Sri Lankan government seizes assets of 37 companies

President Rajapaksa in parliament
Image caption President Rajapaksa has been accused by critics of becoming increasingly authoritarian (Photo: Nalin Hewapathirana)

The Sri Lankan parliament has authorised the government to take over the assets of 37 firms, including two listed companies.

The move has been criticised by the opposition and some businessmen who have accused President Rajapaksa of turning the country into his fiefdom.

But the government says that it is only taking over loss-making companies which would close down unless it intervened.

It says that the take-overs are a one-off and are unlikely to be repeated.

Ministers say that the asset acquisition bill allows the government to appoint authorities to manage under-performing enterprises and under-utilised assets - including a sugar company owned by an opposition politician.

It says that investors were given the assets many years ago by the state - mostly as an incentive to turn loss-making state enterprises around.

But senior lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner JC Weliamuna told the BBC that the move authorised by parliament on Wednesday was not only illegal but also a human rights violation as some of the companies concerned are profitable.

Critics of the government say the latest move is a further sign of President Rajapaksa's autocratic tendencies, following moves at the weekend to muzzle critical press coverage.

Last year the president altered the country's constitution so that it would be possible for him to serve consecutive terms. Several of his family members also hold senior government posts.

Before the bill was passed on Wednesday, opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe warned that it would trigger public protests.

"The government should focus on acquiring assets of the militarily defeated Tamil Tigers," he said, "instead of harassing Sinhala businessmen."

But the government insists it will press ahead with the acquisitions.

"This has nothing to do with investors or the business community. This refers to just [those] companies... which are closed down. You can hardly find their owners," said Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the younger brother of the president.

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