Human Rights Defenders in Sri Lanka continue to suffer attacks and intimidation through 2011 and 2012. This submission focuses on incidents in 2011. Impunity for attacks and threats against HRDs, labeling HRDs as ‘terrorists’ or traitors, the campaign against HRDs in the State media and linking these to their participation/involvement in of the UN Human Rights Council have significantly increased the risks involved in defending human rights in Sri Lanka.
Several HRDs have been forced to limit their work/maintain a low profile or seek protection abroad. HRDs working in the North and East are particularly vulnerable to persecution and often lack access to the limited protection available to HRDs in the South.
Attacks against journalists, media rights activists and trade union leaders:
Lanka-e-News (LeN) journalists continued to face threats in 2011 . In January 2011, the LeN office was destroyed in an arson attack. LeN journalists faced threats and surveillance following the attack and there was also an attempt to implicate LeN journalists in the attack. News Editor, Benette Rupesinghe, was arrested and detained on false charges. Senior journalist, Shantha Wijesooriya, was arrested and detained and the LeN website was blocked by judicial order in April 2011. Shantha continues to face threats, intimidation and surveillance.
State media workers protesting against the politicization and misuse of state-media resources have been threatened and accused of anti-government activities. Senior journalist and trade union leader, Dharmasiri Lankapeli has been repeatedly attacked as a LTTE supporter and traitor, severely compromising his safety and work. A senior state-media journalist, who protested against the misuse of state-media resources during the 2010 presidential election, was terminated from service in 2011 and continues to face serious threats.
In November 2011 the Government announced that all websites with content on or relating to Sri Lanka must be registered with the Media Ministry. Several independent/political websites were blocked. A fundamental rights application against the blocking and compulsory registration of websites was filed by the Free Media Movement in 2011 and is pending before the Supreme Court.
Attacks against political activists/opposition MPs:
On 4th February 2011, a peaceful protest by the main opposition party in Sri Lanka was attacked by thugs armed with iron rods, Molotov cocktails, poles and rocks. Several protesters were brutally beaten and vehicles damaged in the attack during which Police took no steps to stop or prevent the attack.
Attacks against HRDs using the UN Mechanism:
HRDs and journalists who are believed to have links with the international community and the UN have been accused of conspiring against the Government and supporting the LTTE. In September 2011, exiled Sri Lankan journalist Sunanda Deshapriya was attacked in the state-media and on several websites, following his attendance at an informal meeting during the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
In January 2011, a state controlled newspaper published the names of 15 HRDs from the North, who attended training on the UN complaints mechanism. One HRD named in the article, faced serious threats and surveillance afterwards. In September – November 2011, the same HRD was tortured by the military/intelligence officers who accused him of documenting cases of disappearances and detention and sending information to the UN. He is currently seeking protection abroad.
Suppression of Dissent:
The Government has used a number of measures including regressive laws and false arrests/prosecution to suppress dissent within Sri Lanka. Several persons attempting to expose governmental corruption or malpractice in State institutions have faced violent reprisals.
Thushara Jayarathne, a law student who accused the Sri Lanka Law College of examination irregularities including giving special privileges to Namal Rajapakse, Member of Parliament and eldest son of President Mahinda Rajapakse, has reported repeated threats and attacks and has lived in hiding since April 2011.
University student leaders/activists in the South protesting against this Governments’ policies have been threatened and several placed under surveillance.
In May 2011, the police attacked Free Trade Zone (FTZ) workers protesting against the Government’s proposed pension bill, including inside the factories where they worked. Several workers were injured in the attack and one person, Roshen Chanaka was killed. In July 2011, intelligence officers entered the office of the FTZ and General Services Employees Union (FTZGSEU), questioned and intimidated those present and searched through files and documents.
In November 2011, the office premises of Companions on a Journey, an NGO working on HIV/AIDS prevention was searched by police and those present were questioned for several hours and intimidated. Prior to this incident, the group were attacked in a Sinhala newspaper, and accused of promoting homosexuality under the guise of HIV/AIDS prevention. The NGO has ceased to function as a result of the threats and harassment.
Cases against HRDs filed in 2009 and 2010 also continued, with no evidence or charges brought forward.
Impunity for attacks against HRDs and journalists:
As in previous years, 2011 didn’t see any significant progress with regard to cases of HRDs and journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted threatened etc. In the case of Mr. Pattani Razeek, it took the police more than a year to arrest suspects the Police itself identified while those who are implicated including Minister Rishard Bathiudeen and his Coordinating Secretary have not even been questioned todate. The family has not received the DNA and Post Mortem reports after more than 6 months. Likewise, there was no progress about the disappearance of Fr. Jim Brown who fought for rights if IDPs , Stephen Sunthararaj a HRD attached to Centre for Human Rights and Development in Colombo , death threats against Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of Centre for Policy Alternatives and number of other such cases. There has also been no progress in numerous cases of attacks on journalists and media institutions such as the killing of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, attack on award willing journalist and press freedom activist Poddala Jayantha, and the disappearance of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda.
24th Feb. 2012/TC