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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Joint UN communication (Sri Lanka): Hejaaz Hizbullah held in prolonged pre-trial detention for anti-hate speech work

BACKGROUND

On 8 July 2021, I wrote a letter with seven other UN Human Rights experts regarding the continued detention of human rights defender Mr. Hejaaz Omer Hizbullah, who has been charged with terrorism- related offences.

Mr. Hejaaz Omer Hizbullah is a prominent lawyer and a human rights defender, and member of the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka. Mr. Hizbullah is a strong advocate against hate speech in the country and has been involved in a number of high- profile cases, including with regard to violence and discrimination towards the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Hizbullah was the subject of one previous communication sent on 22 June 2020 (LKA 4/2020). In this communication we expressed concern over the arrest and detention of Mr. Hizbullah on 14 April 2020 and his lack of access to legal counsel. Mr. Hizbullah was initially under investigation for his alleged involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019, before the focus of the investigation was changed to his involvement with the Save the Pearls charity. The Government did not respond.

ALLEGATIONS

On 19 August 2020, the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) filed a report regarding an ongoing investigation into Mr. Hizbullah’s activities. The report allegedly claimed that Mr. Hizbullah had acted as counsel on several occasions for individuals involved in terrorism and unlawful activity, and that he had been collecting data and information on various attacks on Muslims.

As previously communicated, the evidence allegedly incriminating Mr. Hizbullah was related to phone calls he made with a suicide bomber at the Easter Sunday attacks. It has been alleged that Mr. Hizbullah made 14 phone calls to this individual over a period of five years, being his legal representative in civil property dispute cases.

Mr. Hizbullah later faced accusations that he radicalised children at the charity, Save the Pearls. He is the only member of the organisation that has been arrested. Since his arrest, leading figures of the organisation have sworn affidavits attesting to the falsity of rumours that children were radicalised. And the former Head of Counter- Terrorism at the Sate Intelligence Services of Sri Lanka, who is also a member of the organisation, has sworn an affidavit attesting to the fact that the activities of the charity were entirely legitimate, in housing and educating vulnerable children.

During the first nine months of his arrest and detention that took place on 14 April 2020, Mr. Hizbullah was permitted just four visits from his legal counsel, all of which were supervised by the authorities. His lawyers filed a petition to the Court of Appeal, which was granted on 15 December 2020, allowing him to speak with his lawyers confidentially for the first time since his arrest. His access to lawyers is still reportedly limited and he can speak only occasionally to his family over the phone.

On 8 January 2021, at 2pm, Mr. Hizbullah was due to make his first appearance before the Colombo Fort Magistrate. At 1:55pm, Mr. Hizbullah’s lawyer was informed that Mr. Hizbullah had contracted COVID-19 and would be taken to a quarantine centre. No further information was given about Mr.
Hizbullah’s condition or recovery. On 18 January 2021, Mr. Hizbullah was returned to his original cell.

On 18 February 2021, Mr. Hejaaz Hizbullah was produced before the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court. The court decided the extension of his custody until 3 March 2021.

On 3 March 2021, Mr. Hizbullah was charged with “inciting communal disharmony” under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act section 2(1)(h). A few days later, on 9 March 2021, the Government issued a regulation expanding the application of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. According to
the text of the regulation – The Prevention of Terrorism (De- radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No. 1 of 2021 – persons suspected of acts of, or incitement to violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony, would be held in custody and undergo a process of “ rehabilitation ” at an undefined “ Centre ” for a maximum period of two years, instead of having the relevant authorities instituting the established judicial procedures against them.

Mr. Hizbullah was scheduled to appear in court on 18 March 2021, however this was later postponed. He was due to appear in court again on 11 June, but he was reportedly not produced in court on the day, which authorities claimed was due to the new wave of COVID-19 infections in the country.

Allegations have emerged that some children who received Save the Pearls scholarships have been taken to the CID premises, threatened, and forced to sign false statements. There are reports that members of the clergy have also reportedly been pressured to falsely testify against Mr. Hizbullah.

Mr. Hizbullah is being held in a cell measuring six feet in length, three feet in width and seven feet high. He reportedly has no bed and is only permitted to leave his cell to use the bathroom. There is reportedly no ventilation in the cell.

CONCERNS

In the communication we expressed our deep concern at Mr. Hizbullah’s detention which we believe may have been used as a means to prevent him from further engaging with ongoing human rights cases in relation to rising hate speech, violence and discrimination against the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka. What is of particular concern is the changing focus of the investigation and allegations that minors and clerics have been pressured to give false statements.

We believe that his previous human rights work and practice of his legal profession may have been wrongly conflated with terrorism. We reiterated our recommendation to review the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1978 to bring it in line with international human rights standards.

We expressed further concern at the reported irregularities in due process, partly facilitated by the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allowed Mr. Hizbullah to be held without charge for almost a year with severely restricted access to lawyers.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

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