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Monday, April 15, 2024

Sri Lanka : Authorities continue to stifle protests, harass activists and push repressive laws – CIVICUS

Image: IUSFSL leader Madushan Chandrajith was arrested during a peaceful protest on 06 March 2024 in Colombo.

The CIVICUS Monitor in December 2023 downgraded Sri Lanka’s civic space rating to ‘repressed,’ with authorities clamping down on protesters, stifling journalists and targeting activists amid mounting public frustration with poor governance and a lack of accountability.

In January 2024, Human Rights Watch said that President Ranil Wickremesinghe had sought to suppress dissent over the year, continued to target civil society groups and activists, including human rights defenders and victims of past human rights violations, their families and activists campaigning for truth and accountability, who were subjected to surveillance and intimidation by the police and intelligence agencies.

In the same month, UN experts expressed alarm at the heavy security-driven approach of Sri Lanka’s drug response. They called on authorities to immediately suspend and review so-called Operation ‘Yukthiya’ which saw arbitrary arrests of thousands of drug offenders from marginalised socio-economic groups and the detention of hundreds in compulsory military-run rehabilitation centres. Torture and ill-treatment were also reported during the security operation.

In February 2024, the president formally appointed Deshabandu Tennakoon as the Inspector General of Police in Sri Lanka, an official who the Supreme Court found had been culpable of committing torture. In December 2023, the Supreme Court delivered a historic judgment that found that he had personally visited an individual in remand in a “torture chamber” for a “brief session of torture”.

The economic crisis that led to mass protests in 2022 continues to compound. Sri Lanka has been added to the list of 22 heavily indebted countries facing controversial surcharges imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These additional payments are aimed at countries whose outstanding credit to the IMF’s main account exceeds 187.5 percent of their quota.

In recent months, protests by the opposition and students have been disrupted with excessive force while a report exposed the use of expired tear gas canisters by the police in protests. A human rights defender, Jeewaratnam Suresh, was threatened while nine Tamils were detained under an anti-terror law for commemorating the war dead. The legal persecution of lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah and a youth activist continues. Tamil journalists have faced harassment, there are concerns about a revised anti-terrorism bill, a new bill to establish a truth commission and the passage of the Online Safety Act.

PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

POLICE USED EXPIRED TEAR GAS TO CRACK DOWN ON PROTESTS

In November 2023, an independent investigative report found that many people involved in the 2002 protest movement, which led to President Rajapaksa’s resignation, suffered from serious respiratory problems due the tear gas used by the police that expired 20 years ago and more.

The findings are contained in “Tear gas: Tears of twenty million”, a report released by the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo. More than 6,000 hand grenades and cartridges were fired at the height of the protest movement in 2022, three times as many as in the previous decade.

The investigative team led by freelance journalist Tharindu Jayawardena, with the support of the Right to Information Commission, revealed disturbing facts about the tear gas used by police. Between 31st March and 20th July 2022, police used grenades and tear gas canisters worth more than 26 million rupees (or around USD 82,000) on 84 different occasions.

Law enforcement used tear gas “many a time, blatantly violating and disregarding safety instructions pertaining to the use of tear gas.” They “even used tear gas past its expiry date and tried to cover up what they did when information was requested.” In some cases, the expiry date went back 10, even 20 years.

Jayawardena explained that victims of the repression reported serious physical ailments from inhaling the tear gas used to disperse crowds. Some have even died from respiratory problems associated with the tear gas.

POLICE DISPERSE OPPOSITION PROTEST AGAINST DIRE ECONOMIC CONDITIONS

Sri Lanka’s police used tear gas and water cannons on 30th January 2024 to disperse an opposition protest. Protesters from the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) alliance gathered in the capital, Colombo, and accused President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration of overburdening citizens by increasing taxes, as well as hiking prices for electricity and fuel, causing a sharp spike in living costs. An estimated 10,000 protesters joined the demonstration.

At least two courts prohibited protesters from marching along roads leading to vital buildings, including the president’s office, finance ministry and the central bank. Instead, two areas in the capital – the P. D. Sirisena Grounds and Hyde Park – were assigned for the protest. Police used tear gas and water cannon twice to disperse the protesters as they tried to move out of the designated areas.

At the same time, the Fort Magistrate’s Court also issued an order against Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and others, preventing them from entering into several roads in the Fort and Kompanna Veediya police jurisdictions.

Another protest by the SJB on 20 February 2024 against the postponement of local government elections was also disrupted with tear gas and water cannons.

SECURITY FORCES FIRE TEAR GAS AND WATER CANNON AT PROTEST BY TAMIL STUDENTS

On 4th February 2024, security forces shot tear gas and fired water cannon at Tamil students as they marched on Sri Lanka’s 76th Independence Day, with Tamils across the North-East launching demonstrations to mark it as a ‘Black Day’.

The protest march was staged over several concerns, including the failure to resolve not only those issues faced by the people of the North and East, but also the adoption of laws that pose a threat to freedom of expression and the media.

According to the Tamil Guardian, as students from Jaffna University marched towards Kilinochchi they were met by a heavy security presence complete with barricades and riot police armed with shields, batons, tear gas and water cannon. The police were seen dragging the students by their arms, pushing them around and forcing them onto the ground. At least five students were arrested by the Sri Lankan security forces.

POLICE DISPERSE IUSF STUDENT PROTEST

On 17th February 2024, the police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse a protest organised by the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) near the University of Sri Jayawardenapura. The demonstration was aimed at highlighting and seeking solutions to the challenges confronting the state university system.

As the protest march approached Wijerama from the front of the university, law enforcement deployed tear gas and water cannon on five separate occasions.

Prior to this, a court order had been issued against seven IUSF members including its convenor Madushan Chandrajith and Ven. Galwewa Siridhamma Thero. The protesters were ordered by the court not to enter parts of Colombo and not to inconvenience the public.

ACTIVIST ARRESTED DURING A PROTEST ON DISAPPEARANCES

Asanka Abeyrathna, a human rights activist and a member of the Movement For People’s Council, was arrested by the Matara Police on 25th February 2024 during a protest and awareness campaign calling for justice for enforced disappearances, organised by the “Families of the Disappeared.” He was arrested with two others and all were later released.

TEAR GAS FIRED AT STUDENT PROTEST AT THE SRI JAYEWARDENEPURA UNIVERSITY

On 27th February, police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a group of protesting students near the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. The protest march was organised by the students’ union of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Sri Jayewardenepura University. It was launched to demand solutions to several concerns including issues related to hostels, cafeterias and delays in ‘Mahapola’ scholarship payments.

ASSOCIATION

HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER THREATENED

On 16th December 2023, human rights defender Jeewaratnam Suresh received a threatening phone call from an unidentified number warning him to stop his advocacy or face dire consequences.

According to Frontline Defenders, the threats against Jeewaratnam are linked to a fundamental rights petition filed by the human rights defender in March 2023 seeking improvements in housing rights for the persecuted Malayaga Tamil community. In December 2023, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka found in favour of the petition, and he has continued his advocacy for the implementation of the court’s decision.

Jeewaratnam Suresh is a strong advocate for the rights of the Malayaga Tamil community, also referred to as ‘upcountry Tamils’, a historically persecuted minority community in Sri Lanka. The human rights defender has campaigned for equal rights for Malayaga Tamils, including land and housing rights.

TAMILS DETAINED FOR COMMEMORATING WAR DEAD

In November 2024, the authorities detained nine ethnic Tamils under the country’s abusive counterterrorism law for commemorating those who died in the 1983-2009 civil war.

According to Human Rights Watch, the authorities arrested them between 25th and 27th November in Batticaloa, in the Eastern Province, and confiscated decorations and loudspeakers from a commemoration vigil.

Since the civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in 2009 with the separatist armed group’s complete defeat, successive administrations have prevented Tamils from publicly memorialising the war dead.

Meenakshi Ganguly, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The Sri Lankan authorities’ use of a counterterrorism law against Tamils commemorating those who died in the civil war is cruelly abusive and further marginalises a community that already faces persistent government discrimination.”

The arrests were also criticised by the EU, US and the UN. The UN said: “We are concerned by recent arrests in Northern & Eastern Provinces under Prevention of Terrorism Act, which runs counter to Govt’s promised moratorium on use of the law that violates human rights obligations & should be repealed.”

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly assured international allies, trading partners and the United Nations that it would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has long been used to arbitrarily detain and torture minority community members and civil society activists.

The trial of the human rights lawyer has continued in 2024. Hizbullah is a lawyer and human rights defender known for advocating for the members of the minority Muslim Community in Sri Lanka. He has advised and represented victims of discrimination, particularly in regard to hate speech and hate-based violence in Sri Lanka since 2012.

As previously documented, Hejaaz Hizbullah was arrested on 14th April 2020. During the first eight months of his pre-trial detention, he was denied access to a lawyer. It was almost a year after his arrest, on 3rd March 2021, that Hizbullah was officially charged with “inciting communal disharmony” under the PTA, for “advocating national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights Act of 2007 and for conspiracy and abetment charges under the Penal Code. These charges all relate to a speech that Hizbullah was alleged to have made at the Al-Zuhriya Arabic College in August 2018. Hizbullah denies having made the speech and evidence is available as to his whereabouts at the time of the alleged speech. On 9th February 2022, after 22 months, he was released on bail by the Puttalam High Court.

ONGOING JUDICIAL HARASSMENT OF YOUTH ACTIVIST

Youth activist Nathasha Edirisooriya continues to face judicial harassment. At the last hearing held on 15th November 2023 at the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court, the CID informed the court that the case had been referred to the Attorney General’s Department.

As previously documented, youth activist and stand-up comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya was arrested in May 2023, and accused of hate speech and insulting Buddhism for two jokes made during a comedy performance published on YouTube three days earlier. An edited clip of the performance was circulated, resulting in severe social media backlash. She retracted the video the same day and publicly apologised.

She is being investigated under Section 3 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No. 56 of 2007, Section 291A (deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person) and 291B (deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons) of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka and the Computer Crimes Act.

ACQUITTAL ENDS JUDICIAL HARASSMENT OF POET

Poet and teacher Ahnaf Jazeem, who was detained for more than one and a half years under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), was acquitted in December 2023.

As previously documented, Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested on 16th May 2020 under Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in connection with a Tamil-language poetry anthology called Navarasam, which he wrote and published in July 2017, as well as other unsubstantiated claims of exposing his students to “extremist” content with the intention of turning them into followers of “extremist ideology”. Jazeem had also allegedly been subjected to torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment in detention. He was released on bail on 15th December 2021 with harsh conditions.

Freedom Now’s Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat said: “We welcome the court’s long overdue decision. However, it cannot be ignored that Ahnaf spent 19 months in pre-trial detention in inhumane conditions. Sri Lanka must act swiftly to afford Jazeem rehabilitation and reparations for the violation of his fundamental rights.”

CONCERNS ABOUT REVISED ANTI-TERRORISM BILL

On 19th January 2024, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that his office was seriously concerned by the revised Anti-Terrorism Bill currently being considered in the Sri Lankan Parliament to replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government has used the PTA to target and harass minorities, activists, journalists and critical voices.

The proposed law is substantially identical to previous drafts that were withdrawn after widespread criticism. It defines acts of “terrorism” overly broadly, restricts the scope of judicial guarantees, especially with respect to challenging the lawfulness of detention orders, and curtails the ability of the Human Rights Commission to visit places of detention, among other problematic provisions.

If passed in its current form, the Bill would grant excessive powers to the executive to restrict rights, with limited or no safeguards against abuse of such powers. It would weaken the legal grounds needed for security forces to arrest individuals without warrants. It would also still permit lengthy pre-trial detention.

The High Commissioner urged the authorities to meaningfully engage with civil society and other stakeholders to substantively revise the Bill and bring it fully into line with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations.

On 20th February, the Supreme Court (SC) determined that some sections of the Anti-Terrorism Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and, therefore, the Bill had to be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and be approved by the people through a referendum. However, the SC had stated that it could be passed by a simple majority if the recommended amendments are accommodated.

NEW BILL TO ESTABLISH TRUTH COMMISSION LACKS CREDIBILITY

A human rights group has said that the government’s proposed Bill to establish a Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation is unlikely to advance accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims and survivors of the 26-year-long armed conflict that ended in 2009 and involved widespread atrocities.

According to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the Bill was gazetted on 1st January 2024 to establish the Commission, amidst a climate of impunity for past human rights violations and abuses and intimidation of victim communities in the North and East of the country.

The ICJ said that the Bill suffers from a lack of transparency regarding the consultation process and non-acceptance by victim communities. If adopted, it would empower the Attorney-General to prosecute cases where the Commission makes a finding of responsibility for an offence. The ICJ is concerned that in the past the Attorney-General’s office has assumed potentially conflicting dual roles of legal advisor for the State and prosecutor of offences allegedly committed by State officials.

The Bill provides that appointments to the Commission will be made by the President upon the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The ICJ noted that the governing party holds a majority in the Constitutional Council and that a majority of members are parliamentarians, with only three members appointed from outside. They raised concerns that these arrangements are conducive to creating a Commission that lacks independence and may be subjected to political pressures and considerations in carrying out its work.

The Bill would further authorise the proposed Commission to seek the assistance of the police to conduct investigations and liaise with the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses, which in turn depends on the police to provide support for the protection of victims and witnesses. However, a number of police officials have allegedly been responsible for recent cases of torture and ill-treatment and extra judicial killings. The government’s failure to initiate thorough and impartial investigations into these cases and to bring perpetrators to justice has deepened the public’s mistrust of the police and prosecuting agencies.

The Bill also lacks provisions that are gender responsive and makes the establishment of mechanisms and procedures to address women’s concerns discretionary.

EXPRESSION

ONLINE SAFETY LAW PASSED THAT WILL HAVE CHILLING EFFECT ON EXPRESSION

Sri Lanka’s lawmakers passed a bill on 24th January 2024 regulating internet use among its citizens, in a move that has sparked fears among rights groups of a free speech crackdown.

The Online Safety Act provides broad powers to an ‘Online Safety Commission’ including deciding on what constitutes “prohibited statements” and making recommendations to internet service providers to remove such content and disabling access for those deemed offenders.

The Act also includes a prohibition on ‘communicating a false statement’ which poses a threat to national security, public health or public order or promotes feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of people or voluntarily causes disturbance to any assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship or religious ceremonies.

Concerns around the bill were raised in a communication from UN experts on 20th November 2023.

In a letter dated 19th January 2024, over 50 organisations including CIVICUS had urged Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Public Security to withdraw the proposed Online Safety Bill and to conduct meaningful consultations with all stakeholders, including local groups. The groups express alarm that the Bill had not addressed the severe implications on the human rights and democratic values enshrined in the Constitution and international legal instruments to which people in Sri Lanka are entitled.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) raised questions about the rushed manner of its passage since the Supreme Court had ruled that the bill was not inconsistent with the Constitution and required 31 amendments for the passage of the Bill with a simple majority in Parliament.

On 13th February 2024, the cabinet of ministers approved a proposal to formulate a draft amendment bill to incorporate revisions to the Online Safety Act.

TWO JOURNALISTS QUESTIONED AND HARASSED FOLLOWING PROTEST COVERAGE

Two freelance Tamil journalists, Punniyamoorthy Sasikaran and Valasingham Krishnakumar, were investigated in retaliation for their reporting in October 2023.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on 28th October 2023, a police officer separately interrogated Sasikaran and Krishnakumar at their homes in eastern Batticaloa district following their reporting on an 8th October protest.

The protest, which coincided with President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to Batticaloa, included hundreds of farmers and activists demonstrating against alleged state-backed land grabbing by Sinhalese settlers. Sasikaran covered the events for the privately owned UK-based broadcaster IBC Tamil and digital news outlet BATTIMIRROR, while Krishnakumar reported for the privately owned websites Maddu News and Samugam Media.

The officer questioned Sasikaran and Krishnakumar about their personal and journalistic backgrounds and activities, and what occurred at the protest. The officer ordered them to sign written statements of their testimony and notified them that they had been named in a police criminal investigation in relation to the protest. Neither Sasikaran nor Krishnakumar had received a written summons or a copy of a police report detailing the precise allegations against them.

CPJ reported that on 4th November 2024, Sasikaran and Krishnakumar received a court order directing them to hand over their unedited video footage of a Buddhist monk threatening to “cut Tamils into pieces,” and to provide a statement to police in relation to a separate investigation into the monk. On 7th November, Sasikaran and Krishnakumar appeared at the Batticaloa Divisional Crime Detective Bureau and provided the footage to police, who questioned them for one hour each about their coverage and which media outlets they shared their videos with.

ARMY THREATENS THREE TAMIL JOURNALISTS REPORTING IN JAFFNA

Three Tamil journalists, Prabhakaran Dilaksan, Sundarampillai Rajeskaran, and Chinnaiya Yogeswaran, were threatened in February 2024 by the Sri Lankan army as they attempted to cover a gathering of civilians visiting a temple within the ‘High-Security Zone’ in Palali Vasavilan, Jaffna.

The temple was recently opened for public worship. As the journalists arrived to report on the event, they faced intimidation from the military, with their phones being confiscated and destroyed.

The high security zones have been maintained by the Sri Lankan military despite the armed conflict ending sixteen years ago. Anyone intending to visit any of these temples must provide their names, addresses, identification card numbers and telephone numbers to the management of the temple, which will share it with the district and divisional secretariat before they can even be allowed to visit.

CIVICUS

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