Sri Lankan authorities crack down on protests, accused of torturing detainees: CIVICUS

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CIVICUS, global alliance of civil society organisations & activists pointed out that Sri Lanka’s emergency law enables authorities to detain people without warrants, seize property, enter and search any premises, suspend laws and issue orders that cannot be questioned in court. Officials who issue such orders are also immune from lawsuits. 

In its report, CIVICUS explains,

On 30th August 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency. He said it is needed to control food prices and prevent hoarding amid shortages of some staples. However, Opposition legislators said the declaration was not needed as there were adequate laws to maintain essential supplies and raised concerns that the tough emergency rules may be misused to stifle critics.

On 13th September 2021, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet updated the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka. She noted that “surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the disappeared has not only continued, but has broadened to a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies”. She also noted that several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force and the arrest or detention of demonstrators. She also raised concerns about the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to arrest and detain people.

In recent months the authorities have cracked down on protests and activists advocating for education rights, intimidated individuals critical of the government and detained them under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). There have been reports of political prisoners tortured in custody and concerns about amendments to the NGO law.

According to human rights groups, in a statement published on 28th September 2021, there has been ongoing persecution and reprisals by Sri Lankan authorities against student leaders, labour union leaders, teachers, academics and others involved in recent protests against education policies in the country.

Key demands of the protests advocating for education rights since July 2021 include addressing long-standing salary anomalies of teachers and principals and seeking the withdrawal of the Kotelawala Defence National University (KDNU) Bill that protesters contend promotes the privatisation and militarisation of education and threatens the future of free education and the university system in Sri Lanka.

Five activists remain in detention due to their participation in a peaceful protest on 3rd August 2021 near the parliament. They include: Koshila Hansamali Perera of the People’s Movement for Free Education; Chameera Koswatte from the Workers Struggle Centre; Amila Sandeepa, President of the Jayewardenepura University Students’ Union; Wasantha Mudalige, Convenor of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF); and Heshan Harshana, a student leader from Rajarata University. They are accused of “damaging public property”, “causing injuries to fingers of a policeman” and “violating COVID-19 regulations”.

Lawyers for the activists have argued that the allegations are baseless, politically motivated and a clear misuse of the law. Bail has been denied despite lawyers arguing exceptional circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, upcoming university examinations and underlying health conditions. According to the human rights groups, four of the activists currently detained tested positive for COVID-19 after two weeks in an overcrowded quarantine facility.

On 6th August 2021, Thalangama police submitted before the Kaduwela Magistrate’s Court the names of a further eleven people who were involved in the 3rd August protests, including student leaders Udara Sandaruwan and Indika Vidanapathirana, academic Mahim Mendis, trade union leaders Dammika Munasinghe, Chathura Samarasinghe and Amila Sandaruwan, and activists Sujith Kuruwita, Dhanushka Kumarasinghe, Ven. Galwewa Siridamma Thero, Ven. Tampitiye Sugathananda Thero and Ven. Thenne Gnanananda Thero.

Although no arrest warrants have been issued, those named have suffered intimidation and threats from police including through multiple visits to their homes, threatening telephone calls and the intimidation of family members. As a result, some have gone into hiding and have been unable to carry on their usual work or to continue to protest.

The human rights groups called for “an end to the repression, arbitrary arrests and intimidation against protestors advocating for education rights and peacefully expressing their dissent to government policy”.

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