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A Tough Time for Human Rights

On February 26, the Sri Lankan government withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which Sri Lanka endorsed in 2015. The resolution commits Sri Lanka to ensuring truth, justice and reconciliation for past abuses. Below is a one year round up of violations of Human Rights in Sri Lanka to mark Human Rights Day on December 10, 2020.

Attacks on Human Rights Lawyers and Activists

Kumaravadivel Guruparan is a human rights lawyer and 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 went missing while in military custody at Navatkuli in 1996.

In November 2019, Guruparan was banned by the University Grants Commission from teaching law. A letter by the Sri Lankan army to the UGC questioned 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.

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.

In interviews with 15 Sri Lankan human rights defenders working in different locations around the country, Human Rights Watch heard consistent accounts of increased surveillance and pressure from security agencies. Police and intelligence officers have sought to instill fear and intimidate rights groups and activists who receive calls, threats, and warnings.

In February, the acting District Secretary in the Mullaitivu District (Northern Province) issued a directive that only NGOs 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.

Arrests and Detentions: Key Cases

April 14, 2020: Authorities arrest human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Hejaaz has been legal counsel in many high-profile human rights cases. The day before his arrest, he submitted a joint statement to President Rajapaksa criticising the denial of burial rights to the Muslim community under Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 regulations. He is currently being held without a charge or any evidence against him for over 8 months with limited access to lawyers and family members.

Three children alleged that the police attempted to coerce them into identifying Hejaaz in an identification parade.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka and human rights groups around the country have raised concerns over the case.

April 9, 2020: Authorities arrest journalist and social media commentator Ramzy Razeek under the ICCPR Act and the Computer Crimes Act.

Razeek made a complaint to the police about threats he received over a Facebook post. Instead of receiving protection, he was taken in by the CID on the promise of being returned the next day. He was arrested without a charge for over 5 months despite his failing health. Razeek is an advocate for peace and had criticized the government policy of forced cremations of Covid-19 victims in violation of Islamic cultural and religious rights.

Threats to Freedom of Expression

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression, including the April 1 announcement by the police that,

Any person criticizing officials engaged in the response to Covid-19 would be arrested.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has cautioned against increasing arrests following this statement and the necessity of reviewing their legal basis.

The Defence Ministry announced it had drafted a new cybersecurity law to prevent “defamatory posts” on social media and the Minister of Mass Media said a mechanism to regulate social media and websites will be introduced.

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 and civil rights groups have raised concerns.

Media Freedom

November 22, 2020: Editor of Tamil newspaper Thinappuyal, Sakthivelpillai Prakash, was questioned by plain clothed police in Vavuniya and asked to provide contact details of all its reporters.

November 26, 2020: A Colombo-based news website was raided by the police who searched for content on with the key word “Gota” on their devices. The search was conducted under an expired warrant. The same day Sanjaya Dhanushka, the manager of the video channel at theleader.lk was summoned for questioning at the CID with no reason provided.

November 28, 2020: Editor of voicetube.lk Thushara Vitharana was summoned to the CID for questioning.December 6, 2019: Daily Mirror and Lankadeepa journalist Thusitha Kumara de Silva and his wife were assaulted by a group of thugs warning him against his news reporting

December 10, 2019: Former Head of New Media, Lake House Maduka Thaksala Fernando was assaulted by a group of 10 to 15 people allegedly connected to the SLPP Trade Union. He believes he was targeted due to his political ideology and has resigned due to the threats he faces.

Police refused protection to seven Tamil journalists who received death threats in Batticaloa.

(The targeted journalists report to ITN, Sirasa, Shakthi TV, Thinakkural and Lanka Sri)

A number of journalists were taken in for questioning and former editor of the Sunday Observer, Dharisha Bastians and her family have faced threats with police obtaining her phone records, searching her house and seizing her laptop.

LGBTQI Rights

Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of the LGBTQI community.

Women's Rights

Continued violence against women including domestic violence, abuse, harassment, sexual bribery, and online gender based violence.

Child Rights

8558 cases of Child Rights Abuse including rape, abduction, child labour, cruelty etc. reported to the National Child Protection Authority last year.

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Credits:

Groundviews, Human Rights Watch, The Times of Israel, War Child Holland