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Sri Lanka arrests protest leader Joseph Stalin

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A top Sri Lankan trade union leader in the forefront of protests which led to the ousting of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the presidency was arrested Wednesday, witnesses and officials said.

Joseph Stalin, the secretary of the Sri Lanka Teachers’ Union, becomes the senior most activist to be arrested in a crackdown against protesters forced Rajapaksa to flee last month.

“He is being arrested for holding a demonstration in May in violation of a court order,” police told reporters at Stalin’s union office in Colombo as he was being detained.

Scores of others have already been remanded in custody by police on charges of damage to public property during months of protests which peaked with the storming of Rajapaksa’s palace on July 9.

Tens of thousands of people incensed by the island nation’s economic crisis stormed Rajapaksa’s palace and his seafront office — forcing him to flee the country and later resign.

Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has drawn a distinction between “protesters” and “rioters” and vowed tough action against “any trouble maker.”

Police also arrested another protester who had raided the liquor cabinet of the deposed leader, downed a beer and took off with a presidential mug.

The 43-year-old man’s arrest comes after he shared a photo of himself on Facebook at Colombo’s Presidential Palace, a police official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The man was arrested earlier this week for alleged unlawful entry into a state building and retaining stolen property.

“He will be brought to Colombo to stand trial,” the official said.

The palace was occupied for about 10 days before it was handed back to the authorities.

Last week, police arrested another trade union activist from the Colombo port for removing two official flags from the palace and using them as a bedsheet and a sarong.

He was identified from the videos he had shared on social media.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people have endured months of lengthy blackouts, record inflation and shortages of food, fuel and petrol.

Rajapaksa had been blamed by protesters for mismanaging the nation’s finances and public anger had simmered for months before the mass demonstrations that forced his ouster.

Soon after protesters overran the Presidential Palace, there were social media posts of them frolicking in the presidential pool and bouncing on four-poster beds inside the sprawling compound.

But protesters also turned over to authorities around 17.5 million rupees ($46,000) in crisp banknotes that had been found in one of the presidential palace’s rooms.

The military late last month demolished a protest camp outside the president’s office that had campaigned for Rajapaksa’s ouster — a move that drew international condemnation accusing troops of using excessive force on unarmed demonstrators.