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June 28, 2017

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Sri Lanka astrologer held for his political prediction

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lankan authorities have arrested a popular astrologer who predicted the president would be ousted from office, police said Friday, fanning fears of a government crackdown on dissent following its victory over separatist rebels last month.

A police spokesman said astrologer Chandrasiri Bandara told an opposition meeting last week that the prime minister would take over as president on Sept. 9, and the opposition leader would become prime minister. It was not clear what he thought would happen to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Police arrested Bandara on Wednesday night to investigate the source of his prediction, police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera said.

Bandara made his forecast despite Rajapaksa's soaring popularity in the wake of the military's defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels last month, a victory that ended this island nation's quarter-century civil war.

Since then, Rajapaksa has been hailed as a king, and politicians in his ruling party have proposed giving him a second six-year term without an election or changing the constitution to make him president for life.

But astrology is profoundly influential in Sri Lankan society and could be perceived as a threat to Rajapaksa's rule.

Many here plan their weddings and special events based on the advice of astrologers, and political leaders use favorable predictions to boost their image. Rajapaksa himself has said he is a devoted believer, telling foreign reporters earlier this year that he often consults a favored astrologer for advice on what time to make speeches or to depart for trips.

Bandara, who has a weekly television show and writes a deeply political column for a pro-opposition newspaper, is one of the most popular astrologers in the country.

Police officers came to Bandara's home Wednesday night to arrest him, said Chathura Vidyarathna, deputy editor of Irudina, which publishes Bandara's column.

"He has not returned so far," he said.

The opposition United National Party condemned the arrest. "The crime committed by Bandara is not making predictions favorable to the government," the party said in a statement.

In the wake of the government's victory over the rebels, media rights groups have complained of renewed attempts by the government to stifle freedom of speech.

The government has announced the re-establishment of a powerful press council with the authority to jail journalists, and early this month, Poddala Jayantha, a press freedom campaigner, was abducted and assaulted while returning from work. No one has been arrested in the attack.

The International Federation of Journalists condemned the attack and demanded the police take action to bring those responsible to justice.

According to Amnesty International, at least 14 journalists and staff at news outlets have been killed by suspected government paramilitaries and rebels since the beginning of 2006. Others have been detained, tortured or have disappeared and 20 more have fled the country because of death threats, it said.

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