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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Sri Lanka: Peaceful Protesters Face Attacks, Reprisals, and Arbitrary Detention – AHRC

(21.10.2022) The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received credible information from independent human rights defenders that Mr. Wasantha Mudalige (29), Convenor of the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF), Mr. Galwewa Siridhamma Himi (26), Convenor of the Inter University Bhikku Federation, and Mr. Siridhamma Thero – all three were arrested from a peaceful protest on 18 August, 2022, have been in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for 62 days now, and have not yet been produced before the courts. The Sri Lankan authorities have denied these student leaders the access to justice since they were arbitrarily detained for protesting against the Rajapaksa government.

CASE NARRATIVE:

For over five months, Sri Lankans across the country have been protesting peacefully against the government that they hold responsible for the ongoing economic crisis. Protesters have been demanding a system change, abolishing the Executive Presidency, the removal of the Rajapaksa family and their allies from power, and the resignation of current President Ranil Wickeremesinghe, widely believed to be an ally of the ruling Rajapaksa family. Wickremesinghe has been responsible for the ongoing targeting of protesters including under anti-terror law.

Students detained under PTA:

Convenor of the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF), Wasantha Mudalige (29) and Convenor of the Inter University Bhikku Federation, Galwewa Siridhamma Himi (26), who were arrested from a peaceful protest on 18 August, 2022, have been in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for 62 days now, and have not yet been produced before the courts.

The use of Anti-terror law

The use of PTA against peaceful protesters is extremely concerning. The PTA is a draconian legislation that enables long term incarceration without charge or judicial review, and undermines basic procedural safeguards under regular law. Under the PTA, protections granted to suspects under ordinary penal law, including the non-admission of confessions given to the police, the right to judicial oversight within 24 hours, and the right of access to lawyers, are denied. Recent amendments to the PTA have failed to effectively cure systemic defects in the law. Tamils and Muslims have been disproportionately targeted historically under the PTA and labeled as terrorists. Calls for repeal have so far been ignored by the State. In fact, the use of the PTA against the three student leaders is despite prior assurances by this government of a moratorium on the use of the anti-terror law and repeated and public calls from the international community against its use against the three students.

Based on information shared by lawyers for the three students – the State has failed to comply even with the draconian provisions of the PTA. The three students were held for over 96 hours without being produced before a Magistrate and without a detention order being issued. This is a violation of the regular law; but also the PTA which requires a Detention Order (DO) to be issued within 72 hours.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Immediate concern for the safety of Wasantha Mudalige:

● There are continuing concerns for the safety of detainees who are held at the Tangalle detention centre given its isolation, dilapidated condition and the fact that Navy and plain clothes personnel, rather than regular prison officials are in charge of the day to day operations of the centre.
● We are especially concerned about a serious threat to the life of the Convenor of the Inter University Student Federation, Wasantha Mudalige, as he has been taken out of the regular detention centres at night for interrogation. On each occasion Wasantha has been blind-folded and taken by Police, at night to several different locations in and around Colombo and interrogated. This has been confirmed by both his lawyers and his brother, following their last visits to him.
● We believe that due to a lack of evidence against the student movement, the State is attempting to frame him for acts of arson and the death of an MP, that took place on the 9th of May, 2022, and ban and label the IUSF as “terrorists”.
● Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa too, raised this grave threat in Parliament on 5 October 2022
● The treatment of Wasantha – especially being taken out of his regular place of detention, including to and from Colombo regularly without at least informing the HRCSL, is particularly chilling, as the Sri Lankan State is notorious for “disappearing” and carrying out custodial and extra-judicial killings of dissidents and witnesses – especially during similar operations to ‘gather evidence’.
● Lawyers have also reported after their most recent visit this week, that Wasantha has not been questioned for the last two weeks, and Siridhamma Himi has only been questioned on four occasions over the course of the entire 61 day detention period. This is clear indication that the State has no evidence against them, and that their detention is clearly a vindictive witch-hunt by the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa regime.

Manner of arrest; reasons & compliance with legal provisions regarding arrest:

● On 18 August, large numbers of police armed with batons and some even armed with rifles, used excessive force against peaceful protesters, including beating, and firing teargas and water cannons. Police chased protesters down the streets, and arrested 20 protestors from different locations in Colombo.
● Wasantha Mudalige and Hashan Jeewantha were chased down by Police jeeps as the protest was dispersed, and arrested at Gaspaha junction, and Siridhamma Thero was arrested at Borella by the Sri Lanka police. Wasantha was taken to the Peliyagoda police station, and Siridhamma Thero was taken to the Fort Police.
● While all others arrested were released on bail – Chintaka Rajapakse, a human rights defender was remanded until 26th August, due to them charging him with entering the President’s Palace as well, after he was arrested from the protest. Wasantha, Siridhamma Thero and Hashan were held for over 73 hours at the Peliyagoda police without being produced before a Magistrate, which was not in compliance with the Criminal Procedure Code.
● National and International rights groups and the diplomatic community made strong and public appeals to Sri Lankan authorities not to invoke the draconian PTA against the three students, and to honour the unofficial moratorium against its use.
● While failing to produce the students before a Magistrate in compliance with regular law, authorities also failed to issue a Detention Order (DO) within the mandated 72 hours in compliance with the draconian PTA.
● Lawyers were not able to speak to the three students immediately after their arrest.
● At around 9am on 22 August, lawyers for the students raised an alert that the students could not be found at the Peliyagoda Police Station. Police claimed that the students had been moved to the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) under a DO. This was later proved false. Upon an official request from the student’s lawyer – the TID stated that the students were not in their custody and that they were not aware of a DO against the students.
● At around 6pm on 22 August, 2022 – Detention Orders were issued against the three students – well past the 72 hour deadline set under the PTA. Further, only Siridhamma Thero’s Arrest Receipt specifically mentioned the PTA as the basis for arrest.
● Failure to comply with the legal provisions under ordinary law and/or the PTA; lack of access to lawyers; failure to share information regarding their place of detention; and deliberate misinformation regarding the place of detention and basis for incarceration (reason; but also whether a DO had in fact been issued) is a clear violation of their rights in the process and immediate aftermath of arrest.

Place of Detention under the PTA:

● After the Detention Order was issued the students were taken to the Tangalle detention centre – where they have been held for periods.
● The detention centre is an abandoned prison, and only the three students are being held there in tandem.
● The centre is in an extremely dilapidated and unsafe condition, not suitable for human inhabitation.
● The centre is controlled by the Navy for the perimeter and external security; and plain-clothes intelligence officers inside.
● The students are also brought frequently to Colombo for interrogation. In Colombo the students are held at the TID office in Narahenpita – in separate, dark, windowless cells.
● The choice of Tangalle as a detention centre is a deliberate attempt to isolate the students from family who live far away, and lawyers, and harass those who aim to visit and support the students.
● The Magistrate had visited the students in Tangalle in early September, in accordance with amendments to the PTA, where the Magistrate is tasked with visiting the place of detention and monitoring conditions.

Conditions in detention: facilities and food

● The detention centre in Tangalle is an old dilapidated building, which is a health and safety hazard. It is not used for regular prisoners and the students must be moved into a regular prison and/or better facility pending release.
● In both detention centres, students are held in small, dark, separate cells, in solitary confinement, amounting to psychological torture.
● Students are denied adequate bathing facilities and sanitary conditions.
● The food given to the detainees is below average standards as admitted even by TID/authorities. Food cannot be provided by family, except for packeted products that are unopened. Home cooked food is not permitted. The reason given is the risk of poisoning, which is not a reasonable or acceptable explanation. Family members state that even in the case of packeted food, there are long delays of weeks before the food provided is given to the students.

Access to family:

● The three students have been granted limited access to their lawyers and to family members. Approval is regularly delayed and is purely at the discretion of the TID officials.
● Family members have been able to visit the students with extreme difficulty. Only family certified as blood relatives by the Grama Sevaka (local government officer) can visit. Even once this is confirmed, the students have to consent each time before a family member can visit them.
● Families fear that in the event that the students are physically tortured, the TID could tell families that the detainees refused to give consent to their visit, until there is no physical evidence/scars left of any torture.
● The student’s file must also be present at the location where the family member visits.
● Since the students are frequently moved around – this has raised serious challenges for visits. For instance, Wasantha’s brother shared that when he visited his brother in Tangalle he was informed that Wasantha had been brought to Colombo. When he came to Colombo he was told that the file for his brother was still in Tangalle, and that he could not see his brother. For reference, the distance from Wasantha’s home in Dambana where his parents live, to Colombo, is 267km (a 6 hour journey at a minimum); from Dambana to Tangalle is 240km (5 ½ hour journey). Tangalle to Colombo is 146km (3 hour journey).
● Family members are economically poor, forced to take a day off work and travel back and forth using public transport. The deliberate failure to share information and several administrative obstacles, from requests for Grama Sevaka reports and birth certificates; obtaining consent for each visit; requirement of the detainee file in the same physical location, are all intended to punish and further harm the detainees and their families. The decision to move the detainees to Tangalle is also aimed at reducing access to family and lawyers.
● Important to note that in Colombo the detainees can only be visited on the weekend by family; and in Tangalle detainees can be visited on weekdays only.

Access to Lawyers:

● Lawyers are permitted to visit once a week, but have to request the TID for permission each time. So even lawyer visits are at the discretion of the TID.
● For the first 1.5 weeks of their detention, lawyers were not given access to the students.
● Initially, only one lawyer was given access. Later, after several challenges, a second lawyer was also permitted access. Overall, the lawyers have been able to visit the students about five times in total, at one or other of the two locations. They last visited the students last week.
● The lawyers cannot access the detainee without the detainee consenting to that specific lawyer. This means that the TID can prevent access on the guise that the detainee has refused to give consent. If there is torture or other ill treatment – this approach could result in delays and prevent timely intervention.

Crack down on protests

18 August – Protest at Lipton Circus, Colombo 07, during which 20 persons including the three student activists currently held under PTA were arrested.

a. The protest on 18 August was organised by the IUSF as a continuation of key demands of the people’s struggle; condemning the repression against peaceful protesters; and the close of universities. Prior to the protest, there was no interaction with authorities including police. There was also no court order against the protest. Police however had deployed a large number of police officers, in buses and on foot at key locations close to the protest route. They also formed human barriers of large numbers of officers along the route the protestors marched on, blocking their path.
b. The protestors marched from Lipton Circus in Colombo 7 along Union Place. They were chanting protest slogans and carrying banners making demands of the government to stop the repression of fellow protestors. There was a group of musicians at the front of the crowd, playing instruments to accompany the chants. They had barely walked 2km when the Police, who had then formed the barrier, began to fire tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protestors.
c. The Police used tear gas and water cannons on the protestors. Videos showed them also beating protestors with police batons.
d. Police chased protestors as some of them retreated, arresting 20 persons including Wasantha Mudalige, Siridamma Thero, Hashan Jeewantha and human rights defender Chintaka Rajapaksa. While all those arrested were released the following day – Chinthaka was remanded until 26 August and the other three activists were issued detention orders over 73 hours later – and are currently in administrative detention under the PTA.
e. Surveillance, intimidation and interrogation of the families of the three leaders under Detention Orders. Other students in the IUSF have also been under surveillance and called in for questioning. Protestors who were part of the people’s occupation of the Presidential mansion, Prime Ministerial mansion and Presidential Secretariat and others continue to be arrested under charges of unlawful assembly and destruction of public property.

30th August – Protest held in Colombo 10 by the IUSF during which 28 protesters were arrested including a minor

a. Similar to 18 August, even at the 30th August Protest, there was no prior engagement or interaction between police and the protesters prior to the protest. There was no court order against the protest. A large number of police were deployed on the protest route; with police forming a human barrier to block the route before the protest had even started. The Police made an announcement over a loudspeaker that the protest was illegal in that the organisers had not given notice to the Police 6 hours in advance that the protest was to take place.
b. The protestors had planned to march from Elphinstone Theatre in Colombo 10 along Olcott Mawatha towards the Fort Railway Station. However, on seeing the police presence, they turned 180 degrees and carried out their march away from the Police, so as to avoid confrontation with them. Protesters were clear that they did not wish to confront the police. Protesters were chanting protest verses and carrying banners making demands of the government to stop the repression of fellow protestors, and that the three arrested student leaders be released. There was a group of musicians at the front of the crowd, playing instruments to accompany the chants. They had walked just over 1km when the Police began forming a barricade and advancing along their new path. Protestors sat on the ground, again to avoid confrontation with the Police. However the Police began to fire tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protestors. They then chased protestors along the road as some of them retreated, arresting them on the spot.
c. The Police used tear gas and water cannons on the protestors. Batons had also been used to beat some of the arrested protestors.
d. 28 protestors were arrested and taken to police stations, and made to stay in the cells. Among them was a 17-year old boy who was made to stay with 6 others in an adult cell. They were all granted bail the next day
e. Students in the IUSF have also been under surveillance and called in for questioning. Other protestors too, continue to be called in for questioning. Protestors who were part of the people’s occupation of the Presidential mansion, Prime Ministerial mansion and Presidential Secretariat and others continue to be arrested under charges of unlawful assembly and destruction to private property.
f. A press conference held soon after the August 30th protest too, was disrupted by the Police who surrounded the venue and asked to question former Convenor of the IUSF, Lahiru Weerasekara, a young political activist. Based on past practice by law enforcement, these are clear indications that he too, if arrested, could be detained under the PTA. Lahiru currently faces 18 charges, of which only three are frivolous charges related to the people’s struggle. The other 15 are all relating to protests during his time as Convenor, which was between 2015-18. This is a clear indication of the State targeting him, even though he has continued to cooperate with investigations and judicial processes.

18th September – IUSF Rally held at Hyde Park – Heavy police presence surrounding the area but no arrests or violence

a. IUSF obtained a sound permit from the Police and municipality to carry out a rally/meeting at Hyde Park in Colombo. The Police had deployed several officers in buses and on foot essentially surrounding the grounds from all four sides. Water cannons were also seen parked close to the location.
b. The crowd gathered for the rally were seated in plastic chairs on the grounds. On a stage set up for the occasion, several speakers were seated. Each of them spoke at a podium to the gathered crowd, on the repression of the protestors and the people’s way forward. Music groups also performed during the evening.
c. No one from the protest was arrested that day.
d. Students in the IUSF and other protestors continue to be under surveillance and called in for questioning. Protestors who were part of the people’s occupation of the Presidential mansion, Prime Ministerial mansion and Presidential Secretariat and others continue to be arrested under charges of unlawful assembly and destruction to private property.

24th September – Protest at Lipton Circus, Colombo 07 – Police attack peaceful protest by the Socialist Youth Union – 85 arrested including a minor

a. The Socialist Youth Union (SYU) had informed the nearest Police Station regarding their protest march and started to proceed with the march as planned. There was no court order against the protest. A large number of police were deployed on the protest route. The Police made an announcement over a loudspeaker that the protest was illegal in that the organisers had not given notice to the Police 6 hours in advance that the protest was to take place, even though they had.
b. They had walked just over 1km or so, when the Police began forming a barricade and advancing along their new path. The Police proceeded to fire teargas and water cannons to disperse the protestors. They then chased protestors along the road as some of them retreated, arresting them on the spot.
c. Injuries: Batons had also been used to beat some of the arrested protestors and some were injured by falling to the ground from the force of the water cannons. Six protesters were hospitalised. Five were discharged the next day, but, whilst one was admitted to the Neuro Trauma Emergency Treatment Unit of the National Hospital for critical treatment.
d. 85 protestors, including two minors (14 and 17 years) were arrested and taken to police stations, and made to stay in the cell. The 14 year old was discharged on the same day evening. The rest of the 84 were released on bail the next day. 81 of the 84 were granted police bail, whilst 3 were produced before the Magistrate.

4th October – Police attack the IUSF protest in Kelaniya

The IUSF after having paid for and booked a venue from local Government authorities, for a Joint Rally Against Repression to be held in Kiribathgoda, was refused permission a day before their rally when they went to obtain a Sound Permit from the Police, which the Police also refused to give them.

When the students proceeded to protest regardless, they were met with the same repression from the Police, having to face tear gas and water cannons, and one student Bhikku activist being arrested.

09th October – Galle Face – Police provoke and attack peaceful protestors and arrest 6

Peaceful protestors gathered at Galle Face to commemorate the fallen heroes of the People’s Struggle, where they were hoping to light lamps and have some cultural activity.

Hundreds of Police and the STF, in buses and trucks, and water cannon and tear gas trucks, were already at the location, by the time protestors got there. The Police then proceeded to provoke protestors and confront them, by saying that they couldn’t protest at Galle Face, and to move the protest further down the Galle Road, towards Kollupitiya. Protestors resisted this continuous repression by the Police, resulting in a confrontation, and the police using excessive force against protestors, and making 6 arrests.

Harassment and Intimidation

● The intimidation of students and activists linked to the protests have become routine. Police records indicate over 3000 arrests so far. We don’t have exact numbers for those arrested so far due to the scale and there is no accurate record of all the persons who have been called into questioning. However we can produce more information on this given time.
● In October 2022, at least 20 activists have been called for questioning by the TID. Lawyers believe that their summons is linked to the TID obtaining phone records for Wasantha Mudalige and harassing all those who have been in communication with him and linked to the protests. There has been no court to order to enable access to phone records. No reasons have been given for this summons and students have refused to comply so far. They have made a written request seeking clarification on the purpose of arrest.

 

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