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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Sri Lanka: Denying justice while dehumanizing a community at large – Shreen Abdul Saroor

Image: Sion Church by Shreen Saroor.

Thirty-one died in the suicide attack on Zion evangelical church in Batticaloa on 21st April 2019, of which 14 were children. To date the church remains locked with a notice on the gate claiming it is an “army construction site”. A memorial billboard picturing the victims has been turned inwards so it cannot be seen from the outside. With the state doing little, parents Praba and Sutha who lost their child will join with other families this April 21 to unveil a monument at 5.30pm near Kalladi Bridge. In neighbouring Kattankudy, around 130 Muslim children from families who authorities have implicated in the attacks struggle with social ostracization and live in abject poverty. A few have dropped out of school, and some do not have much to eat. This much is clear: Two years after the Easter attacks, victims have not seen justice, and their suffering is coopted to distract from ill governance. While the state delays accountability for those actually at fault, it collectively punishes the Muslim community at large with zero due process guarantees.

“Re-education centres”

On 12th March, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa unveiled new regulations under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) by Extraordinary Gazette. Entitled De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology, they permit the Ministry of Defence to create “Reintegration Centres” designed to rehabilitate those who cause or intend to cause “acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups.” This gazette will strengthen the already draconian provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The world has watched in recent years as China detained a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims in secret “re-education centres,” described as the largest mass-scale internment of ethnic and religious minorities since World War Two (New Yorker (Feb. 26, 2001), https://www.newyorker.com/news/a-reporter-at-large/china-xinjiang-prison-state-uighur-detention-camps-prisoner-testimony). Chinese officials have claimed that a third of Xinjian’s Uyghurs are “polluted by religious extremist forces” and need to be cleansed of their ideology, not merely punished for their actions. Forced internment, travel restrictions, suppression of religious practices, and sterilization programs have led the U.S. and others to label China’s repression as genocide. The U.S., E.U., U.K. and Canada sanctioned Communist Party officials who shaped the internment policy, and barred cotton and tomato imports from Xinjiang.

Potentially emboldened by China’s policies in Xinjiang – which senior Sri Lankan officials have publicly defended – Sri Lanka has embarked on a similar path. As with China’s “re-education centres,” the camps to be established under Sri Lanka’s new regulations would go beyond punishing overt acts and instead proscribe thoughts. The current deradicalization gazette is vague in what it prohibits and open to subjective enforcement, facilitating overbroad application and the deprivation of fundamental rights. Human rights activists have raised these objections in a fundamental rights petition now pending before the Sri Lankan Supreme Court.

It is easy to see how the new regulations will lead to arbitrary enforcement against Muslims, who are already being targeted for mass arrests under the PTA. In Kattankudy alone there are over 125 Muslims, including 15 women and 02 infants in detention. Many of them have been locked up in overcrowded facilities since the 2019 attacks with no hearings or access to counsel.

Muslim poet Ahnaf Jazeem

In Mannar, 26-year-old Muslim poet Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested last year under the PTA for promoting “extremism.” His arresting officers clearly never read his poetry, which was criticized that very thing. His arrest was apparently made because a photograph of a person in Taliban-style dress appeared beside a poem that decried Islamic terrorism. To date Jazeem has not been produced before a magistrate, and he has languished in appalling prison conditions where rats have bitten him. His lawyers received just 20-minutes to meet their client, and officials recorded even that meeting, in violation of Sri Lankan law and basic principles of due process.

Jufaithiya, a 55-year old cancer patient, has been denied treatment and is currently in Tangalle Navy camp. She was arrested because she listened to a banned National Thawheeth Jamath bayan (sermon) on a single occasion. In that same camp are 15-month-old Yunoose and 12-month-old Imara, who are spending their toddler months in custody alongside their mothers who have been detained under the PTA. When baby Yunoose’s hand got burnt, mother Nushra could not tell relatives how it happened because detainees were forbidden to speak to visiting relatives alone.

What “rehabilitation” means

As bad as things already are for the Muslim community under the PTA, the new deradicalization regulations make matters worse, expressly codifying the power to detain a person on nothing more than an official’s subjective (and often erroneous) interpretation of a detainee’s words or actions. The regulations are silent as to what “rehabilitation” means, or what procedures will be adopted to achieve it. Perhaps most alarmingly, they remove even the inadequate judicial oversight and safeguards that exist under the PTA. Police may commence an investigation after arresting a person, without providing the reason for arrest. Detainees may be deprived access to counsel or the right to receive the evidence to be used against them. If the Attorney General’s Department believes the person is suitable for rehabilitation that person may be detained for a year (with possible extension for another year), with approval by a magistrate as the sole form of judicial scrutiny. Even war on terror detainees held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay have the right to challenge their designation as enemy combatants and seek habeas corpus relief to contest their continued detention. Such basic protections will now be denied to Sri Lankan citizens detained within Sri Lankan territory.

It is easy to see that the so-called rehabilitation camps are not meant as a counterterrorism tool. Describing her prolonged detention in China in a startling New Yorker piece, Uyghur Anar Sabit recalled being kept alongside women having no connection to religious extremism or violence. She slowly came to realize that China’s camps aimed not at counterterror but rather at breaking cultural bonds and knowledge transmission (Khatchadourian, Surviving the Crackdown in Xinjiang, supra note 3). The same is already apparent in Sri Lanka.

These mass detentions have nothing to do with justice for victims. Three men who were charged on 12th November 2020 in a Los Angeles federal court with aiding and abetting the Easter attacks – Mohamed Naufar, Mohamed Riskan and Ahamed Milhan – are being indicted in Sri Lanka only on the 20th April 2021, though they have been detained by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the police for long. Surprisingly the new terror finance list the government released last month, which includes over 400 Tamil diaspora activists and organisations involved in human rights advocacy, does not have the names of these men who have actually been indicted in the U.S. for terrorism. Meanwhile last week, a working-class man named Mohamed Irfan was arrested because he once carried food in his tuk-tuk to one of the main suicide bombers in Kattankudy. As the killers escape justice, arrests of large numbers of ordinary Muslims for vague and arbitrary alleged transgressions have silenced an entire community.

Jeyakumari Balendran

Sri Lanka has tried rehabilitation camps before, and its example is deeply concerning. Anyone who had been a member of the LTTE for even a day—forcibly recruited or otherwise—was required to submit to rehabilitation at the end of the war. Thousands of young men, women and children were placed in state-run rehabilitation camps. At least several dozens of them disappeared. One Tamil mother, Jeyakumari Balendran, identified her missing teenage son in a photograph depicting the rehabilitation of former LTTE cadres. She demanded answers, noting that her son was in the custody of a government rehabilitation centre, and met with the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. The government silenced Jeyakumari by ordering her arrest on unsupported allegations that she had harboured a terror suspect. She spent a year in prison while her teenage daughter was sent an orphanage. For too many families, “rehabilitation” has proved a euphemism for disappearance, and seeking answers only compounds the punishment.

As many Tamil women learned, there is also a cost for those who do make it out of rehabilitation. Women’s groups and community activists worked closely with rehabilitated women cadres in the north and the east, helping them rebuild their lives after the war especially in 2010 to 2019. For many women, particularly the war-disabled, conservative Tamil society left them no place to return to. Having chosen a path that challenged traditional gender norms, these women were shunned by the community and struggled to marry, raise children, and negotiate culturally accepted women’s work. Rehabilitation policies only exacerbated their challenges. With former cadres visited at all hours by young military men, the community ostracized these women for their perceived promiscuity, or avoided them so as not to invite further surveillance upon themselves. The badge of being “rehabilitated” sows mistrust and division within already marginalized communities, further breaking down family and community.

Tamil Yesterday; Muslims Today

Yesterday Tamils were the target; today it is Muslims. In China, Uyghur Anar Sabit described how her family was labelled as “focus personnel” to be watched when she was being detained in Chinese re-education camps. Her relatives had to entertain officials with alcohol (to show a departure from Muslim norms) and attend weekly flag-raising ceremonies (to prove their patriotism). After Sabit was released, former friends and relatives kept their distance, fearing that any association with her would only land them there too (New Yorker (Feb. 26, 2001), supra). Similar patterns are already emerging here, with the Muslim community shunning PTA detainees for their perceived ties to religious extremism or avoiding them to ward off unwanted CID attention. In Mawanella (Kegalle district), a large number of Muslims have been detained under the PTA. Families there are suffering in silence and isolation. Even their own community members do not want to talk about them or show their homes to anyone who wants to gather information or assists them. In this way rehabilitation camps break down not only a detainee but also his or her broader community. And with prolonged detention inevitably facilitating enforced disappearance, some families will forever be broken and searching for answers.

Deradicalization regulations: just a first step

The deradicalization regulations were just a first step. On 13th April the government issued new PTA regulations banning eleven organizations on national security grounds. In addition to ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and various Thowheedh Jamma’ath groups, charities supposedly linked to the Easter attacks we banned. Some of these groups may indeed have links to terrorism, and these links should be properly and lawfully investigated. However, with the banning of eleven Muslim organizations, there is an imminent threat of many followers of these groups (jamaath) being sent for rehabilitation. To put international terror organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS in the same basket as local faith groups is a tactic for this government to deflect Western concern over growing islamophobia in Sri Lanka. And the composition of the list can change too. In 2014, the administration of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa banned 16 Tamil diaspora organizations and 424 individuals on grounds of “financing terrorism”. Several names were de-listed by the subsequent government, only to be relisted again this year, with a recently surfaced document adding over 50 Muslim names to the list for the first time. Upon proscription, individuals have few means of challenging their ban, denying their membership of the listed groups, or questioning whether the group indeed has terrorist links. Their rights of free movement and association are restricted with no judicial oversight, on little more than the government’s assertion that proscription furthers national security.

Today, with journalists choosing between exile and self-censorship and investigators and political, social and human rights activists under attack, it seems likely that broad proscription powers will be used to further stifle dissent. With little civil space or official mechanisms to challenge a group’s proscription, or contest alleged membership of a proscribed group, recent regulations invite the sweeping abuse of power and diminishment of basic civil rights.

Sri Lanka is on a dangerous path

In short, the PTA is bad, but recent regulations make things far worse. Sri Lanka is on a dangerous path, shielding actual terror suspects from accountability while inflicting mass punishment on a minority population at large. Two years after the horrific attacks, victims and society at large deserve and demand better.

Shreen Abdul Saroor is a Peace and Women’s Rights Activist.


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