The war in Sri Lanka ended on 18th May 2009. During three decades of war, civil liberties were severely curtailed, often in an arbitrary manner, without possibilities of challenging them or seeking remedies through independent bodies. The Ministry of Defense, the military and police reigned supreme. Even judicial discretion was curtailed, with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) compelling Judges to obey wishes of the Ministry of Defense and the police through the Attorney General’s department when it came to remanding people, bail etc.
The PTA remains as a dreaded legal weapon in the hands of the government to use against it’s peaceful opponents. It was strengthened after the end of the war, incorporating provisions from the Emergency Regulations that were allowed to lapse. Asath Sally, a former Deputy Mayor of Colombo and former government politician, now a prominent critic of the government, was arrested and detained under the PTA. It is widely believed that he was later released due to widespread domestic and international pressure.
The provisions of the PTA directly contradict key fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution of Sri Lanka including the right to peaceful assembly protected under article 14(1) (b) of the Constitution. The right is also protected by article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is part of Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations. Suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms including the freedom of expression and freedom from torture during and after the end of the war has been well documented in Sri Lanka including in a recent article I wrote to mark World Press Freedom day.
It is pertinent to note that although the Sri Lankan constitution and the ICCPR allows restrictions to be placed on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, any such restrictions must be proportionate to the need, time bound and very importantly, be in conformity with the law and be subject to review by independent bodies such as the judiciary. Restrictions must remain the exception, unlike what Sri Lanka has seen for 30 years.
Through three decades, of war, peace talks, ceasefires and even after the war, freedom of peaceful assembly and other rights and freedoms have been severely curtailed by the Sri Lankan state. It is important to note that the right to freedom of assembly is intricately linked to the enjoyment of other fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of movement etc. For example, restricting freedom of movement has been an effective way of restricting freedom of assembly and restricting freedom of assembly has been used as a means of restricting freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.
The annual government crackdown on small, peaceful, cultural and religious events to commemorate the end of the war by the Tamils in the North is amongst the indicators that the end of the war was not going to herald freedom of peaceful assembly. Families and friends of those killed and disappeared have had their freedom to assemble peacefully to mourn, grieve and observe cultural and religious rituals taken away from them, rejecting the government’s own reconciliation commission which recommended a national event to remember all the victims of war.
Four years after the war, freedom of peaceful assembly remains a distant dream for Sri Lankans who are not supporters of the government. But freedom of assembly – peaceful and violent – is there for those who are supporters of the government and those supported by the government.
The Northern part of the country seems to be the worst affected in terms of suppression of the right to peaceful assembly. But incidents of suppression – including the suppression and attacks on mass protests by political parties, student groups, trade unions and civil society, as well as other peaceful events deemed anti – government have also been reported from the capital, Colombo, and other Southern and Central parts of the island. Police have arrested and dispersed peaceful protesters, sometimes violently and stood by watching when violent mobs attacked peaceful protestors including lawyers, religious clergy and students. People have been stopped from attending gatherings; and police have sought and obtained court orders to prevent or limit peaceful rallies and marches from taking place. Police permission is sometimes outright refused for some peaceful protests. Many protests and events which are deemed anti-government are subjected to surveillance by the state’s intelligence services. Organizers and participants at peaceful events and protests have also been attacked before and after the events, by those alleged to be government groups and supporters.
In the North and in the South, police and military have tried to block funerals that are considered to paint a negative image of the government, such as when political prisoners and opposition party supporters have were killed. They have ended up as “guarded” funerals under heavy military / police guard and surveillance.A crying and angry mother was compelled to wait for weeks, and go to the Supreme Court, simply to bring the dead body of her son (who was killed in custody of the authorities) home for the last time and have the funeral rites in their own hometown.
Significant cases since May 2012 in the North and East
On November 27, 2012, students from the University of Jaffna (UoJ) who gathered peacefully at the UoJ female hostel to light lamps in commemoration of Maaveerar Naal (LTTE Heroes Day) were threatened and violently dispersed by the military. The following day, students from the UoJ staged a peaceful demonstration in protest of the harassment meted out to students on the 27th. This gathering too was brutally clamped down by the riot police, resulting in student union leaders and student activists coming under heavy surveillance by Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). The arrest and detention for several months of 4 student leaders of the UoJ, just afterwards, are believed to be linked to this incident. The students were released after heavy domestic and international pressure.
On March 5, 2013, the police blocked more than 600 persons (11 buses), comprising families of the disappeared from all parts of the North, from coming into Colombo to participate in a peaceful protest against disappearances, the following day and handover a petition about their disappeared family members to the UN. The military was also standing by when the group was detained. The families (mostly women), were forced to spend the night in Vavuniya without basic facilities, and assured by the police that they could proceed to Colombo the following morning. This assurance however was not kept, and the buses were not permitted to leave Vavuniya. According to eye witnesses, some of the bus drivers had also been threatened.
By contrast, on March 6, about 1500 members of the ‘Dead and Missing Person’s Parents Front’, comprising family members of disappeared Sri Lankan armed forces and of those forcibly recruited by the LTTE, were permitted to stage a protest in Colombo without any obstruction. This was an indicator that the government was willing to allow families of those disappeared to organize and join peaceful assemblies where the alleged perpetrator was the LTTE, but was not willing to allow peaceful assemblies when the alleged perpetrator was the government.
Meetings of the Tamil National Alliance, the major Tamil political party which has won all post war elections in the former war zones of the Northern Province, have been repeatedly attacked, sabotaged and shut down mid-way, mainly by those suspected to be government supporters and the military. A rally which saw the attendance of diverse Tamil political parties and the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe was also disrupted with participants being threatened. People protesting about their lands being occupied by the military in the North have also been threatened and activists and lawyers supporting them from Colombo have also been questioned by authorities.
Protest organizers were also targeted in the North. In October 2012, Central Committee Member of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), Dimuthu Attygalle had crude oil thrown on her by two unidentified persons, after participating in several Children’s Day activities in Jaffna. Similarly in July 2012, there were two crude oil attacks on two leaders of the Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF), who were involved in organizing a peaceful protest against the brutal killing of Tamil prisoner Nimalaroopan, whilst in custody.All victims attributed the attacks to the government.
The military has also developed the practice of compelling people in the North seek their permission or inform them of peaceful events – whether they are meetings of community based organizations, events related to development activities such as opening of a housing scheme or social events like weddings. Most people and groups oblige due to fear, though some resist. The military has also been walking into such events even without invitation. One activist recalled how she was questioned by a police officer in Jaffna when she was speaking to a group of youth in broad daylight in an open field. The explanation given by the police was that he was suspicious and concerned because a group of young Tamil people had gathered. The police officer had then told the activist that he will drop the matter because she spoke Sinhalese.
Significant cases since May 2012 in the Capital, Colombo
“Between September 2012 and January 2013, hundreds of lawyers, backed by Sri Lanka’s 11,000-member Bar Association, participated in a series of demonstrations protesting against interference with the independence of the judiciary and to the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in January 2013.” On January 10, pole bearing goons, allegedly sent by the State, attacked peaceful protestors, again, in the presence of the police. In addition, following these peaceful protests, many lawyers and civil society activists who led and participated in these peaceful protests have been threatened and fear for their safety.
On April 12, 2013, a peaceful candle lit vigil organized by the Facebook group Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena (BQBBS), to be held outside the BBS Head Quarters in Colombo was dispersed by the Police. Participants were threatened and some were arrested before being released due to pressure from others. Several participants reported that their identity details were recorded and asked by the Criminal Investigation Department to report for questioning. At least one person reported being questioned.
Over 1500 university students who took to the streets in Colombo to protest against the Government’s attempt to privatise Universities in August 2012, was met with tear-gas and water cannons by the police and anti-riot squads. In September 2012, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF), Sanjeewa Bandara, was arrested by the police in civil following another protest held in Colombo that day.
In Negombo, several human rights defenders were arrested and their equipment confiscated after a video about enforced disappearances was screened. They were released after the police was challenged about the legality of the arrest, but were questioned later 
Significant cases since May 2012 in the Central and Southern parts of the country
In April 2013, in Kotagala (Nuwara Eliya district in the central part of the country), a peaceful protest held by the Democratic People’s Front (DPF) was disrupted by the pro-Government Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), resulting in DPF Party Leader incurring injuries.
In August 2012, a protest conducted by the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) in Badulla district, also in the central part of the country, was brought to an abrupt stop by police firing tear gas at the peaceful protestors, protesting against the alleged failure by the police to arrest a driver of a van which knocked down and killed a hospital worker.
Armed men suspected to be government sponsored goons killed two and injured four members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) at a party meeting in Hediwatte, Hambantota district in the Southern province (the President’s hometown and strong-hold) in June 2012. Party members have stated that the attack “…was a direct attempt by the Government to scare the party from engaging in political activity in the district.”
Police using judiciary to ban peaceful assemblies
In early 2012, police started to approach the judiciary to obtain court orders to stop peaceful protests against the government, in Colombo, as well as in the North. This trend continued throughout the year and till 2013. Several such incidents have been reported from Jaffna and Vavuniya in the Northern province in relation to events by political parties and Doctors, as well as in relation to a University students march from Kandy in the Central Province to the capital, Colombo.
Conclusions and signs of hope
The Sri Lankan government appears to be systematically and deliberately doing everything within its power to ensure that dissent through peaceful assemblies is suppressed. And there doesn’t seem to be any independent institution that can prevent or respond to this. Funerals of those killed in controversial circumstances by alleged government supporters and cultural and religious events to commemorate those killed and disappeared have been prominent targets.
As we had noted at the beginning, and shown through several examples, the police had stood by and watched peaceful assemblies being attacked, actively participated in arresting peaceful protesters and breaking up peaceful assemblies. They had even released suspects handed over to them by citizens and failed to act despite compelling eyewitness accounts, photographs and videos.
The National Human Rights Commission has also refused to act despite such compelling evidence, and even refused to respond to urgent appeals to it’s 24 hour hotline made by peaceful protesters. They have not made any public statements nor attempted to proactively investigate many of the serious threats to peaceful assembly, despite its powers and mandate to do so.
A recent statement by Lawyers for Democracy (LfD), is a chillingly indicator of the state of freedom of peaceful assembly in Sri Lanka. After themselves experiencing attacks and police inaction on peaceful protests, the lawyers said “We are…seriously concerned with the tactics used including the use of government back armed actors to disturb peaceful rallies and demonstrations. The impunity with which these groups operate is alarming. For example…events were witnessed by the police who stood by and did nothing to prevent the goons from arriving to disrupt a planned protest rally. Such incidents are indicators of the breakdown of law and order and the threat to the democratic culture in Sri Lanka.”
Like in relation to freedom of expression, all is not lost, despite this very bleak scenario.
Yesterday, 15th May, thousands participated at a peaceful protest in Colombo against electricity price hikes. According to one participant, government supported goons who were at the venue had been compelled to leave the area due to the huge turnout. This despite the fact that state controlled TV station ITN (Independent Television Network) had as usual, carried a mud slinging campaign against several prominent human rights activists, claiming that those protesting against electricity tariff hike were terrorists supporters.
In the last twelve months, across Sri Lanka, students have been protesting, academics have been protesting, religious clergy have been protesting, women have been protesting, journalists have been protesting, lawyers have been protesting, health workers have been protesting, workers have been protesting. Even political prisoners have been protesting from inside the prisons. In the highly militarized war zones of the Northern Province, victims of land occupation, families of political prisoners, those disappeared and killed have been daring threats, intimidations and obstructions to engage in peaceful protests. In a few days, it is likely that at least a few people will once again commemorate the end of the war in a manner that will be different from the victory parades promoted by the government, resisting threats, intimidations and sabotage as experienced in the past. Even when their demands fall on deaf ears, their struggles will keep alive hopes for democracy and rights.
http://groundviews.org/2012/02/12/judicial-intervention-to-control-lawful-rallies-subverting-democratic-rights/ (last accessed 14 May 2013)