PUBLICATIONSRepression of Dissent

Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka: Before and during COVID19 curfew

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1. Executive Summary

This report records 95 incidents that had been reported during the 90 days period. The average number of incidents per day reported prior to the covid-19 curfew is slightly higher than the number of incidents reported during the curfew. There were a high number of incidents related to legal, institutional and policy changes prior to the curfew. During the curfew, the number of physical attacks, arrests, verbal threats and hate speech related incidents were high. Before curfew many incidents were reported from Colombo in the Western Province. During the curfew period, more than 50% of incidents were reported from districts outside Western Province and Northern and Eastern provinces. In previous reports, the number of incidents were high in North and East. Most of the victims were government officials, journalists, civil society activists and protesters respectively. During both periods, most of alleged perpetrators were either police or military, followed by government officers and politicians and business persons. Majority of victims were men.

Nadarasalingam Thusanth a Kilinochchi based journalist was physically attacked and his office was vandalized during the curfew. Photo courtesy Tamil Guardian
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Journalists faced questioning at home, by phone and summoning to offices of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police. There were also death threats against journalists by a son of a politician and a shop owner. A journalist and a source were also arrested, while another journalist was assaulted. A private TV station had expelled journalists who had exposed a special event organized by the institution violating curfew laws and for requesting protective equipment.

Two prisoners were shot dead in tensions that had arisen in context of covid19 related protests in a prison in Anuradhapura. In Colombo, protesters were assaulted and threatened with arrest by police and a temporary hut of protesters were taken down by police. Persons protesting on covid19 related issues were also arrested in Batticaloa and Kandy districts. A court order was issued to stop a student protest in Colombo and students in Jaffna University were stopped from entering the University to have a protest.

On 1st April police announced that those criticizing and pointing shortcomings of government officials will be arrested. At least 17 persons had been arrested by 19th April for fake news and the Human Rights Commission had expressed concerns about legal basis for some of the arrests. Amongst those arrested was Ramzy Razeek, a commentator who regularly posts on his Facebook profile on topics related to ethnic harmony, minority rights, gender etc. At least two persons were arrested for publishing online content criticizing the government’s covid19 response. A student activist’s house was visited by the police after he had posted a Facebook comment questioning the government. A former MP of an opposition political party and LGBTIQ community, including one activist were subjected to online hate speech campaigns. Two potential Tamil female candidates, for upcoming parliamentary elections faced vicious personal attacks online. Such attacks, as well as a number of fake news and hate speech content, mostly against minorities, published or broadcasted by mainstream media with large outreach, didn’t seem to result in legal actions.

In other incidents, a leader of an indigenous community (Vedda) was attacked after he spoke to the media criticizing sand mining in the local area and its damages to the environment. A businessman was assaulted and CCTV camera equipment at his house were damaged by Police after he questioned about Police violence against two other persons in his neighborhood. A lawyer who had appeared in significant cases related to rights and democracy and vocal on minority rights, was arrested on suspicion of terrorism and he has not been provided proper access to lawyers nor been produced before a Magistrate. Visits by intelligence agencies to offices of NGOs, houses of NGO staff and phone calls continued. A female activist vocal in demanding investigations into a child abuse case was threatened that her nude photographs will be made public. Police also held an inquiry against an information technology activist after he pointed security loopholes in an ATM machine of a private bank.

A number of legal and policy changes, including appointments, looked ominous for dissent. The Government declared it was withdrawing from the co-sponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council resolutions on reconciliation and accountability. The President’s office and Parliament Committee on National Security indicated restrictions on civil society and NGOs. A senior district level government official issued a letter asking NGOs to de-prioritize human rights, women’s empowerment and land rights. Activists who defied the decision to sing the national anthem only in Sinhalese at the official Independence Day function faced online threats and vilification. An Army officer being prosecuted for killings of protesters in 2013 was promoted. The police chief requested to temporarily suspend some ongoing legal cases and an investigation officer who handled a key corruption case for several years was suddenly replaced with a new officer. And President Gotabaya said that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which had reduced presidential powers and strengthened independent oversight bodies, are a hindrance in fulfilling the aspirations of the people, at a meeting with heads of media.

Government officials trying to do their duties, including police officers, public health officials, village officers (Grama Niladharis) excise officers, forest conservation officers, coastal conservation officer, and a school principal faced reprisals. These included verbal attacks with obscene language, physical assaults, and threats including a death threat at gun point. Politicians, a Buddhist Monk and agitated villagers were amongst those responsible. Many of these incidents were related to environmental issues and covid19.

Especially during the curfew period, restrictions and limited court work made it difficult for victims to seek protection, legal remedies. It was also difficult to seek and offer support from other defenders, lawyers, journalists diplomats etc. Detainees faced more challenges.

2. Methodology

This report provides some general trends and details of some significant incidents related to the repression of dissent in Sri Lanka before and during Covid19 lock down curfew in Sri Lanka. Due to the impact of covid19, a nationwide curfew was imposed on 20th March 2020. This report compares the situation concerning dissent in Sri Lanka before the curfew 48 days from 1st February to 19th March and during curfew period: 42 days from 20th March to 30th April, covering a total 90 days period.

This report was prepared mainly based on the information reported in mainstream and social media, however in few cases information was gathered from direct interviews, or discussions INFORM staff had with activists, witnesses and survivors.  Incidents of repression mentioned in this report include arrests, threats, intimidation, investigations against human rights defenders (HRDs) etc. and potential threats such as new repressive laws, appointments, policy decisions etc., which may have a negative impact on freedom of expression, assembly, association and dissent in the future. 

In this report, “dissent” is broadly defined to include acts of protest, resistance, defiance, challenge against, question or attempt to record rights violations, social injustice at the hands of state or non-state apparatus, including police, armed forces, religious groups, and politicians among others. “Repression” is defined as any attempt by the above state or non-state actors to suppress the acts of dissent. Any rhetoric decrying human rights has also been considered as repression of dissent because of its potential to erode rights. We have also included government officials who had faced reprisals when trying to do their duties.

A detailed analysis is available in the full report.

6. Statistical Analysis

In total 95 incidents during the 90 days period covered in this report from 1st February-30th April 2020, reporting approximately one incident per a day. When the number of incidents in two periods is compared, the number of incidents reported prior to the covid-19 curfew is slightly higher than the number of incidents reported during the curfew. The incidents could be under-reported during the curfew period than previously.

Period Number of days Number of incidents Incidents per day
Before Curfew 48 days 54 1.13
During Curfew 42 days 41 0.98
Total 90 days 95 1.06

Table 1: Number of incidents before and during curfew

Below statistics were generated taking number of incidents into consideration. In many incidents, the number of victims is more than one, so the number of victims is much higher.

When types of violations were looked at, there were a higher number of incidents related to repressive, legal, institutional and policy changes prior to the curfew. During the curfew, the number of physical attacks, arrests, verbal threats and hate speech related incidents have increased.


Type of violation
Before Curfew
During Curfew
Total
Number Percentage Number Percentage Number Percentage
Killings 0 0% 1 2% 1 1%
Physical attacks 5 9% 13 32% 18 19%
Arrests 2 4% 7 17% 9 9%
Verbal threats 5 9% 5 12% 10 11%
Death threats 2 4% 1 2% 3 3%
Hate speech 2 4% 4 10% 6 6%
Intimidation 3 6% 0 0% 3 3%
Hacking and blocking of social media profiles and pages 2 4% 1 2% 3 3%
Questioning by military or police 4 7% 1 2% 5 5%
Visits, inspection and questioning at residence/NGOs 1 2% 3 7% 4 4%
Repressive legal, institutional and policy changes 19 35% 2 5% 21 22%
Questionable appointments 1 2% 0 0% 1 1%
Others 8 15% 3 7% 11 12%

54 100% 41 100% 95 100%

Table 2: Types of violations

* Two persons were killed during the Anuradhapura prison shooting incident. However, it was considered as a single incident.

When geographical areas of the incidents are considered, there is a significant difference between before the curfew and during the curfew. Before curfew many incidents were reported from Colombo district in the Western Province and Northern and Eastern Provinces. In addition, there were many incidents which were policy/legal or institutional actions applicable throughout the country, which come under the ‘not applicable’ category.

During the curfew period, 49% of incidents were reported from districts outside Western Province and Northern, and Eastern provinces. There is no significant difference between incidents reported before curfew and during curfew in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. 22% incidents were reported before, 20% incidents reported during the curfew. However, this is a significant difference, when we compare this trend with January 2020, and year 2019. Usually 32%-52% (38% of incidents in average) were reported from the North and East provinces since January 2019 until January 2020.


Location
Before Curfew
During Curfew
Total
Number Percentage Number Percentage Number Percentage
Colombo 19 35% 6 15% 25 26%
Gampaha and Kalutara 2 4% 1 2% 3 3%
North and East 12 22% 8 20% 20 21%
Other areas 6 11% 20 49% 26 27%
Not Applicable 10 19% 2 5% 12 13%
Not mentioned 1 2% 0 0% 1 1%
Online 4 7% 4 10% 8 8%
Total 54 100% 41 100% 95 100%

Table 3: Geographical location

When looked at the types of victims, 23% of the total incidents were about repression of government officers. While in the pre curfew situation, this largely included influences and threats by politicians and others, in the curfew situation this was largely related to alleged irregularities of government allowance provided to vulnerable persons. Repression of journalists (17%) seemed to be the second major pattern, this was a pattern which continued for several months. When looking at other categories, 11% was about civil society activists, while 8% were about protesters. There were 31% of other incidents.


Category of Victims
Before Curfew
During Curfew
Total
Number Percentage Number Percentage Number Percentage
Journalists 10 19% 6 15% 16 17%
Civil Society Activists 6 11% 4 10% 10 11%
Protesters 6 11% 2 5% 8 8%
Student Activists 3 6% 1 2% 4 4%
Government officers 8 15% 14 34% 22 23%
Lawyers 0 0% 1 2% 1 1%
Politicians 0 0% 4 10% 4 4%
Others 20 37% 9 22% 29 31%
Not applicable 1 2% 0 0% 1 1%

54 100% 41 100% 95 100%

Table 4: Type of victims

When the gender of the victims was considered, 15% of total incidents were related to women. There was no significant difference before the curfew and during curfew. However when it comes to men, 28% of incidents before the curfew and 63% of incidents during the curfew, were related to men. There is a significant increase in the number of men as victims. It is to be noted that more incidents before the curfew were legal, policy and institutional actions and therefore 50% incidents were categorized as gender was inapplicable. The number of such incidents have dramatically reduced during the curfew period.


Gender of the victims
Before Curfew
During Curfew

Total
Number Percentage Number Percentage Number Percentage
Male 15 28% 26 63% 41 43%
Female 9 17% 5 12% 14 15%
Not Applicable 27 50% 6 15% 33 35%
Not mentioned 3 6% 4 10% 7 7%

54 100% 41 100% 95 100%

Table 5: Gender of the victim

In 29% of the total incidents, alleged perpetrators were either Police or military. In 20% of incidents before the curfew and 5% during the curfew, alleged perpetrators were other government officers. This could be due to the fact that the majority of the regular government and other offices were closed down during the curfew period. In 15% of the total incidents, alleged perpetrators were politicians. Also in 15% of incidents during the curfew (6% of total incidents), alleged perpetrators were villagers. These were mainly incidents in which government officers were assaulted by villagers over irregularities occurred in the distribution of 5000 LKR government allowance during covid19. In 8% of the total incidents alleged perpetrators were business persons.


Alleged perpetrator/ responsible persons
Before Curfew
During Curfew

Total
Number Percentage Number Percentage Number Percentage
Military and Police 14 26% 14 34% 28 29%
Government and officers 11 20% 2 5% 13 14%
Politicians 9 17% 5 12% 14 15%
Business persons 4 7% 4 10% 8 8%
Courts 3 6% 0 0% 3 3%
Villagers 0 0% 6 15% 6 6%
Not mentioned 3 6% 2 5% 5 5%
Others 10 19% 8 20% 18 19%

54 100% 41 100% 95 100%

Table 6: Alleged Perpetrator or the responsible party to the incident

Download the full report here

Detailed report includes

  1. Executive Summary
  2. methodology,
  3. context,
  4. Major incidents and trends related to dissent
    1. Repression of journalists
    2. Repression of freedom of assembly
    3. Arrests related to facebook posts, threats and risks online
    4. Legal and policy changes, problematic appointments, and undue influences on the judiciary
    5. Repression against government officers
    6. Other incidents
  5. Updates on previous legal cases related to dissent
  6. Statistical Analysis
  7. List of incidents related to dissent from 1st February 2020 –30thApril 2020

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