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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Sri Lanka Brief Rights Update: War on Narcotic Drugs in Sri Lanka

  1. Sri Lanka has a history of politically driven anti-alcohol & anti-narcotic drug campaigns.
  1. Former presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have introduced anti-alcohol campaigns or legislation early on in their presidency. The topic of alcohol has long served as a tool with which Sri Lankan politicians can signal a commitment to the defence of Sinhala nationalist positions and to Buddhist values in the face of corrupting western influences. The Temperance Movement was closely tied to the independence movement in Sri Lanka, with Anagarika Dharmapala launching an anti-alcohol campaign against British rulers in 1895. (The Politics of Alcohol in Post-war Sri Lanka and Nepal)
  1. Despite all these campaigns alcohol and narcotic drug consumption increased in the country.
  1. According to the World Health Organization, the per capita alcohol consumption in Sri Lanka was 4.1 litters in 2018. The recorded per capita consumption among males was 18.9 litters in 20182.  Estimated government revenue from alcohol was 217 billion rupees in 2023.
  1. By 2017 anti-narcotic drug campaigns replaced the politically driven anti-alcohol campaigns in Sri Lanka. The exact number of drug users in Sri Lanka is not known, as there is no reliable national survey on drug use prevalence. The drug-related arrests, to some extent, indicate the level and trend of drug use in the country. The total number of persons of drug-related arrests was 67,900 from January to October 2022. Of the drug-related arrests, 52.6% was for heroin and 36.9% for Cannabis. 232 persons for Psychotropic substances, 21 persons for cocaine, and 40 persons for hashish from January to October 2022.
  1. President Maithripala Sirisena received an international award (2018) in recognition of his campaign to eradicate drug use in Sri Lanka. Sirisena, whilst launching a strong anti-drug campaign in the island country last year said his government aimed to end the use of drugs and tobacco by 2020 and law enforcement officials had begun clean-up operations to prevent the use and smuggling in of drugs to Sri Lanka. Sirisena even wanted to bring back the death penalty and signed death warrants for four prisoners serving sentences for drug-related crimes.
  2. Speaking at the 65th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March 2022 Sri Lanka representative said that the Government of Sri Lanka, under the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, giving prime responsibility for drug prevention and control, reaffirms its political will and determination to create “a secure country free from drug abuse”.
  1. On 18 December 2023 under President Ranil Wickremasinghe and Minister Tiran Alas Sri Lanka police commenced an operation called ‘Yukthiya’ (Justice) to eradicate narcotic drugs and the underworld. The main mover of the campaign is the acting Inspector General of the Police Senior Deputy Inspector General Deshabandu Thennakoon. The action follows a directive from the Minister of Public Security, Tiran Alles, who set a deadline of 30 June 2024 for the Police top brass to implement comprehensive changes regarding drugs and underworld activities in the country.
  1. On 27 December 2023, a former editor commented that “Acting IGP Deshabandu Tennakoon thought a fresh crime-busting initiative was the way to promote himself for permanency in the post after the Supreme Court ruling on December 14 that found him and three others violating the fundamental rights including torture of a citizen detained at the Mirihana Police Station.”
  1. Checking vehicles became so widespread for drugs in early January, that police said that it would issue special stickers to paste on the windscreen of checked vehicles so that police officers in subsequent checkpoints can identify an already inspected vehicle.
  1. On 05 January 2024 Sri Lanka Bar Association issued a statement expressing its concerns “The police raids, including the demolition of property carried out without valid search warrants and/or valid search orders, whilst flagrantly violating established legal protocols, render them unlawful. Such actions not only undermine the bedrock principles of justice but also erode public confidence in the integrity of law enforcement agencies. In terms of Article 13 (4) of the Constitution, no person shall be punished with death or imprisonment except by order of a competent court.”
  1. At the same time speaking to the media on the issue the BASL President, President’s Counsel (PC) Kaushalya Nawaratne said that they were concerned about the way the Police work in the case of this operation. “The Police are taking hundreds and thousands of suspects into custody, remanding them, getting detention orders (DO) issued, demolishing properties, and taking over properties. Is it the Police that decides what to do? They cannot do it. This is not a Police State.”
  1. On 08 January 2024 the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka expressed its concern concerning the ‘Yukthiya’ Operation. It noted that “the Ministry is reported to have announced that over 20,000 suspects have been arrested under the operation in just two weeks, i.e., 17 December to 31 December 2023. The Commission acknowledges that preventing organised crime and the trafficking of dangerous narcotics is an important objective. However, the Commission has received several complaints concerning torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and arbitrary arrests and detention associated with the ‘Yukithiya’ Operation. The Commission is disturbed to learn of reports of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of persons, including young persons, during search operations conducted by the police.” The HRCSL said that it is taking steps to inquire into such reports.
  1. On 08.01.2024 a group going by the name “The People Aggrieved by the Yukthiya (Justice) Operation” comprising people who have been affected by the ongoing island-wide anti-drug and -organised crime operation Yukthiya, sought the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka’s intervention in the form of a set of guidelines for the Police to prevent the illegal and unethical acts said to be taking place under the said operation. . Their letter addressed to the HRCSL read: “Acting in a manner that violates the basic principles of the Constitution and of the criminal law is an unfortunate situation, and is a serious undermining of the rule of law. Therefore, we request the HRCSL to issue the Police with the necessary recommendations and guidelines to conduct the said operation in a manner that is democratic and just and protects the existing law and citizens’ FR, as per the powers vested in the HRCSL.”
  1. on 12 January 2024 a joint statement signed by international HR organisations including HRW and Amnesty International called for Immediately to cease operation “Yukthiya” and release individuals arrested without evidence or reasonable suspicion. Among the demands of the statements were to cease involving the armed forces in drug control and treatment activities, aligning with human rights law, and to repeal laws allowing compulsory drug rehabilitation, closing treatment centers, and releasing individuals currently held.
  1. On 12th January the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk urged the Government of Sri Lanka to review its ongoing “Yukthiya” operation, and to implement human rights-based approaches, notably the right to health, in addressing the issues of illicit drugs in society. Allegations of abuse of authority, torture and ill-treatment, and denial of due process and fair trial rights must be thoroughly and impartially investigated, and justice must be served. The statement said that while drug use presents a serious challenge to society, a heavy-handed law enforcement approach is not the solution. Abuse of drugs and the factors that lead to it are first and foremost public health and social issues. People suspected of selling or trafficking drugs are entitled to humane treatment, with full respect for due process and transparent, fair trials.
  1. On 13 January 2024 the National Police Commission has issued a set of guidelines to Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP) Deshabandu Thennakoon regarding the ongoing nationwide “Yukthiya” Operation. The Commission said it has extensively studied the complaints forwarded to them, leading to the formulation of specific guidelines aimed at maintaining transparency, upholding human rights and preventing any potential abuse of power. The Commission instructed the Acting IGP to ensure that all activities related to the “Yukthiya” operation are carried out within the existing legal framework of the country. The Commission emphasized the need to conduct operations strictly by the law.
  1. On 16 January Forum Asia for Human Development called on the Sri Lanka government to cease “Operation Yukthiya”, release individuals who have been arrested without evidence or solely on suspicion and ensure legal representation. Protecting fundamental rights is crucial in upholding justice.  “Those arrested face a non-bailable offence under Section 54A of the Poisons, Opium, and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance, potentially leading to months-long pretrial detention. The statistics are alarming: the number of arrests under “Operation Yukthiya” has surpassed 29000, with nearly 1500 in administrative policy custody and over 1600 sent for compulsory drug rehabilitation.” It said on the social media platform X.
  2. On 16 January in the wake of concerns and objections from the various institutes and organizations against the Police launched island-wide operation ‘Yukthiya’, Public Security Minister Tiran Alles said that the operation will continue despite the concerns and opinions.    Blaming a handful of lawyers who take money from non-governmental organizations and those who appear in drug cases for obstructing the operation he threatened to reveal the information with names in a few days.
  1. On 17 January 2024 it was reported from 31 December 2015 to 31 December 2022, the number of inmates in the overall prison system in Sri Lanka has increased from 139% to 232% of the capacity in prisons. 26,000 plus prisoners (53%) are drug offenders. The overcrowding in prisons has also led to several other issues, including a lack of adequate space and sanitation facilities. There was a shortage of 187 toilets in 27 prisons, and 287 of the existing toilets were in a condition of repair, while 14 prisons across the island have a shortage of 108,689 square feet of space.  The report identified two reasons behind the overcrowding of prisons; one being the influence of the economic, social, political, and legal environment, in the context that difficulties faced during the economic crisis led to higher rates of criminal activity which thereby led to increased arrests, while the other reason was identified as the increase in imprisonments related to drug offenses.
  1. On 18th January 2024 Minister of Public Security Tiran Alas said that he rejected the allegations of the UN that human rights were violated in the operation of “Yukthiya”, and that he did not care at all about the letter issued by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
  1. On 19 January 2024 Policeman in civilian attire shot dead a an 41 year old innocent carpenter, a father of 3 children in Narammala area after the driver/carpenter did not stop the vehicle. Police are not allowed to be in civilian attire on duty. Media reported that the policeman was desperate to arrest two drug offenders a day, as ordered under the “Yukthiya” operation”, Every police station in the country has given daily targets to arrest alleged drug offenders.
  1. On 22 January Bar Association of Sri Lanka issued a statement  criticising the Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles, for stating that he would publish a list of persons who obstructed the ongoing Operation Yukthiya operation. “It is evident that these statements, among others, made by a government minister, are irresponsibly misleading and detrimental to the crucial role lawyers play in preserving public interest. We vehemently denounce the use of divisive and deceptive rhetoric that undermines the rule of law and those dedicated to upholding it” the statement said.
  1. On 22 January UN experts called on Sri Lanka to immediately suspend and review ‘Yukthiya’ anti-drug operation. “Compulsory rehabilitation centres should be closed immediately and replaced by voluntary, evidence-based, rights-based, and community-based social services,” said the experts. They urged Sri Lankan authorities to investigate thoroughly and impartially any allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and denial of due process and fair trial rights. “Irregularities in the judicial process of sending people to rehabilitation centres should also be investigated,” the experts said.
  2. Sri Lanka government led by President Ranil Wickremasinghe has not heeded any of the concerns and negative comments expressed by local and international organisations. More than 30,000 people have been arrested mainly without due process. As the BASL expressed the modality of Yukthiya operation shows a shadow of a police state.

The End.

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