.”

And yet, Lavrov’s criticism was a cautionary tale for Moscow as well.

In 1979, the then-Soviet Union launched an occupation of Afghanistan, becoming a decade-long conflict that ended with the humiliating withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Within two years, the USSR was no more.

Trump to Attend WWI Centenary in Paris, as France Warns of Threats to Europe

U.S. President Donald Trump will travel to France this weekend along with dozens of other world leaders for ceremonies to mark the centenary of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting in World War I. As Henry Ridgwell reports, relations between America and U.S. allies are tense, and France has warned that the current geopolitical climate is reminiscent of the build-up to the world wars.

Austrian President Warns Against ‘Scapegoating’ on Kristallnacht Anniversary

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen spoke out Thursday against what he calls the “politics of scapegoating” on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous Nazi pogrom against Jews.

“We can see history as an example of where the politics of scapegoating, incitement, and exclusion can lead,” Van der Bellen said at the site where Vienna’s largest synagogue once stood. “Let us be vigilant that degradation, persecution, and the stripping away of rights may never again be repeated in our country or in Europe.”

Right-wing governments espousing anti-immigrant policies have taken power in several European nations, including Italy, Hungary and Poland.

Ultra-conservative lawmakers have also taken seats in many European parliaments, including Germany, where the Alternative for Germany party is the largest opposition party.

Kristallnacht is German for “Night of Broken Glass.”

Germans and Austrians are remembering the two-days of extreme violence against Jews that began 80 years ago.

The Nazi regime, which had annexed Austria, used the shooting of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish student as a pretext.

Brown-shirted Nazi thugs spent two nights smashing the windows of Jewish stores before looting and burning them. Synagogues were set on fire. Jews were beaten in the streets while police stood by doing nothing.

More than 20,000 Jews were shipped off to concentration camps while thousands of others were arrested. The Nazis forced Jews to compensate the government for the damage and cleanup.

At least 91 people were killed, but historians believe the death toll was much higher.

The historians also point to Kristallnacht as the beginning of the Holocaust and Hitler’s efforts to wipe out European Jewry.