Repression of Dissent April 2023



Context: protests were held around the country against the recently proposed Anti Terrorism Act (ATA) that seeks to replace draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) as human rights activists found both ATA and PTA are repressive and its possibility to be used for cracking down the dissent.  A joint letter was issued by the UN Rapporteurs proposing several key amendments to the proposed ATA to ensure the human rights concerns being addressed. An Anti-corruption bill was also gazetted. The US government blacklisted Sri Lanka’s war-time Navy Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda for alleged violations of human rights at the time. A private member bill seeking to decriminalise homosexuality was presented to the Parliament, while three individuals filed a petition at the Supreme Court against the proposed bill. Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) conducted an inquiry into whether sufficient security was provided when the private residence of current President Ranil Wickramasinghe faced an arson attack during anti government protests. Local government elections were again postponed as the government treasury did not provide required funds to conduct the local government election.

On 20th April, North East Women’s Collective staged a protest against the Anti Terrorism Act bill in all 8 districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Photo Courtesy: Sri Lanka Brief

Case updates: HRCSL released its final report on the gun shooting by Police at protesters in Rambukkana in April 2022, concluding that Police have used disproportionate powers resulting in the death of a protester and injuries to 18 other protesters. Issuing a press notice, HRCSL stated that proposed ATA interferes with the fundamental rights of the citizens. The Court of Appeal (CoA) announced that it would deliver the verdict of the petition seeking an order to disqualify State Minister Diana Gamage from holding a parliamentary seat due to her alleged dual citizenship in the next June. The CoA also issued an interim order preventing the summoning of former Attorney General Dappula de Livera to the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) regarding a statement he made about investigations on Easter Sunday bombings, based on a petition filed by him. The CoA granted an interim order preventing Police from either arresting and naming Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) Deshabandu Tennakoon as a suspect in relation to several events connected to last year anti-government protests. In response to a court order issued in March 2023 in relation to a hearing of a case of extra judicial killing, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) informed the Supreme Court that the Police have formulated guidelines to prevent encounter deaths in Police custody.  Welisara magistrate court concluded the magistrate inquest into the killing of 11 prisoners in Mahara Prison, and ordered the CID to arrest the prison officials who were involved in the shooting. However, no arrests were made, while the Prison department said that they are going to appeal against the order. 

Police chasing and shooting at the protestors in Rambukkana April 2022. Photo courtesy: Sri Lanka Brief

Repression of Media and Journalists: Ramachandran Sanath an independent journalist and activist was summoned to the Terrorism Investigation Division of the Sri Lanka Police. Ishara Dewendra, a female journalist worked in the state owned, Independent Television network (ITN) published facebook post alleging that she resigned from her job due to sexual harassment, and no actions were taken by the management regarding the complaints she made. Colombo DIstrict court has issued two injunctions order against the SL Deshya Youtube channel and Youtuber Darshana Hadungoda on 26th April effective until 10th May of 2023, as the Attorney General Department filed a petition accusing him of allegedly publishing false information regarding the marine disaster of  MV X-Press Pearl ship explosion. Journalist Zulfick Farzan working for Newsfirst was summoned to the TID to record a statement regarding the interview he conducted with the Former Attorney General Dappula De Livera regarding Easter Sunday Terror Attacks in 2019. 

Repression of Freedom of Assembly: Police attempted to prevent non-Muslims from attending an interfaith iftar ceremony organised in the Galle Face on 9th April, as the day coincided with the annual remembrance of the Aragalaya which was not allowed to be remembered in Galleface. A bodyguard of a Buddhist monk has allegedly threatened the farmers who had been protesting against the installation of Buddhist statues in the farming land in the area. A protest organised by Telecom trade unions, a semi-government telecommunications company against its proposed privatisation, was disrupted by the riot Police.   A student protest demanding release of student activists was disrupted by Police by attacking the protest with tear gas and water, in front of the University Grant Commission’s office in Colombo.  HRCSL said they have launched an inquiry into the incident and asked the IGP of the Police to submit a report. 

Police used water cannons to disperse a protest organized by student activists, near Town Hall in Colombo. Photo Courtesy: daily mirror

Repression of State Officials: Former Attorney General Dappula de  Livera was summoned to the TID of Police to record a statement over a statement he made in 2022, claiming that there was a grand conspiracy behind the Easter Sunday bomb blast, considering the evidence available to him. Three commissioners of the HRSL wrote a letter requesting a meeting with the President, complaining about the HRCSL chairperson retired justice Rohini Marasinghe for allegedly acting at her discretion against the views of the other members. However their criticisms against the chairperson were mainly regarding the summoning of high profile politicians and state officials for inquiries and seemed pro-government and politically motivated. A police officer who took part at a protest organised by leftist political party National People’s Power was suspended from his duty. He had taken leave from his duties to participate at the protest in civilian clothing.  

Legal Policy and Actions: Cabinet Spokesperson Minister Gunawardena said that protests at the Galle Face would not be allowed in future, as the Ports Authority has undertaken the ground as a social responsibility project.   A monthly gazette notification was issued calling out the armed forces for maintenance of public order, which indicates increased militarization by the state. Supply of electricity, petroleum and fuel, postal service and health services were declared as essential services. It is a known tactic by the state to discourage trade union actions. A circular has been issued by the Ministry of Health prohibiting the display of black flags in hospitals and health institutions claiming that such actions would negatively impact on the mental health of the patients. 

Other incidents: The Police provided an explanation regarding the use of expired teargas to control protests, claiming that expired teargas does not cause any serious harm to people exposed to it, but loses its effectiveness. They denied any link between recent deaths of protesters and exposure to teargas. The minister of Labour and Foreign Employment MP Manusha Nanayakkara made racist comments against Batticaloa District parliamentarian Shanikyan Rasamanikkam. 


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