SL should end intimidation & threats against human rights defenders: report

29 July 2020 11:23 am - 3     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The  Sri  Lankan  Government  should  end  the  targeted  arrests, intimidation and threats against the lives and physical security of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists, a statement issued by ten international human rights organizations said today.

The statement was signed by Amnesty International, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, FIDH & OMCT; in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, International Service for Human Rights, Reporters Without Borders and South Asians for Human Rights.

They said a campaign of fear has intensified since the 2019 presidential election, and has cast a shadow over the 2020 parliamentary election campaign as well.

The full statement;

Sri  Lankan  Government  should  end  the  targeted  arrests, intimidation and threats against the lives and physical security of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists.

A campaign of fear has intensified since the 2019 presidential election, and has cast a shadow over the 2020 parliamentary election campaign as well.

The United Nations, as well Sri Lanka’s partners and foreign donors, should immediately call for full respect, protection and fulfillment of the human rights of all Sri Lankans, and particularly to halt the reversal of fragile gains in the protection of human rights in recent years. Numerous civilian institutions, including the NGO Secretariat, have been placed under the control of the Defence  Ministry. Serving  and  retired  military  officers have  been  appointed  to  a  slew  of senior government roles previously held by civilians. 

The authorities have recently  established military-led  bodies  such  as  the Presidential  Task  Force to build “a secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society,” which has the power to issue directives to any government official. This represents an alarming trend towards the militarization of the state. Many of those in government, including the president, defence secretary, and army chief, are accused of war crimes during the internal armed conflict that ended in 2009. Dissident voices and critics of the current government, including lawyers, journalists,human rights defenders and victims of past abuses, are being targeted by the police, intelligence agencies and pro-government media.

Since the presidential election in November 2019, anti-human rights rhetoric intended to restrict the space for civil society has been amplified by senior members of government. On 6 July 2020, at  an  election  rally, Prime  Minister  Mahinda  Rajapaksa stated that “NGOs  will  be  taken  into  a special attention under the new government formed after the General Election, specifically, how foreign monies and grants are received to the NGOs from foreign countries and further, activities of the international organisations will be observed. 

The government has also announced a probe into NGOs registered under the previous government. In the months following the November 2019 presidential election, a number of organizations reported visits from intelligence officers who sought details of staff, programs and funding, in particular,  organizations  in  the  war-affected  Northern and  Eastern  provinces  of  the  country.Such visits are blatant attempts to harass and intimidate Sri Lankan civil society.

In  February,  the  acting  District  Secretary  in  the  Mullaitivu  District  (Northern  Province) issued  a directive that only non-governmental organizations with at least 70 percent of their activities focused on development would be allowed to work, effectively enabling arbitrary interference with and  prevention  of  a  broad  range  of  human  rights  work.  A  Jaffna-based  think-tank was visited several times,including soon after the Covid-19 lockdown, and questioned about its work, funding and staff details. Lawyers taking on human rights cases have been targeted through legal and administrative processes  and have  faced  smear  campaigns in  the  media.

Kumara vadivel  Guruparan,  a  human rights lawyer, was a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Jaffna. He appeared as counsel on behalf of victims in the case of 24 Tamil youth who were subjected to enforced disappearance while in military custody at Navatkuli in 1996. In November 2019, Guruparan was banned by the University Grants Commission (UGC) from teaching law while also practicing in court. The ban was following a letter sent by the Sri Lankan army to the UGC questioning why Guruparan was permitted to engage in legal practice while being a member of the faculty.Guruparan resigned from the University on 16 July 2020.

On 14 April, Hejaaz Hizbullah,a lawyer who has represented victims of human rights violations, was arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). He is being held illegally without charge and  without being produced before a magistrate for over 90 days. 

He has had limited  access  to  his  lawyers and  family  members.  The  day  before  his  arrest,  Hizbullah  joined others in submitting a letter addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa criticising the denial of burial rights to the Muslim community under Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 regulations.

Achala Senevirathne, a lawyer who represents families in a case involving the enforced disappearance  of  11  youth  in  2008,  in  which  senior  military  commanders  are  implicated,  has  been attacked on social media, including with threats of physical violence and sexualized abuse. The police have failed to act on her complaints of threats to her safety.

On 10 June, Swastika Arulingam, a lawyer,was arrested when she inquired about the arrests of people conducting a peaceful Black Lives Matter solidarity protest. Other lawyers, not named here for reasons of security, have also been visited at their homes by security officials, or called in for lengthy interrogations linked to their human rights work.

Journalists and those voicing critical opinions on social media, have been arbitrarily arrested. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression,  including  the  1  April  announcement  by  the  police  that  any  person  criticizing  officials engaged in the response to Covid-19 would be arrested. It is unclear whether there is any legal basis for such arrests.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has cautioned against “an increasing number of such arrests since the issuing of a letter dated 1 April 2020”.

Media rights groups have condemned the targeting of journalists since the presidential election, with  threats  of  arrest,  surveillance,  and  lengthy  police  interrogations  linked  to  their  reporting. Dharisha Bastians, former editor of the Sunday Observer newspaper and a contributor to the New York Times, her family, and associates, have been persecuted by Sri Lankan police in retaliation for her work.

Since December 2019, authorities have attempted to link Bastians to the disputed abduction of a Swiss Embassy employee in Colombo. The government claims the alleged abduction was fabricated to discredit the government. Since Bastians had reported on the incident as a journalist, the police have obtained and published her phone records, searched her house, and seized her laptop computer.

On 9 April,asocial media commentator Ramzy Razeek was arrested under Sri Lanka’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act and the Computer Crimes Act. He approached the Sri Lankan police for protection following online death threats linked to his social media  posts  condemning  all  forms  of  extremism.  Instead  of  receiving  protection,  he  was  jailed and denied bail. His hearing has been postponed, despite his failing health and the heightened risk posed by the pandemic in prisons.The targeting and repression of journalists and human rights defenders is not only an assault on the rights of these individuals, but an attack on the principles of human rights and the rule of law which should protect all Sri Lankans.

These policies have a chilling effect on the rights to freedom of expression and association, which are crucial for the operation of civil society and fundamental to the advancement of human rights. Those working on ending impunity and ensuring accountability for past crimes, and especially victims, victim’s families, members of minority communities, and networks in the Northern and Eastern provinces, are particularly at risk of intimidation and harassment. The Sri  Lankan  authorities must end  all forms  of harassment,  threats,  and  abuse  of  legal  processes and police powers against lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists.

Ramzy Razeek and Hejaaz Hizbullah must be released immediately. Human rights defenders living and working  in  Sri  Lanka  should  be able to  carry  out  their peaceful human  rights  work without  fear of reprisals, which requires a safe and enabling environment in which they can organize, assemble, receive and share information.

While  the  government  of  Sri  Lanka  continues  to  deny  Sri  Lankans  the ability  to  promote  and defend human rights, particularly targeting members of civil society, we call upon the international community, including states and the United Nations, to demand that Sri Lanka live up to its inter-national human rights obligations.

Sri Lankan human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists need to be protected now.

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  Comments - 3

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  • Sashi Wednesday, 29 July 2020 12:11 PM

    Wasn't the lawyer Hizbullah identified by children attending a weapon-training madrasah?

    Sokrates Wednesday, 29 July 2020 04:21 PM

    I can not understand that the majority of the population is too indifferent or too stupid and does not notice that Gota and his criminal mafia clan override democracy and human rights and trample on them. The cases of serious human rights violations listed are only a fraction of the iceberg. Sri Lanka has become a country run by war criminals and mafiosi. Those criminals who have shown in the past that human lives have no value for them will continue to kill without mercy. Despite Corona, there is still a lot to loot in this country, with oppression being a good tool but human rights only disturbing. It is also a shame for the military not to protect the population but on the contrary to unite with the cruelest criminals.

    Chandu Wednesday, 29 July 2020 04:24 PM

    AI international is framing Sri Lanka as a failed nation just because Gota became the President.They do everything possible to condemn the present Govt until a puppet Govt like Ranil/My3/Anura K/Sambandan/Hakeem and so on in a coalition.Siwiss embassy drama is also part of it. All Sri Lankans Beware of these and likes !


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