January 7, 2015 / 4:03 PM / 3 years ago

Violence against Sri Lanka opposition must stop as polls loom: rights body

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sri Lanka must take all necessary steps to ensure voters have safe and secure access as the country heads for one of the closest and most significant presidential elections in decades, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures as he addresses his supporters during his final rally ahead of presidential election in Piliyandala January 5, 2015. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

There have been 420 incidents of violence and intimidation in the run-up to Thursday’s vote which pits incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa against challenger Mithripala Sirisena, according to a local polling monitor.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), one of three main local monitoring groups, says supporters of Rajapaksa’s ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party have repeatedly violated election laws since the poll was announced in November.

Violations include attacks on opposition supporters and the use of the Indian Ocean island’s state media to orchestrate mud-slinging campaigns against Sirisena, the CMEV said.

Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said he could not comment on the allegations of misuse of state resources unless they were specific. He rejected claims that ruling party supporters were behind the violence.

“Sri Lankan authorities need to take all possible steps to ensure voters, candidates, and monitors are not attacked, threatened, or intimidated,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement.

“The attacks and intimidation that marred the campaign can’t be allowed to continue on election day and during the counting process.”

HRW cited an incident on Jan. 5 in which unidentified gunmen wounded three members of the opposition United National Party during a rally. The day before, two election officers were assaulted after they shut down an unauthorized office belonging to the ruling party.

Rajapaksa, who draws his support largely from the island’s Buddhist Sinhala majority, is one of the longest serving presidents in the region and is seeking a third term.

Sirisena, a former member of the ruling party and health minister, left the government in November to take on the president. Since then more than two dozen Rajapaksa loyalists in the 225-seat parliament have defected.

The main parties representing Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil and Muslim minorities, who account for a quarter of the 21 million population, have pledged support for Sirisena.

There have been no credible opinion polls, but many political analysts believe Sirisena, campaigning to crack down on corruption and reduce the powers of the president, is within striking distance of unseating Rajapaksa.

Reporting by Nita Bhalla; Editing by Tim Pearce

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