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Briefing Note: Report Card of the Suppression of Dissent in Sri Lanka. (January – March 2023)

Introduction

First quarter of the 2023 was marked by continuous mass protests against the high cost of living and suppression of democratic rights in Sri Lanka.

Read the full report as a PDF:SLB_28_ June 2023 Suppression of Dissent in Sri Lanka PDF

Instead of allowing people to express their dissent Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) headed by Ranil Wickremasinghe used intimidations, threats, assaults and outright ban of peaceful protests of the people.

The quarter also saw violation of people’s fundamental right to franchise, on various pretexts. Local government elections which was due in early 2022 has now being postponed indefinitely.

During the period covered by this Briefing Note GoSL passed the ‘The Bureau of Rehabilitation Act’ and gazetted ‘The Anti- Terrorism Bill’ and ‘Anti-Corruption Bill’ among others.

 Bureau of Rehabilitation Act

The parliament passed the amended ‘Bureau of Rehabilitation Act’, with 23 votes in favour and 6 votes against on 18th January. The original version of the bill[i] was presented to parliament on September 23 but challenged by petitions filed by civil society activists and opposition MPs in the Supreme Court. The court ruled the bill to be “unconstitutional in its entirety,” an unprecedented finding in the judicial body’s recent history. The court’s main concern was with provisions allowing the government to send “ex-combatants,” “violent and extremist groups,” and “any other groups of persons” to the military-run rehabilitation centres. [ii]

This is a clear indication that initial intention of the GoSL was to use the Bureau of Rehabilitation Act’ as a tool of suppression.

In the amended act a phrase “other persons identified by law” was introduced which is vague and unidentified category. No clear answer was given in the parliament to a question about whether “identified by law” meant a “judicial determination” or not. This leaves wide open the possibility of subsequent amendments to broaden the scope and application of this repressive law.[iii]

Harm Reduction International, the International Drug Policy Consortium, and Amnesty International urge Members of Parliament in Sri Lanka to take a strong stance against the Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill, which the government is scheduled to present again with amendments in Parliament this Wednesday 18th January.

Most troubling is the fact the proposed law would facilitate acts of torture and other ill-treatment treatment in rehabilitation centres by permitting the use of force beyond what is legitimate under international standards and by formally allowing military involvement in running of such centres.

In a country where even ICCPR act has become a suppressive tool in the hands of the state of for detaining political opponents and dissenters the phrase that “any other person as may be identified by law as a person who requires rehabilitation” could be another tool of suppressing dissent.

 The Draft ‘Anti-terrorism Act’ 

The Draft ‘Anti-terrorism Act’[iv] (ATA) is the most dangerous piece of legislation any Sri Lankan government has proposed.  This draft ATA has come under strong criticism form political and civil society withing the country.

Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)2023 to United Nations Hight Commissioner for Human Rights, Sri Lankan civil and political society stated that “the ATA, which is intended to replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), is an even more serious threat to democracy in Sri Lanka. We are demanding that the Government withdraw this atrocious proposed law with immediate effect and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act.[v]” The appeal urges him to use his good officers to stop enacting the bill in current format.

Protest against proposed Anti-Terrorism Act  was widesspered

In a joint communication to Sri Lanka president on 27 April 2023   Special Procedures experts identified that key amendments to counter-terrorism legislation in Sri Lanka require addressing these key benchmarks, including to:

  1. Employ definitions of terrorism that comply with international norms.
  2. Ensure precision and legal certainty, especially when this legislation may impact the rights of freedom of expression, opinion, association, and religion or belief.
  3. Institute provisions and measures to prevent and prohibit arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
  4. Ensure the enforcement of measures to prevent torture and enforced disappearance and adhere to their non-derogable prohibition, which has attained the status of jus cogens; and
  5. Enable overarching due process and fair trial guarantees, including judicial oversight and access to legal counsel.[vi]

Although at the beginning Sri Lanka Justice Minister justified the draft Act and stated that it will not be changed[vii]  under pressure Sri Lanka government has postpone the date for tabling the Act in the parliament.

The draft ‘Anti-corruption Bill’

The draft ‘Anti-corruption Bill’[viii] of 31 March too has come under criticism form civil society actors.  The draft law has been introduced as a continuation of the IMF bail out programme will override the Right to Information act and deter anti-corruption whistle blowers.

The bill seeks to override all other written law, which includes the Right to Information Act. The proposed law contains sections that require officials of the CIABOC to sign oaths of secrecy and therefore, the disclosure of information by CIABOC under the new law will only be possible with special permission from the Commission. As such, the proposed law promotes a culture of secrecy by making access to information from the CIABOC more difficult and thereby negates the objective to “enhance transparency in governance,” as stated in the Bill.

TISL also notes that Section 119 of the Bill, which refers to false allegations, appears to send a negative signal to citizens willing to come forward as informants and whistle blowers to report corruption. While the similar provision in the current law has not been misused targeting corruption fighters, this particular provision could become seriously counterproductive and dangerous in a context of a politically influenced public service, or in an adverse environment of stifled civic space, democratic deficits, weak governance or kleptocracy. As an organization that advocates for citizens’ freedom of expression, TISL believes that the proposed Bill should be more robust and progressive enough to encourage whistle-blowers and citizens to come forward and report corruption without fear of repercussions, while discouraging the corrupt.

From day one Ranil Wickremesinghe has been relying on military power to rule the nation

Calling out the Armed forces for the maintenance of public order

During the period covered by this report, a President issued gazette notifications calling out the Armed forces for the maintenance of public order under the powers granted in the public Security Ordinance (Chapter 40). The gazette notification provides the powers for the armed forces to intervene in civilian affairs. The Sri Lanka government has been issuing similar monthly gazettes for several years now, indicating the continuing trend of militarization and shrinking civil space.

 

[i] http://documents.gov.lk/files/bill/2022/9/270-2022_E.pdf

[ii] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2023/01/21/qphz-j21.html

[iii] I bid.

[iv] http://documents.gov.lk/files/bill/2023/3/304-2023_E.pdf

[v] https://srilankabrief.org/450-sri-lankans-of-all-wakes-of-life-writes-callon-rights-commissioner-to-respond-re-dreadful-ata/

[vi] https://srilankabrief.org/in-a-joint-letter-un-special-rapporteurs-take-proposed-sri-lankas-anti-terrorism-act-to-the-task/

[vii] https://www.news19.lk/the-new-anti-terrorism-act-will-not-be-changed-minister-wijedasa/

[viii] http://documents.gov.lk/files/bill/2023/4/311-2023_E.pdf

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