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FeaturesNewsReport: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka before and during curfew (1 st February 2020 – 30th April 2020)

Report: Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka before and during curfew (1 st February 2020 – 30th April 2020)

by

Executive Summary.

This report [by INFORM, Colombo,Sri Lanka] records 95 incidents that had been reported during the 90 days period. The average number of incidents per day reported prior to the covid-19 curfew is slightly higher than the number of incidents reported during the curfew. There were a high number of incidents related to legal, institutional and policy changes prior to the curfew. During the curfew, the number of physical attacks, arrests, verbal threats and hate speech related incidents were high. Before curfew many incidents were reported from Colombo in the Western Province. During the curfew period, more than 50% of incidents were reported from districts outside Western Province and Northern and Eastern provinces. In previous reports, the number of incidents were high in North and East. Most of the victims were government officials, journalists, civil society activists and protesters respectively. During both periods, most of alleged perpetrators were either police or military, followed by government officers and politicians and business persons. Majority of victims were men.

Journalists faced questioning at home, by phone and summoning to offices of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police. There were also death threats against journalists by a son of a politician and a shop owner. A journalist and a source were also arrested, while another journalist was assaulted. A private TV station had expelled journalists who had exposed a special event organized by the institution violating curfew laws and for requesting protective equipment.

Two prisoners were shot dead in tensions that had arisen in context of covid19 related protests in a prison in Anuradhapura. In Colombo, protesters were assaulted and threatened with arrest by police and a temporary hut of protesters were taken down by police. Persons protesting on covid19 related issues were also arrested in Batticaloa and Kandy districts. A court order was issued to stop a student protest in Colombo and students in Jaffna University were stopped from entering the University to have a protest.

On 1st April police announced that those criticizing and pointing shortcomings of government officials will be arrested. At least 17 persons had been arrested by 19th April for fake news and the Human Rights Commission had expressed concerns about legal basis for some of the arrests. Amongst those arrested was Ramzy Razeek, a commentator who regularly posts on his Facebook profile on topics related to ethnic harmony, minority rights, gender etc. At least two persons were arrested for publishing online content criticizing the government’s covid19 response. A student activist’s house was visited by the police after he had posted a Facebook comment questioning the government. A former MP of an opposition political party and LGBTIQ community, including one activist were subjected to online hate speech campaigns. Two potential Tamil female candidates, for upcoming parliamentary elections faced vicious personal attacks online. Such attacks, as well as a number of fake news and hate speech content, mostly against minorities, published or broadcasted by mainstream media with large outreach, didn’t seem to result in legal actions.

In other incidents, a leader of an indigenous community (Vedda) was attacked after he spoke to the media criticizing sand mining in the local area and its damages to the environment. A businessman was assaulted and CCTV camera equipment at his house were damaged by Police after he questioned about Police violence against two other persons in his neighborhood. A lawyer who had appeared in significant cases related to rights and democracy and vocal on minority rights, was arrested on suspicion of terrorism and he has not been provided proper access to lawyers nor been produced before a Magistrate. Visits by intelligence agencies to offices of NGOs, houses of NGO staff and phone calls continued. A female activist vocal in demanding investigations into a child abuse case was threatened that her nude photographs will be made public. Police also held an inquiry against an information technology activist after he pointed security loopholes in an ATM machine of a private bank.

A number of legal and policy changes, including appointments, looked ominous for dissent. The Government declared it was withdrawing from the co-sponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council resolutions on reconciliation and accountability. The President’s office and Parliament Committee on National Security indicated restrictions on civil society and NGOs. A senior district level government official issued a letter asking NGOs to de-prioritize human rights, women’s empowerment and land rights. Activists who defied the decision to sing the national anthem only in Sinhalese at the official Independence Day function faced online threats and vilification. An Army officer being prosecuted for killings of protesters in 2013 was promoted. The police chief requested to temporarily suspend some ongoing legal cases and an investigation officer who handled a key corruption case for several years was suddenly replaced with a new officer. And President Gotabaya said that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which had reduced presidential powers and strengthened independent oversight bodies, are a hindrance in fulfilling the aspirations of the people, at a meeting with heads of media.

Government officials trying to do their duties, including police officers, public health officials, village officers (Grama Niladharis) excise officers, forest conservation officers, coastal conservation officer, and a school principal faced reprisals. These included verbal attacks with obscene language, physical assaults, and threats including a death threat at gun point. Politicians, a Buddhist Monk and agitated villagers were amongst those responsible. Many of these incidents were related to environmental issues and covid19.

Especially during the curfew period, restrictions and limited court work made it difficult for victims to seek protection, legal remedies. It was also difficult to seek and offer support from other defenders, lawyers, journalists diplomats etc. Detainees faced more challenges.

Context

On 25th February, the new government which completed 100 days of their rule, issued a statement on their progress, but it failed to show any considerable achievements or growth, rather presented another set of promises1 . There were emerging economic concerns such as high inflation and debt repayment.

The Sri Lankan government declared that it will withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council’s landmark resolution 30/1, which the previous government had co-sponsored, to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights. The first Sri Lankan confirmed Covid19 case was reported on 11th of March. By 20th March when curfew was declared, there were 66 confirmed covid19 cases reported in Sri Lanka. All international airports were closed by 19th March and an island-wide curfew was imposed since 20th March.

On 2nd of March President issued the gazette dissolving parliament six months ahead of schedule.3 The gazette also announced that parliamentary election will be held on 25th of April. The constitution of Sri
Lanka says that “the date for new parliament to meet shall be not later than 3 months from the date of dissolution of parliament”4 and it has also provided the powers to the President to reconvene the former parliament in an emergency situation5. Despite of Election Commission’s request to President to seek the advice of the Supreme Court, Cabinet Ministers6 and the President Rajapakse have made announcements refusing to reconvene previous parliament, and also stated that advice from the Supreme Court will not be sought7 leading to an impending constitutional crisis8 . Later, after the Election Commission announced 20th June a date beyond 3 months period as the next date for the elections , several parties filed Fundamental Rights petitions against the Commission.10 Election monitoring organization ANFREL has published a more detailed timeline on the events occurred11.

Navy personnel in the traffic control duties in Colombo. February 2020. Photo courtesy: Navy.lk  

Increased militarization was seen throughout the country. Persons with former and present military backgrounds were appointed to key decision-making positions related to civil duties throughout the

period. On 14th February, Major General Darshana Hettiarachchi assumed duties as Rehabilitation Commissioner General12 . On 17th February, Retired Major General Prasad Samarasinghe assumed duty
as the new head of management to the Lotus tower. Retired Major General Vijitha Ravipriya was appointed as the Director-General of Customs on 19th February13. Around 17th March, the Army
Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva was appointed as the head of National Operation Center for Prevention of COVID- 19 Outbreak14. Retired Major General Sumedha Perera was appointed
as the Co-Chairman of the Task Force for Poverty Eradication and Livelihood Development on 24th of March 15 and there were 7 military or ex-military personnel including him amongst the task force
members16. On 24th March, Former Air Force Commander, Marshal of the Air Force Roshan Goonetileke was appointed as the Governor of the Western Province17.

Situation prior to the curfew:

There were number of protests on various issues around the country, but mainly in Colombo18 19 20. Considerable number of these protests were related to socio-economic issues such as employment, salary and pension anomalies, microfinance loans, bankruptcy of an investment company that had accepted deposits from the public. Additionally, a number of protests against national Independence Day were held in the North and East. The president in his National Independence Day speech promised that he is committed to defend fundamental rights ensured in the constitution, but also said that he does not “envisage public officials, lawmakers or the judiciary to impede him from implementing his commitment to fulfilling the needs of the people.” This seemed as an attempt to justify possible influences and to undermine powers of judiciary, legislature and public officials. Meanwhile Human Rights Watch released a report saying that families of disappeared were threatened in 6 locations in the North and East21 but the Sri Lankan government rejected these claims22.

The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) in Sri Lanka started to seek help of families of disappeared and missing in making a comprehensive list of missing and disappeared and also started to issue interim reports to families of disappeared and missing 23. Immediately after the Presidential elections in mid-November 2019, the number of incidents reported against journalists increased, this further increased this year.
In January 2020, the President had appointed a Presidential Commission to look into alleged political victimization of public officers during the last government24 which mainly looked into legal cases in
which the military were named as suspects. Tensions had also arisen between this Commission and judicial processes related to past crimes and rights violations. The Commission had obtained documents related to some significant incidents of rights violations, including in cases that are now before courts.25

The Attorney General (AG) had insisted that the Commission has no authority to question his functions in judicial processes26 . Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) filed a fundamental rights petition regarding broad powers granted to the Presidential commission that could be used “to prevent, impede and/or otherwise prejudice inquiries, investigations and legal proceedings.”27 Another notable trend was the extension of increasing militarization in civil affairs to the Southern part of the country.28 29

Situation during the curfew:

41,700 persons have been arrested, 10,700 vehicles having been seized for violating curfew regulations as reported on 29th April.30 31 In context of overcrowded prisons with about 26,000 inmates in places with capacity for about 10,000, there were wide spread calls for release of prisoners based on an identified criteria and available legal provisions. 2961 were reported to have been released between 17th March to 4th April, but there is no information available about releases after that32. Since the first confirmed covid19 case of a Sri Lankan national reported on 11th March, some TV stations and social media published false information about the patients, suspected patients, and even the dead violating their privacy, often in the presence of police and military. After about six weeks, the Secretary to the Ministry of defense appealed to stop this after hundreds of military personnel were infected. On 17th April, police lined up over 300 homeless persons in Colombo and compelled them to have a bath in the open air without any privacy, or physical distancing. Media was allowed to film and take photographs, resulting in this being a splash on national TV stations, newspapers and social media. Hate speech and false news against Muslims and Christians were published in mainstream and social media. For example, a mainstream national newspaper called “Satan” in a news headline referring to a Christian religious leader who was tested positive for covid1933 while other mainstream media also referred “pastor” in reporting this news. Social media and mainstream television channels published fake news that Muslims were gathered at mosques34 and organized religious events35, and resisted health officials while violating curfew laws. Muslims were further targets of hate speech after the Muslim leaders appealed to the government to review its decision on compulsory cremation of covid19 and covid19 suspected deaths as the WHO guidelines and other countries allowed the burial of covid19 patients. Meanwhile refugees and asylum seekers living in Sri Lanka temporarily were not included in assistance schemes by the government and various UN agencies36.

Three women in Jaffna claimed that they were brutally assaulted by Police who arrived there initially accusing them of involving illegal sand transportation and then accusing them of procession of illegal drugs. Photo Courtesy: Tamil Guardian. More details https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/sri-lankanpolice-leave-three-tamil-women-hospitalised-brutal-assault Several incidents of police and military

Several incidents of police and military assaults on civilians were  reported from the North and East during the curfew period. As reported by Tamil Guardian, Human Rights Commission has launched investigations into an incident of drunken Police officer having beaten up a youth unconscious in Jaffna.37 Right to Life Human Rights Centre had had reported several attacks on civilians by Police and military.38 A resident of Vatukovil in Jaffna has been assaulted by Police when he went to the Sittakeesi Guna Devi Temple for fetching water on 25th April. The Navy has attacked four persons who were trying to collect sea cucumbers at the Sillarman Thuda beach in Poonakadi in the Kilinochchi district on 7th April. On the same day, Indrallal and his brother, who were engaged in fishing in the area, were assaulted by 10 naval personnel.39 Tamil Guardian reported another incident where three women in Vadamarachchi East, Kudathanai in Jaffna district have been assaulted by Police for allegedly possessing drugs. They were hospitalized after the attack40.

Two prisoners were shot dead in tensions that had arisen in context of covid19 related protests in a prison in Anuradhapura. In Colombo, protesters were assaulted and threatened with arrest by police and a temporary hut of protesters were taken down by police. Persons protesting on covid19 related issues were also arrested in Batticaloa and Kandy districts. A court order was issued to stop a student protest in Colombo and students in Jaffna University were stopped from entering the University to have a protest.

The detailed report is here INFORM report Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka Before and during COVID19 curfew Feb-Apr_2020

1President of Sri Lanka official website. “progress of first 100 days” https://www.president.gov.lk/progress-of-first-100-days/ published on 25th February 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020.
2 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council – High Level Segment Statement by Hon. Dinesh Gunawardena, Minister of Foreign Relations of Sri Lanka https://www.mfa.gov.lk/43rd-sessionhrc/ published on 26th February 2020 (Last accessed 27th May 2020)
3 Extra ordinary Gazette 2165-8 “A proclamation by His Excellency the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka” https://www.parliament.lk/uploads/documents/gazettes/20200302-2165-8-en.pdf published on 2nd March 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020.
4 Article 70 (5) (a) A Proclamation dissolving Parliament shall fix a date or dates for the election of Members of Parliament, and shall summon the new Parliament to meet on a date not later than three months after the date of such Proclamation.
5 Article 70 (7) If at any time after the dissolution of Parliament, the President is satisfied that an emergency has arisen of such a nature that an earlier meeting of Parliament is necessary, he may by Proclamation summon the Parliament which has been dissolved to meet on a date not less than three days from the date of such Proclamation and such Parliament shall stand dissolved upon the termination of the emergency or the conclusion of the General Election, whichever is earlier.
6 No need to reconvene Parliament – State Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage. Sunday Observer. http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2020/04/19/opinion/no-need-reconvene-parliament-%E2%80%93-state-ministermahindananda-aluthgamage published 19th April 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020.
7 මශමැතිලරණය ඳැලැත්වීම වශ ඳාර්ලිබම්න්තුල යළි කැ඲වීම. Hiru TV. https://www.hirunews.lk/239434/president-gotabayarajapaksa-on-elections-and-reconvening-of-parliament 25th April 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020.
8See below links for details on the impending constitutional crisis. A constitutional solution to the impending constitutional crisis. Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda. https://groundviews.org/2020/04/30/a-constitutional-solution-to-the-impending-constitutional-crisis/ Groundviews. Published 30th April 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020. A Looming Constitutional Crisis, Courtesy Covid-19. Ameer Faiz and Nizam Kariapper. Daily Mirror. http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/A-Looming-Constitutional-Crisis–Courtesy-Covid-19/172-186513 Published 11th April 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020.
Tweet by former Speaker of the Parliament. “Sri Lanka does not need another constitutional crisis”. https://twitter.com/KaruOnline/status/1253163622223810561 Published 23rd April 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020.
9 Gazette notification issued by the Election commission http://www.documents.gov.lk/files/egz/2020/4/2172-03_E.pdf published on 21st of April 2020.
10 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/fundamental-rights-petition-filed-against-holding-elections/
11 COVID-19 and Elections: Dilemma in Sri Lanka. Anfrel. https://anfrel.org/covid-19-and-elections-dilemma-in-srilanka/ Published 20th May 2020.
12Maj. Gen.Hettiarachchi, appointed Rehabilitation Commissioner General. Daily News. http://www.dailynews.lk/2020/02/15/local/211542/maj-genhettiarachchi-appointed-rehabilitation-commissioner-general published 15th February 2020.
13 Maj. Gen. Vijitha Ravipriya appointed Customs DG. Daily FT. http://www.ft.lk/front-page/Maj-Gen-Vijitha-Ravipriyaappointed-Customs-DG/44-696105 published 21st February 2020.
14 Army Commander Shavendra Silva heads National Operation Center for Prevention of COVID- 19 Outbreak. Presidential Secretariat https://www.presidentsoffice.gov.lk/index.php/2020/03/17/army-commander-shavendra-silva-heads-nationaloperation-center-for-prevention-of-covid-19-outbreak/?lang=en published 17th March 2020.
15 http://www.themorning.lk/retired-maj-gen-appointed-poverty-eradication-task-force-co-chairman/
16 Compete List of Task force members https://www.president.gov.lk/presidential-task-force-on-economic-revival-and-povertyeradication-established/ published 22nd of April 2020.
17 Former Air Force Commander Roshan Goonetileke sworn in as Governor of Western Province. President‟s Media Division. http://www.pmdnews.lk/former-air-force-commander-roshan-goonetileke-sworn-in-as-governor-of-western-province/ Published 24th March.
18 Students demanding on educational rights, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation employees about the termination of their jobs, former employees of National Housing Authority about the termination of their jobs, Project assistants who were given appointment letters but not jobs, pensioners, retired military Personnel, disabled soldiers and their wives, depositors of a
bank, depositors of an investment company, several teachers trade unions, women affected by microfinance loans and others protested in front of the Presidential Secretariat and other government offices in Colombo.
19 News first “Over five protests continue in Colombo” https://www.newsfirst.lk/2020/02/06/over-5-protests-continue-incolombo/ published on 6th February 2020. 20 News first. “Several protests continue in Colombo” https://www.newsfirst.lk/2020/02/18/several-protests-continue-incolombo/ published on 18th February 2020.
21 Human Rights Watch, “Sri Lanka: Families of „Disappeared‟ Threatened, Rajapaksa Government Should Uphold Commitments to UN Rights Council” https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/16/sri-lanka-families-disappeared-threatened published 16th Feb2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020.
22 Defence Ministry denies HRW allegations http://www.dailynews.lk/2020/02/24/local/212357/defence-ministry-denies-hrwallegations published 24th February 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020.
23 Sri Lanka: The OMP calls on families of the missing persons to provide info to make a comprehensive list of missing and disappeared persons. Sri Lanka Brief. https://srilankabrief.org/2020/02/sri-lanka-the-omp-calls-on-families-of-the-missingpersons-to-provide-info-to-make-a-comprehensive-list-of-missing-and-disappeared-persons/ published 9th February 2020.
24 Extra ordinary Gazettes on Presidential Commission of Inquiry dated 9th January 2020. http://documents.gov.lk/files/egz/2020/1/2157-43_E.pdf and http://documents.gov.lk/files/egz/2020/1/2157-44_E.pdf Last accessed 28th May 2020.
25 Presidential Commission Aids Criminal Cover-Up: Army Intelligence Secures Files On Key CID Investigations. Colombo Telegraph. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/presidential-commission-aids-criminal-cover-up-armyintelligence-secures-files-on-key-cid-investigations/ Published 29th February 2020.
26 PCoI has no authority to question AG‟s functions before trial-at-bar: AG. Ada Derana. http://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=61300 Published 11th March 2020.
27 Centre for Policy Alternatives v Attorney General (SC FR 32 /2020) https://www.cpalanka.org/centre-for-policyalternatives-v-attorney-general-sc-fr-32-2020/ published 7th February 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020 28 Use of Military Police for police services is illegal: UNP. Economy Next. https://economynext.com/use-of-military-policefor-police-services-is-illegal-unp-53481/ published 25th February 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020
29 “Sri Lanka heading towards an administratively failed state?” JVP questions using Military. News wire. http://www.newswire.lk/2020/02/24/sri-lanka-heading-towards-an-administratively-failed-state-jvp-questions-using-military/ published 24th February 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020 30 41,700 arrested so far, for violating the curfew & 10,700 vehicles seized. NewsFirst. https://www.newsfirst.lk/2020/04/29/41700-arrested-so-far-for-violating-the-curfew-10700-vehicles-seized/ Published 29th April 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020
31 51,552 persons arrested for violating curfew. News Radio. https://www.newsradio.lk/justin/51552-persons-arrested-forviolating-curfew/ published 11th May 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020
32 2,961 prison inmates released on bail. Presidential Media Division.
https://www.presidentsoffice.gov.lk/index.php/2020/04/04/2961-prison-inmates-released-on-bail/?lang=en Published 4th April 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020
33 බකොබරෝනා වශ මාධ්ය ආඛ්යානය [„සිදුලන්බන් තමන්බේ අභිමතය ඳරිදි වීරයා ශා දු඿්ටයා නිර්මාණය කිරීබම් සුපුරුදු ආඛ්යානයයි.‟]
Dhanushka Silva. Vikalpa. https://www.vikalpa.org/?p=37511 published 7th May 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020
34 බේරුල඼ ඳල්ලියට මිනිසුන් රැව්කබෂේනි඼ධාරින්මලු. යාඥා කතා බ ොරු. MediaLK.com https://medialk.com/Home/ReadPost/1928?Language=Sinhala Published 3rd April 2020.
35 Video circulation of Muslim gathering in Beruwala during COVID19 quarantine curfew fake (Video). NewsHub.
https://newshub.lk/en/2020/03/30/video-circulation-of-muslim-gathering-in-beruwala-during-covid19-quarantine-curfewfake-video/ published 30th March 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020
36 Corona and curtailed Human Rights. Ruki Fernando. http://www.commonviews.org/corona-and-curtailed-human-rights/
published 2nd May 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020
37 HRCSL investigate drunk police officers‟ brutal assault on Tamil youngsters https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/hrcslinvestigate-drunk-police-officers%E2%80%99-brutal-assault-tamil-youngsters published on 23rd April 2020.
38 The lives of people in the North who have been tortured by the governments military rule. Right to Life human rights centre. http://www.right2lifelanka.org/newsview.php?id=2803 published 12th May 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020
39 ibid.
40 Sri Lankan police leave three Tamil women hospitalised in brutal assault Tamil Guardian. https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/sri-lankan-police-leave-three-tamil-women-hospitalised-brutal-assault published 1st May 2020. Last accessed 28th May 2020

 

The detailed report includes chapters detailing

  1. Executive Summary
  2. methodology,
  3. context,
  4. Major incidents and trends related to dissent
    1. Repression of journalists
    2. Repression of freedom of assembly
    3. Arrests related to facebook posts, threats and risks online
    4. Legal and policy changes, problematic appointments, and undue influences on the judiciary
    5. Repression against government officers
    6. Other incidents
  5. Updates on previous legal cases related to dissent
  6. Statistical Analysis
  7. List of incidents related to dissent from 1st February 2020 –30thApril 2020
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