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Sri Lanka weighs return to murky past in presidential poll

Sri Lanka weighs return to murky past in presidential poll

Colombo: Sri Lanka holds presidential elections on Saturday with a possible comeback by the powerful Rajapaksa clan sparking fears of a return to murky disappearances, murders and Chinese submarines docking in Colombo.

The frontrunners among the record 35 candidates -- who include two monks but just one woman — are Sajith Premadasa, 52, son of assassinated president Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Gotabhaya, 70, is the younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005-15 and adored among the majority Sinhalese community for ending in 2009 the 37-year civil war with Tamil separatists in which 100,000 people died.

The horrific closing stages saw at least 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly killed by government troops — at a time when Gotabhaya was effectively in charge of the security forces.

He is also accused of running a "death squad" that bundled dozens of Tamils, political opponents, journalists and others into vans and dumping their bodies on the road -- something he denies.

One of its alleged victims was journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, stabbed in the head in 2009 days before he was due to testify in a defamation case Gotabhaya had filed against his paper over corruption claims.

His daughter Ahimsa Wickrematunge said that she is "terrified" that under Gotabhaya "many brave police officers, prosecutors, witnesses, judges and journalists who have crossed his path... will find themselves on the firing line." According to press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, in the "dark decade" of Mahinda's rule, at least 14 journalists "were murdered in connection with their work".

"Everyone needs to be afraid of what might happen if Gotabhaya becomes president, everyone," analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu told AFP.

"For journalists, for any kind of dissent, it's going to be very, very tough." A possible return of the Rajapaksas -- Gotabhaya would likely make Mahinda prime minister -- has also sparked fear among Sri Lanka's Muslims.

Relations between Muslims, who make up 10 percent of the population, and the Sinhalese have soured in the wake of attacks in April by homegrown Islamic extremists that killed 269 people.

In the days after the suicide bombings on three upscale hotels and three churches, hundreds of homes and shops owned by Muslims were trashed as mobs went on the rampage, with one person killed.

"This election, a lot of people are really worried," Reyyaz M. Salley, chairman of the Dewatagaha Jumma Mosque in downtown Colombo, told AFP.

What also concerns Western countries, as well as India, is that under Mahinda, strategically located Sri Lanka moved closer to China, even allowing two Chinese submarines to dock at Colombo in 2014.

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