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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Amnesty International writes to Pompeo: Raise Human Rights issues with Rajapaksas

Dear Secretary Pompeo:
I am writing on behalf of Amnesty International and our 10 million members, supporters
and activists worldwide. Founded in 1961, Amnesty International is a global human rights
movement that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for contributing to “securing
the ground for freedom, for justice, and thereby also for peace in the world.”

Amnesty’s researchers and campaigners work out of the International Secretariat, which
over the last decade, has established regional offices around the world, bringing our staff
closer to the ground. The South Asia Regional Office was established in 2017 in Colombo,
Sri Lanka to lead Amnesty’s human rights work on Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the
Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Amnesty’s South Asia Regional Office has carefully documented the deterioration of the
human rights situation in Sri Lanka under the current government. Impunity persists for
new and past human rights violations. We ask that during your upcoming visit to Sri Lanka,
you call on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to
reverse some of their recent actions which undermine human rights and take steps to
address impunity.

Under the current government, the space for dissent and criticism is rapidly shrinking, as
demonstrated by a series of cases, including the harassment of New York Times journalist
Dharisha Bastians, the arbitrary detention of blogger Ramzy Razeek and lawyer Hejaaz
Hizbullah, and the ongoing criminal investigation against writer Shakthika Sathkumara.
Although Ramzy Razeek was released on bail on September 17, the criminal investigation
against him has not been closed. Hejaaz Hizbullah remains in detention without charge or
any credible evidence of wrongdoing. During his detention for more than six months under
Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), he has only been granted
restricted access to legal counsel or to his family. A third detention order to hold him for
another 90 days was issued this month. He must be released without further delay.

Writer Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested on April 1, 2019 after publishing a short
fictional story on his Facebook page, in which he hinted at child sexual abuse taking place
in a Buddhist monastery. While he was released on bail on August 5, 2019, the criminal
investigation against him has not been closed. If charged and convicted, he could face up
to 10 years in prison. The hearings have been repeatedly delayed, with the next hearing
not scheduled until early 2021. Amnesty International declared him a Prisoner of
Conscience, as he was imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of
expression and called his immediate and unconditional release.

In the cases of both Ramzy Razeek and Shakthika Sathkumara, the police reports cite the
domestic International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act as one of the
legal bases for the arrest. The ICCPR Act was adopted to implement Sri Lanka’s
international human rights obligations as a state party to the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights. Using the ICCPR Act in this manner is a misuse of a law that is
supposed to protect, not violate, human rights.

More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sri Lankan government appears to have
targeted the Muslim community. On March 30, 2020, the first Muslim death due to
COVID-19 occurred in Negombo, and despite vehement protests from the victim’s family,
health officials forcibly cremated his body. This was in spite of health guidelines which,
at the time, stated that bodies of COVID-19 victims could be buried or cremated. On the
next day following the first Muslim death, these guidelines were revised to order mandatory
cremation of any person who has died or is suspected of having died from COVID-19. For
members of the Muslim community, burials are considered a required part of the final
rites. Amnesty International called on Sri Lanka to respect the rights of religious minorities
to carry out the final rites of their relatives in accordance with their religious beliefs unless
they can show that restrictions are needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The World
Health Organization guidelines allow for either burials or cremations for the safe
management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19.

Eleven years after the end of the conflict between government forces and the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“LTTE”), Sri Lanka has not yet addressed allegations of grave
international humanitarian law and human rights violations documented by several U.N.
investigations, and has not held alleged perpetrators of international crimes accountable.
Investigations on emblematic cases have stalled, remained inconclusive or raised serious
issues of potential interference with court processes. For example, in the well-known 2006
murder case of five students in the town of Trincomalee, 13 members of the security forces
accused of the murder were acquitted by the court in July 2019 reportedly due to “a lack
of evidence.” Recently, Amnesty International also raised concerns that a Presidential
Commission of Inquiry on political victimization may interfere with ongoing court
proceedings in the case concerning the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda. The
cartoonist disappeared on January 24, 2010, shortly before a presidential election in
which then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was seeking a second term. In another
emblematic case in which a conviction had been obtained, President Gotabaya Rajapaska
pardoned Sergeant Sunil Rathnayaka on March 26 of this year, thus undermining accountability, and the victims’ right to justice. Sergeant Rathnayaka had been convicted
in the Mirusuvil massacre case concerning the killing of eight Tamil civilians in 2000.
Among the victims were three children aged 15, 13, and a five-year-old whose body
sustained signs of torture.

The root causes of the 26-year internal armed conflict between the government forces and
the LTTE armed group are yet to be addressed including through meaningful devolution of
power to the provinces. Relatives of those who went missing during the armed conflict or
were victims of enforced disappearances are still awaiting answers. Sri Lanka has the
second largest number of enforced disappearance cases in the world registered with the
UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Sri Lanka has not yet
repealed the draconian PTA which facilitates arbitrary detention and removes safeguards
against torture of detainees, or returned all of the military-occupied land back to their
civilian owners. Since the end of the armed conflict with the LTTE in 2009, ethnic tensions
with the Tamil minority have persisted. Since 2013, Sri Lanka has also seen a marked rise
in incidents of harassment, threats and attacks on the minority Muslim community. The
rise in power of Buddhist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (“BBS”) coincided with
growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. This sentiment has led to violent attacks
against the Muslim community, as seen in the towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala in 2014,
Ampara and Digana in 2018, and, most recently, in Chilaw and several towns in the North
Western and Western Provinces in 2019. The attacks targeted Muslim homes, places of
religious worship, businesses and property. The violence in Aluthgama and Beruwala left
at least four people dead, and several injured, while the violence in 2019 resulted in the
death of at least one person in the Puttalam district. Despite investigations, the
perpetrators of these violent attacks have not been held accountable.
The harassment and arrest of human rights defenders, the failure to hold human rights
violators accountable, and the continued marginalization of minority communities under
the present government threatens the prospects for a peaceful, prosperous future for the

We ask that you raise the above concerns with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime
Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and urge that the following actions be taken immediately:

• Prosecute effectively and bring to justice those responsible for the execution of the “Trinco Five” students and the enforced disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda as well as other alleged perpetrators of grave violations amounting to domestic or international crimes.
• Revoke the pardon granted to Sergeant Sunil Rathnayaka.
• End the persecution of Dharisha Bastians and other human rights defenders,
journalists and lawyers.
• In the absence of any evidence against him, release Hejaaz Hizbullah, who has
been detained for more than six months without any charges, and close
investigations against Ramzy Razeek and Shakthika Sathkumara, who were
imprisoned solely for expressing their peaceful opinions.
• Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and stop the misuse of laws, including the ICCPR Act, to threaten, harass and prosecute dissenters, journalists and activists
for peacefully expressing their opinions.
• Take measures to end discrimination and violence against the country’s Muslim
minority and bring to justice those responsible for attacks against members of the
Muslim community.
• Ensure that religious rites and practices are respected as far as possible and in line with international guidelines, and that any changes to guidelines involve prior consultation with the affected community.
• Return all military-occupied land in the former war zone to its civilian owners or
promptly pay appropriate compensation.

These are a few steps that the Sri Lankan government can take to bring its actions back
in line with its international human rights commitments. Your assistance in bringing them
about would further the cause of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
Joanne Lin
National Director
Advocacy and Government Affairs
Amnesty International USA
[email protected]
Omar Waraich
Head of Office
South Asia Regional Office
Amnesty International
International Secretariat


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