Image: Hejaaz Hizbullah.
By Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Researcher at Amnesty International.
As much of the island was celebrating the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, senior lawyer and minority and civic rights activist Hejaaz Hizbullah got an unusual call from the Ministry of Health. They said they were worried he may have contracted COVID-19 and advised him to remain at home. Hejaaz had been in touch with the authorities about the pandemic. A day earlier he and others had written to the Sri Lankan president about his government’s decision to ban Muslims from burying their dead, forcing them to cremate their remains instead – a violation of their right to freedom of religion, as protected by Sri Lanka’s constitution and its international obligations. The World Health Organization’s guidelines for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19 allows for either burial or cremation.
[alert type=”success or warning or info or danger”]The health officials never visited, but he did get a knock on the door from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police. They handcuffed him and placed him under arrest, without explaining why. When Hejaaz’s relatives asked if the police had an arrest warrant, they were warned not to ask any questions.[/alert]
The CID officials then rummaged through his office, casting through his legal files and seizing his phone and laptop. They asked him to dial numbers on his phone and asked if he recognised them. Before leaving with Hejaaz, they took two files from his drawers – both relating to District Court cases on properties owned by Yusuf Mohamed Ibrahim, a client.
Hejaaz’s family believes he is being targeted for his professional work as a lawyer and his peaceful activism for the human rights of Sri Lanka’s embattled Muslim minority.
Hejaaz is currently serving a detention order for 90 days authorized by the Sri Lankan President, even though a detention order can only be made by the Minister of Defence and Sri Lanka has no cabinet Minister for Defence. Under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), one of the main tools used to perpetrate human rights violations in Sri Lanka, any “suspect” can be placed in detention – without charge and without being produced before a judge. The detention order can be renewed for a further 90 days and continue to be renewed for up to 18 months.
The PTA has long been criticized as an abusive law that has been used to crush dissent and forcibly disappear people, along with other violations. The Sri Lankan authorities have acknowledged the inherently abusive character of the PTA but have failed to repeal it as promised. The last government proposed its own legislation to replace the law but failed to amend the draft law in order to secure sufficient support for it before being replaced themselves.
Hejaaz, who has only been able to see his lawyer and family a few times and always in the presence of the authorities, could remain under arbitrary detention until October 2021. While in detention, he will have been subjected to arbitrary deprivation of his liberty and had a myriad of his rights violated, without being able to mount an appeal in the courts. The authorities have plunged him in this predicament on the basis of nothing more than his legitimate associations with Mohamed Ibrahim, the father of the bombers who perpetrated attacks on churches in Sri Lanka over Easter 2019. The authorities have publicly stated that the reason for his arrest were his interactions with the bombers and their family.
Mohamed Ibrahim’s sons, Inshaf and Ilham, were two of the seven bombers who set off six explosions across Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019, striking three churches and three five-star hotels on Easter Sunday and killing more than 250 people. The attacks were later claimed by the armed group calling itself ‘Islamic State’, but the connection with the group remains uncertain.
Hejaaz was connected to Mohamed Ibrahim in two ways. For the past five years, he had served as his lawyer, handling legal cases related to his business. Hejaaz and Mohamed Ibrahim were also part of the “Save the Pearls” organization, a charity that supports the education of underprivileged children, hoping to lure them away from criminal activities and drug abuse. Mohamed Ibrahim served as the organization’s treasurer as part of his wider philanthropic activities, a role he later handed over to his son Ilham, one of the bombers. Ilham was asked to step down from the role in 2016 by the organization’s board, barely a few months after taking over the post. Hejaaz, a member of the board, only attended eight of its 52 meetings in a span of 5 years.
This connection is being used to justify Hejaaz’s detention. The detention order says that Hejaaz is being investigated for allegedly “aiding and abetting” the Easter Sunday bombers and for engaging in activities deemed “detrimental to the religious harmony among communities”. No credible evidence has surfaced to establish any link between Hejaaz and the 21 April 2019 bombings. According to his family, all that the authorities are acting upon is a far-fetched suspicion.
Amnesty International is extremely concerned that the case and evidence against Hejaaz may now be subject to fabrication. A new allegation has emerged that a school supported by the Save the Pearls charity was responsible for preaching “extremism” and even providing the children “weapons training”. These charges lack credibility because nearly three months since his arbitrary arrest, authorities have so far been unable to substantiate their claims with evidence. Children who were interviewed by the police are now initiating legal action on the basis that they were interviewed without the presence of a parent or guardian. Through their parents and guardians, the children have filed Fundamental Rights applications with the Supreme Court seeking an interim order for the police to produce all arrest notes, video recordings and statements that the children were made to sign.
The Colombo Fort Magistrate has stated that CID officers tried to show the children pictures of Hejaaz before asking them to identify him as a hate preacher at their school. The identification parade has since been called off after objections were raised by Hejaaz’s lawyer, however this ordeal demonstrates a frank disregard for due process and the willingness of the authorities to attempt to frame Hejaaz.
Hejaaz has been subject to an unfair character assassination in local media by the authorities in an environment where anti-Muslim sentiment is rife, and prominent Muslim professionals have been unfairly targeted in the recent past. Hejaaz’s background is far from the picture that the authorities have tried to paint. Educated at a leading Anglican boys’ school in Sri Lanka, he is a lawyer at the Supreme Court and worked as a state counsel for the Attorney General’s department. He has a master’s degree in law from University College London, for which he won a Chevening scholarship. His legal expertise includes constitutional, contract, employment, human rights and property law. Beyond his legal work, Hejaaz has been involved in interfaith and reconciliation work, including through many high-profile cases, tackling the rising tide of Islamophobia that is now a key concern for human rights groups when it comes to Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan government must immediately restore Hejaaz’s due process rights, including producing him before a judge, allowing him to challenge the grounds of his detention, ensuring that he has unfettered access to his family and lawyers, and, in the absence of any charges of credible evidence of a crime being committed, release him. And to stop further such travesties of justice taking place, the Sri Lankan authorities should finally repeal the abusive PTA, and provide people who have suffered because of it the justice they are owed in the form of remedies and reparations.