PUBLICATIONSRepression of Dissent

Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka: April -June 2021


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1. Methodology

This report provides some general trends and details of some significant incidents related to the repression of dissent in Sri Lanka in the months of April to June 2021. This report was prepared mainly based on the information reported in mainstream and social media. 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. The report is based on 78 incidents related to repression of dissent in Sri Lanka. Section 1 describes the methodology. Section 2 describes the socio-political context and some trends relating to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka during the month. Section 3 provides updates about ongoing legal cases related to dissent. Section 4 provides a thematic summaries of the incidents described in the report. This month’s report is organized under 5 themes: (4.1) repression of media and journalists, (4.2) Repression of Freedom of Assembly, (4.3) Repression of NGOs and civil society, (4.4) Repression of state officials, (4.5) Repressive legal and policy actions, and (4.6) Other incidents. Section 5 includes the list of incidents presented in a table, with a brief description about each incident. 

2. Context

Rule of law: One convict and a few accused who had a close connection with the ruling government were pardoned and acquitted from their cases. In June 2021, the murder convict and former MP Duminda Silva was granted Presidential pardon despite of strong opposition from UN, human rights and civil society activists[1]. The other convicts of the same case were not granted pardon. However, 92 other prisoners including 16 Tamil political prisoners received presidential pardon[2]. One month after pardoning, in July 2021, President Rajapaksa appointed Duminda Silva as the chairman of National Housing Development Authority[3].  Soon after Hirunika Pemachandra, the daughter of assassinated MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court[4]. In September 2016, former MP Duminda Silva along with three others were sentenced to death for shooting late MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and three of his supporters during local elections in Colombo in 2011[5].

On 21st of May, a three-judge bench of the Permanent High Court Trial-at-Bar ordered the acquittal and release of eight suspects, including Nissanka Yapa Senadhipathi, Chairman of Avant Garde, who were charged with operating a floating armoury at sea. The defendants were accused of operating a floating armoury on board the MV Avant Garde near the Galle Harbour, illegal possession and transportation of 203,395 live ammunition without a license on board and causing a financial loss of 11.4 billion rupees to the Government by granting approval to the Avant Garde Maritime Services to operate a floating armoury in Galle Harbour during the period from 07 August 2012 to 8 January 2015[6]. The three-judge panel ruled that the ship appeared to have a valid license to possess firearms and ammunition based on a letter issued by the defence Ministry and a statement given by the former Defence Secretary[7]. On 7th May, former MP Nishantha Muthuhettigama and four other suspects were released from the case filed over the abduction and unlawful detention of an individual[8]. On 1st April ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Milan Jayathilake and  former Chairman of the Dompe Pradeshiya Sabha Ajith Sisira Kumara were released from the charges filed in connection to a bribery case, after the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption had informed the Court that it will withdraw the case filed against the two suspects.[9] Four bribery cases filed against former Development Lotteries Board Chairman Chandrawansa Pathiraja were withdrawn by the bribery commission as the commission withdrew its charges claiming that the case was filed without the approval of all three commissioners. He was accused of incurring a loss of Rs.64 million to the government in 2010 during his tenure as Development Lotteries Board Chairman by dealing with private institutions that had not signed agreements for the sale of lotteries.[10]

Extrajudicial killings: Two custodial killings of underworld figures occurred 11-13 of May. On 11th May, underworld figure Mabulage Dineth Melan Mabula alias “Urujuwa” was killed in the custody of Nawagamuwa Police. He had been arrested soon after his release from Boosa prison and taken “to a location in Nawagamuwa where an incident occurred that Police had to shoot him” according to the Police[11]. Similarly on 13th of June, underworld figure Kosgoda Tharaka was shot dead at Meerigama when he had supposedly attempted to attack the police who had escorted him to a site to recover some stashed weapons according to Police. However, the news website Lankaenews[12] warned that Kosgoda Tharaka was going to be shot dead by an alleged hit squad purportedly operated by the Peliyagoda Crimes Division hours before his death.[13] Following these incidents, several organisations, including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), and the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) called for in-depth investigations into these two deaths and Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka also wrote to the Inspector General of Police requesting information[14]

Two underworld figures were killed in Police custody. Hours before Kosgoda Tharaka’s death, a news website published that he is going to be killed. Photo courtesy: Colombo Telegraph.

Committee for Protecting of Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) submitted a letter to the UN Special rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions and UN Special rapporteur on Torture about three other suspicious deaths where family members have implicated alleged Police violence as the reason for the deaths. The victims included (1) a 49 years old Sinhalese man from Weligama area in Matara district who had been allegedly beaten by Police for violating quarantine regulations when a bus had run over him, (2) a 22 years old young Tamil man from Batticaloa district who had died due to alleged Methamphetamine intoxication according to Police, whose body had non-fatal trivial injuries which have allegedly occurred due to Police torture according to family members, and (3) a 42 years old Muslim man who had died after allegedly jumping out of the Police vehicle according to Police, who had died due to alleged Police torture according to his family members[15].   On 21st of June, protests occurred in Batticaloa after a Sri Lankan Ministerial Security Division (MSD) officer attached to ruling government parliamentarian Sathasivam Viyalendiran allegedly shot dead a Tamil man.[16]

Street punishments to Muslim civilians

Images of a group of people who purportedly violated travel restrictions being punished with kneeling down on a street in Eravur were widely circulating in social media. Photo courtesy: ColomboPage

A probe was ordered after social media posts show soldiers forcing minority Muslims to kneel on the streets as punishment for flouting COVID lockdown rules. Issuing a media statement, the Army said “it immediately removed” the personnel from their duties, “after an alleged improper conduct of a few army personnel” in Eravur, a Muslim-majority town in the eastern Batticaloa district. Initial investigation has begun, the army said, pledging “strictest action”.[17]

Sinking of chemical cargo ship: The Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl, a chemical cargo ship, sank off Colombo in early June[18] after catching fire since 20th May[19]. The sinking ship caused ‘significant damage’ to the environment by releasing hazardous substances into marine environment[20]. By 30th of June, caracasses of 176 sea turtles, 20 dolphins, and 04 whales washed ashore, as a result of the disaster[21]. Fishing was temporarily banned from Kalutara South to Negombo covering more than 80 Km coastal belt. The fishing communities who were directly affected by the disaster filed a fundamental rights petition[22]organized protests seeking compensation, however they were paid meagre compensation[23].  

Economic crisis: Sri Lanka has been undergoing an economic crisis[24] as covid19 has made a strong negative impact on the country’s economy along with large foreign debt repayment commitments and reduced foreign-exchange reserves. As of end-April 2021 foreign exchange reserves were reduced to USD 4.5 billion[25] while Sri Lanka also obtained a 250 million USD SWAP loan from Bangladesh in May.[26] Fuel prices were increased in mid-June.[27] Inflation rates also continued to increase, while food prices increased by 9.9 percent[28] bringing a number of challenges to the general public. In April 2021, the government also imposed import restrictions on chemical fertilizers which led to many protests among farmers around the country.[29]

“No fertilizer, No food tomorrow” A group of farmers protesting from their farm lands in Sapugolla area in Badulla District. Photo courtesy Newsfirst.   

EU Resolution: On 10th June, European Parliament adopted a resolution “on the situation in Sri Lanka, in particular the arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)”[30] ahead of reviewing the EU Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), the special incentive programme which Sri Lanka is a beneficiary. The resolution paid special attention to the recent expansion of PTA that allows two years detention without trial and other issues concerning deteriorating human rights situation and accountability in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government responded to the resolution claiming that it contains factual inaccuracies, and does not take cognizance of the multifaceted progress made by Sri Lanka in reconciliation and development[31].

Remembrance Events:  Sri Lanka remembered the second anniversary of Easter Sunday bomb attacks on 21st April 2021. The catholic churches across the country organized events praying and demanding justice for the victims of the attacks. Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith stated that he was ‘deeply saddened’ by the lack of progress in the investigation and accused the government of political posturing and the need to protect alliances that had hindered the probe[32].

On 19th of May, Sri Lankan government commemorated the 12th National War Heroes’ Day at the War Heroes’ Memorial in Battaramulla remembering the soldiers who sacrificed their lives during the war with the participation of Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister[33]. However, Tamil politicians and civil society leaders faced various restrictions and reprisals when they attempted to commemorate Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day remembering their relatives, friends and leaders who died during and end of the war.

President Gotabaya Rajapakse paying tribute to the war heroes. Photo courtesy: Colombo Page

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3. Case updates

On 16th June, former Director of CID Shani Abeysekera was granted bail after being detained for more than 10 months. Former Sub Inspector of CID Sugath Mendis was also granted bail with him.[34]  During the last regime, Abeysekera led the investigations on high profile criminal cases including killings of journalists. On 31st of July 2020, he was arrested under the allegations that he had  falsely introduced certain weapons and fabricated false evidence to frame a false case against former Deputy Inspector General of Police Vass Gunawardena who was convicted for a murder. In November 2015, Former DIG Vaas Gunawardena, his son Ravindu Vaas Gunawardena and four police officers were sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court for committing the murder of millionaire businessman Mohamed Shyam in 2013 based on investigations conducted by CID led by Shani Abeyesekera.[35]In 2018, he was again convicted for another 5 years with rigorous imprisonment for making death threats to CID detectives including Shani Abeysekara in 2013.[36] The alleged planting of evidence against Abeysekara is related to the firearms that were used for the murder of Mohamed Siyam. In his bail petition, Abeysekara argued that Complainant has failed to establish prima facie to the reasonable satisfaction of the court that there was material in support of any of the allegations; and there are no reasonable grounds for believing that he is likely to have committed the offence alleged against him, and unsubstantiated allegations are ill-founded and based on purported positions[37].

On 11th June, the long detained human rights lawyer under Prevention of Terrorism act Attorney-at-law Hejaaz Hizbullah and a suspect of the same case Mohomed Khan Mohamed Shakeel made an application before the Puttalam High Court requesting that their indictments be served soon, as it has been more than one year since Hizbullah has been arrested in April 2020.  Madrasa School Principal Shakeel was arrested in February 2021 for allegedly conspiring with and abetting Hejaaz Hisbullah on charges under the PTA and ICCPR Act and it has been 4 months since his arrest[38]. Hisbullah was under the custody of CID, and thereafter in remand prison for more than 14 months in total. It was also brought to the notice that certain persons who are not accused in this case but witnesses have been coerced during the past 2-3 months by the CID to give incriminating evidence against Hejaaz Hisbullah and they have filed a fundamental rights petition at the Supreme Court. Since it was required that the accused being present at the time of indictments being served, high court judge made an order calling for a report from the Director General of Health Services into the viability of the accused being  present before this court for serving of the indictments.[39]

Two Fundamental Rights petitions filed on behalf of two teachers of the Al- Zuhriya Arabic College in early June said that two teachers were forced by the Criminal Investigations Department to implicate Attorney-at-Law Hejaaz Hizbullah. President’s Counsel MP M.A. Sumanthiran told the court that the two teachers had told their lawyer Balasooriya during a consultation held in the presence of two CID officers who had an audio recording device, that the officers had promised “leniency” if they implicate Hizbullah[40]. Similarly, a year before on 11th May 2020 three children filed Fundamental Rights petitions before the Supreme Court through their guardians that the Police have coerced them to provide statements against Hejaaz Hizbullah.[41] 

On 16th of May, a collective of local and international human rights organizations issued a Joint Statement Calling for Immediate Release of Poet Ahnaf Jazeem detained for a year without Charge[42]. Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested on 16th May 2020 as he was a teacher at the same school relating to the Hejaaz Hizbullah case. He was accused that the poetry he wrote allegedly promoted extremism as he had shared them with his students at the school. On 12th June, the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) has produced the poet in court without informing the lawyer and family members, depriving the lawyer of an opportunity to make any submissions before the court in Jazeem’s defence. Attorney-at-Law (AAL) Sanjaya Wilson Jayasekera, the lawyer representing poet speaking to a newspaper said that although Jazeem’s father had called the Tangalle Detention Centre on 12 June, where Jazeem was previously held, it had not been communicated to him that Jazeem had been brought to Colombo to be produced before the court. When Jayasekera had contacted the TID on 14th June, they had informed him that Jazeem had been brought to Colombo on 11 June and produced before the Colombo Magistrate’s Court the following day under Section 8(2) of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA). Jazeem was arrested in connection to his Tamil language poetry anthology, titled Navarasam (Nine Emotions), which the authorities have alleged promoted “extremist” ideology, which has been refuted by academics, intellectuals and civil society activists.[43] [44]

Free Trade Zone Solidarity – a collective of organizations on rights of Free Trade Zone workers issued a media release commemorating the 10th anniversary since the assasination of Free trade Zone Worker Roshen Chanaka at a protest held on 30th May 2011. On the day, Police fired at protesting workers. 400 workers were hospitalized and approximately 3,000 others faced physical and mental stress related issues. Roshen Chanaka succumbed to death due to his injuries on 1st of June whilst the other 7 sustained injuries which resulted in life-long disabilities. The statement marking the 1o years highlighted that they are uncertain when the justice will be served, as the hearing of evidence is not yet over and the case is still being heard in the Negambo in the Negombo High Court. The statement also made several demands with regards to workers’ rights in the context of covid-19.[45]

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4. Summary of incidents

4.1 Repression of Media and journalists

Journalists were restricted from directly participating at the District and Regional Coordinating Committee meetings, but allowed to have separate briefings with chairpersons and people’s representatives after the meetings, according to a circular issued by the Secretary to the State Ministry of Defense, Home Affairs and Disaster Management. In another incident, Moratuwa Mayor Samanlal Fernando did not allow journalists to report on the Urban Council meeting held on On 30th June, citing covid19 health concerns.

Journalist Malika Abeykoon. Image Courtesy:

On 7th April, freelance Journalist Malika Abeykoon was arrested by Maradana police in Colombo, while he was covering a health workers’ protest rally organised by the United Health Workers Union (UHWU). He had been later assaulted by the Police while in custody. As the Police had submitted a fabricated medical report to the court claiming that he had not been assaulted, he removed his shirt and showed the judge of bruises and scars he received as a result of assaults in the previous night. A provincial journalist, Prasad Muthukudaarachchi was allegedly assaulted by a police sergeant when the journalist was covering a visit of forest officials to investigate an illegally transported load of firewood into a garment factory in Liyanagemulla, Seeduwa in Gampaha District. Later Police apologized to the journalist.

Tamil journalists travelling to Mullaitivu have repeatedly been allegedly harassed, intimidated and blocked at checkpoints by Sri Lankan military officers, despite presenting travel permits. On 20th May, a journalist was not allowed to travel to Mullaitivu despite the fact that he was covering a story as per the request of the District Secretariat and confirming his identification as a journalist. On 22nd May, another provincial journalist Shanmugam Thavaseelan was also refused permission to travel for work, despite the prior-permission obtained from the Police. Though he has been allowed to travel after contacting the Officer-in-Charge (OIC) in the Police, the delay in travelling has caused him unable to participate at the event he is going to cover.  Uthayan newspaper journalist Ramachandran Sanath has complained to the Inspector General of Police alleging that he and his family have been subjected to surveillance by Police at multiple times.  Sanath is a former founding co-editor of Sudar Oli newspaper and a social activist.

Journalist Chamuditha Samarawickrama has informed Inspector General of Police (IGP) Chandana D. Wickramaratne in writing about alleged death threats made against him and has requested an investigation.Samarawickrama further claimed that there could be a link between the death threats he had received and his recent commentary demanding legal action regarding an incident involving a party organised by an actress and a fashion designer during a period when the travel restrictions were in place. The Director of the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital has complained to the Galle Police Headquarters, seeking the disclosure of sources related to an article published on by its editor Sajeeva Wijeweera regarding an investigative article on covid19 situation. The hospital’s Director requested an inquiry to figure out how an internal document had been obtained by the journalist and subsequently the journalist was summoned to the Police. A journalist working for Newsfirst television channel has been obstructed and intimidated while recording footage of a Chinese Sri Lankan Joint Venture to dredge and clean Tissamaharama ancient irrigation tank.

4.2 Repression of Freedom of Assembly

Army Commander General Shavendra Silva announced that a decision has been taken to suspend all rallies and events related to the Labour Day on 1st May. Though he claimed that a common consensus was reached among the leaders of political parties on this, several opposition parties spoke to the media claiming that they were not consulted.  On 1st of May, when a coalition of 12 trade unions organized a May Day rally, Police initially attempted to disrupt it, though they were later allowed. This was the third consecutive year that May Day rallies were not held due to Easter Sunday Bombings and covid-19 situation.

The Foreign Minister MP Dinesh Gunawardane requested the Speaker of the parliament to conduct an inquiry into the posters and materials arrested by Parliament Police that were brought into parliament by the Opposition MPs demanding justice for easter Sunday bombings. Gunawardane alleged that they have breached the security of the parliament. The Kaduwela Magistrate’s Court has instructed the Thalangama Police to take legal action against a group of Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) parliamentarians and party members who allegedly violated the quarantine laws and staged protests on the way to Parliament. Opposition political parties JVP and SJB held protests against the port city bill on 19th and 20th May.   

Wheelbarrow protestor was arrested for allegedly violating covid19 health guidelines by not wearing a facemask. Image courtesy: Sri Lanka tweet.

When the government imposed a ban on using private vehicles to travel, an individual who protested the government’s ban by using a wheelbarrow to transport goods purchased from a Supermarket and shared the video in social media was arrested for allegedly violating covid19 regulations for not wearing a facemask in the video. A man was arrested for his involvement in encouraging motorists to honk in protest against the closing of roads in Borella town to allow the movement of the VVIP convoy of visiting Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe. After being released on bail, he extended his apology to the Police and the Government for his actions.

Police have arrested ten people, including the provincial council’s deputy chairman for Puthukkudiyiruppu, Mullaitivu, following protests against the reopening of a garment factory amidst fears of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading. The ten people arrested by the police were later released on bail. Police disrupted a protest organized by fishermen of Modara whose livelihoods have been jeopardized owing to the sinking of MV XPress Pearl ship incident. Protestors alleged that police had groped their private parts while disrupting a protest. Members of the Front-Line Socialist Party who joined the protest were admitted to the hospital with injuries. During a protest by students held in Colombo, Police have forcefully seized an effigy that resemblesPresident Rajapakse, and other protest materials. It seemed that Police had been primarily tasked with removing the effigy of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the protest site. A group of assailants led by Chairman of SLPP-ruled Rideemaliyadda Pradeshiya Sabha Nishantha Jayasundara has reportedly assaulted a group of residents who were carrying out a silent protest over alleged irregularities occurred during the carpeting of the Rideemaliyadda – Weeragolla road. Jamburewela Chandrarathana a Buddhist monk linked to ultra-nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena was also arrested during a protest demanding to solve pension issues of wives of ‘war veterans’.

10 persons who commemorated Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day in Kalkudah beach in Batticaloa were arrested. Photo Courtesy: Tamil Guardian 

Those who commemorated the Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day remembering the Tamils who lost their lives at the end of the civil war faced numerous harassments at the hands of military and Police. Sri Lankan military have allegedly vandalised the Mullivaikkal memorial monument located in Mullivaikkal East in early hours of 13th May, just hours after the security forces blocked Tamils from erecting a memorial stone at the site. When they finally were allowed access in the early hours of the morning, the constructed site was in ruins. The memorial monument, which depicts a pair of outstretched hands, had been broken off and tossed into the nearby sand, while a large memorial stone with engraved names had disappeared completely. Ten individuals were arrested under Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for allegedly commemorating for holding memorial event on 18th of May in Kalkudah area in Batticaloa district. Former Northern Provincial Council (NPC) member M.K. Sivajilingam has been allegedly harassed for organizing and taking part at several remembrance events held at several places. Police have seized the memorial banner in his possession, and have attempted to arrest him stating that he had violated the identity card procedure in place during the covid19 pandemic despite having obtained permission from relevant authorities. He was also obstructed while holding a vigil at the World Tamil Conference massacre memorial in Jaffna. A video showed soldiers trying to snatch the candles that he is trying to light. The Police who arrived at the scene later have allegedly threatened to arrest him for allegedly violating health restrictions. His office in Valvettithurai in Jaffna had been surrounded by the military when he was conducting another vigil. Similarly, the military have surrounded the private residence of the Tamil politician Peter Ilancheliyan when he was holding a private vigil remembering lives lost during the war, while public commemorations had been completely banned on the day.

Police have also threatened the family of Tamil activist Annai Poopathi, warning that if they commemorated her death anniversary near her grave, they would be imprisoned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).  Valikamam Pradeshiya Sabha chairman, Thiyagarajah Nirosh was blocked from commemorating Ponnuthurai Sivakumaran, the first Tamil rebel to die in the armed struggle. Nirosh who was lighting a flame in memory of Sivakumaran has been told that they were not allowed to pay their respects due to travel bans in the area. The police have stated that only ‘essential’ services have been allowed to take place.


4.3 Repression of NGOs and civil society

Plans to strengthen NGO secretariat and related laws: On 12th of May, the Morning newspaper published that the National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO Secretariat) is planning to be transformed into a monitoring body with powers to conduct probes and to file cases against malpractices carried out by NGOs. A subcommittee has been appointed to propose reforms to the NGO secretariat, is expected to hand over its final draft to the Secretary of Defence by June this year. Meanwhile Government owned newspaper Dinamina published an article calling for mandatory registration of all NGOs with the NGO Secretariat. It also called for special attention into foreign government funding programmes such as USAID, UKAID, KOICA, JAICA, NORAD, SIDA, GiZ etc. and claimed that these funding programmes have been designed to serve hidden political interests of Western Nations. It also called to maintain a database that includes information on funding sources, objectives of the organization, target groups, geographical locations, beneficiaries and how the project is implemented at provincial level, and using government administrative mechanisms to monitor activities of NGOs at the provincial level and proposed instruction from Divisional Secretariats in designing projects, and selection, and prioritization of target groups. Also it proposed to bring laws to regulate entry and exit of INGOs into the country.

Investigations into civil society organizations: On or before 14th April, Director General of NGO Secretariat Raja Gunarathna stated that the government has launched investigations into 38 NGOs.On 3rd April, Divaina newspaper reported that a government official had called three officers of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) into an inquiry and questioned why they had sent  a report to a German funder[46] claiming that Gotabaya Rajapakse had abducted and killed journalists.

The same newspaper article also made several defamatory accusations against two local NGOs, former HRCSL commissioner, and an INGO, and USAID. The article claimed that MONLAR has produced such a report for financial gains as ‘selling human rights is a profitable business’ while their organizational mandate is a different one. It also alleged that the National Peace Council (NPC) had made undue interventions into national security and local politics in Sri Lanka, while Global Communities had allegedly implemented ‘mystery projects’ in the former conflict zones of the country, with the support of USAID that was labelled by the newspaper as a ‘CIA agent’. Former Human Rights commissioner Ambika Satkunathan was accused of allegedly being pro-LTTE in the same press article.

Banning organizations: On 13th April, the state owned Sinhala language newspaper Dinamina published a news article claiming that the government has banned NGOs in Sri Lanka from (1) signing agreements with foreign countries, and (2) accepting money from foreign countries. Article further said the government has taken this decision in the context that various NGOs have provided funds for religious extremism and fundamentalism. It also said that Security forces have found out that 32 Islamic organizations and 11 ‘separatist’ organizations in the North have received such funding.

A gazette notification was issued by the Sri Lankan government banning 11 islamic groups including ‘Save the pearls’ organization which detained human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah’s arrest is linked to. Hejaaz Hizbullah played a key role in the organization before his arrest. The list of organizations that were banned included two well-known international islamic terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and ISIS, local islamic groups that included the term ‘Thowheedh’ in their name, Sri Lanka Islamic Student Movement (SLISM) and several other groups. While majority of these local groups are not publicly known to have any links with terrorism, inclusion of ‘Save the pearls’ in the list seems as an extension of the legal case against Hizbullah. Save the Pearl is an organization that supported the education of underprivileged children, hoping to lure them away from criminal activities and drug abuse.

Few days before his arrest, Asela Sampath alleged that the government relief package provided at 1000 LKR does not differ from the market prices. Photo Courtesy: Lankanewsweb

Arrests of individual activists: Asela Sampath, the Convener of the Movement for the Protection of Public Rights and consumer rights advocate was arrested by the Police over accusations of threatening officials in the Consumer Affairs Authority two years ago. On 19th of April he was released on bail. Asela Sampath complained that he was subjected to assault during detention. The Chairman of the Information Technology Society Sri Lanka (ITSSL) Rajeev Yasiru Kuruwitage Mathew was arrested over a statement pertaining to cyber-attack on several state-owned websites. The Police said he had published a press release on social media recently claiming that the websites of the Presidential Secretariat, Foreign Ministry, Medical Research Institute, Survey Department, and several other websites had been hacked. The 23-year-old suspect was arrested by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) after a complaint had been filed seeking legal action against him for allegedly providing fake news. He was released on bail after two days. The Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT) clarified earlier that Government websites had not been hacked. However he clarified that the websites have been affected due to other websites conducting the search engine optimization update. Websites add metadata into the Google search engine in order for their websites to show up on Google and it has been observed that certain websites are currently misusing metadata based on the google optimization feature to attract traffic by using popular Government site names SLCERT said.

4.4 Repression of state officials

Chamila Jayasinghe, an assistant land commissioner working in Kotmale area in Nuwara Eliya district was arrested by CID of Police for sharing a facebook post critical of the government. Photo courtesy: The leader

Freedom of expression: Two employees working in the Ratnapura and Gampaha District branch offices of National Transport Medical Institute have been transferred to the head office in Nugegoda as an interim disciplinary action for publishing social media posts that criticize the Sri Lankan President.  Chamila Jayasinghe, an assistant land commissioner working in Kotmale area in Nuwara Eliya district was arrested by CID of Police for sharing a facebook post pertaining to the alleged deforestation in the Sinharaja forest reserve. Chamila Jayasinghe who was summoned to the CID head office in Colombo on 21st May, has been duly arrested. He was produced before the Colombo Magistrate’s Court on 22nd May with the charge of ‘provoking the people against the government’ under Section 120 of the Penal Code. Magistrate Mr. T.K. Prabhakaran granted bail, while rejecting the request made by the police to keep him under remand custody further. A disciplinary inquiry was conducted against Dr. Chamal Sanjeewa, Deputy Director at Health Ministry regarding his views that were shared during a talk show on YouTube. The Health Ministry Secretary’s office has reportedly informed Dr. Sanjeewa that they wish to meet him to record a statement in this regard. The ParaMedical Services Front of Sri Lanka wrote to the Secretary of the health ministry objecting to this inquiry.Kurunegala mayor in Kurunegala district has allegedly threatened to take legal action against the assistant medical officer for allegedly exposing the mayor’s undue intervention in prioritizing the second dose of astrazeneca vaccine for his friends and relatives.

Obstructions to Covid-19 duties: Moratuwa Mayor Samanlal Fernando in Colombo district was arrested for allegedly threatening a female doctor and obstructing duties of officials, during a vaccination programme. The mayor has demanded vaccination to be provided based on a list that he has previously prepared which the medical doctor has refused.

Moratuwa Mayor demanded vaccination to be given based on a chit he had provided and  threatened a medical officer during a vaccination program. Photo Courtesy: Hiru News.

A Samurdhi Development Officer who was engaged in the distribution of Rs. 5,000 allowance in the Agbowa Samurdhi area in Alawwa in Kuruengala district has been assaulted and admitted to the hospital. A Samurdhi Development officer in Kampane area of Kolonna Divisional Secretariat division has been assaulted when he was returning from his work, by a woman  who has been angered for not receiving 5000 LKR allowance. The victim Subash Prasanna Kamburugamuwa has been admitted to Kolonna Basic Hospital following the attack.  A female Development Officer serving the Delthara West GN Division of the Kesbewa Divisional Secretariat in Colombo District has been assaulted by an unknown person, while returning home after distributing the Rs 5,000 dry ration parcels.  A grama seva officer has been assaulted by a Pradeshiya Sabha member in Ukuwela Pradeshiya Sabha in Matale district for disagreeing to distribute 5000 LKR Covid-19 relief provision to those recommended by the PS member. PS Member Himali Erandika representing the ruling SLPP at the Ukuwela Pradeshiya Sabha in Matale has been arrested by police on charges of having assaulted the female Grama Niladhari Officer. The wife of a Samurdhi officer attached to Kudalunuka area in the Rideemaliyedda Divisional Secretariat in Badualla district was also assaulted by a woman who came to the officer’s house demanding the Rs. 5,000 allowance. Three people who threatened a Samurdhi officer in Hiriwala area in Gampaha district have been arrested and produced before the  Attanagalle Acting Magistrate.Two females and one male have been arrested for threatening a female Samurdhi officer in Pallewela in Gampaha District.

A public Health Inspector (PHI) was assaulted by a man for asking him to wear the face mask at the Rambukkana town. Similarly a public Health Inspector (PHI) was assaulted in Santhasolai area in Vavuniya by a youth travelling in a motorbike after the PHI had asked the youth why he was not wearing a face mask.

A policeman who was on duty at a checkpoint near the Ananda College in Maradana has been subjected to a reprisal for not allowing the wife of a top ranked police officer-in-charge in the Colombo area to pass the checkpoint for jogging, as covid-19 travel regulations were in-effect. Though he had been transferred to another checkpoint within minutes, the decision had been changed after other senior Police officers had intervened. 

Environmental protection: Forest officials complained to the Habarana Police that a group of army officials have threatened them with death, assaulted one officer and obstructed their duties over an incident allegedly linked to the abduction of a baby elephant at the Minneriya National Park. Commanding Officer of the Army 21 Division in Anuradhapura Major General Mohan Ratnayake has allegedly assaulted and threatened the forest officials in Ganewalpola, Palugasweva area. After the case was taken at the Kekirawa magistrate court, the judge ordered the suspects to be arrested. The Major General Ratnayake also filed a complaint against forest officials claiming defamation.A sexist fake news article attempting to humiliate forest officer and environmental activist Devani Jayatilake was virally shared on facebook. The post replicating the design of a well-known gossip column included the news title “a wife leaves husband who asked to remove hair in private parts”. Some posts shared this image along with the photo of environmental activist Devani Jayatilake with a deliberate intent of carrying out a personal attack on her, while comments were abundant of hate speech targeting her activism. In recent years, Devani Jayathilake has openly criticized politicians and exposed incidents of environmental destruction.

During a search operation, an Officer-in-Charge (OIC) at the Environmental Division of Point Pedro Police station was injured after being knocked down and run over by a tipper truck belonging to illegal sand miners.  Subsequently OIC Chief Inspector Ajith Kumara has been admitted to Jaffna hospital due to injuries.

Other incidents:  The driver and a female staff member working in the government run Suwaseriya ambulance service attached to Hatton Police were assaulted by two individuals in Kudagama, Agil area in Dimbula Pathana Police division, as they had refused providing free ambulance services to a person who claimed to be a ‘patient’, but found working in a construction site at the time of ambulance’s arrival.  A Police officer employed at Kurudugaha Hathapma interchange of Southern Expressway has been assaulted by a lorry driver for warning to wear the seat belt. The suspect has been arrested and produced before the Elpitiya magistrate. The railway gatekeeper of Peradeniya Elugoda Railway crossing was assaulted by a group led by a local politician as he had refused to open the gate, as a train was about to arrive. Two days later, the trishaw driver along with the local politician and another person had carried out this assault as a reprisal for the previous incident. Three employees of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) had been admitted to the Kandy General Hospital after they were assaulted in Bahirawakanda, Kandy. The attack occurred, when they were travelling to Bahirawakanda area to remove an electricity post that fell on to a house.

4.5 Repressive Legal and policy actions

Cabinet approval was given to a joint Cabinet paper seeking to introduce new laws to stop fake news in social media. The Secretary to the Ministry of Health has issued a warning letter to all health departments and officials, citing several provisions of the Establishments Code affecting public officials that disciplinary action will be taken against those who criticize government health policy, express personal views and incorrect information. The Free Media Movement condemned the authorities’ attempt to cover up epidemic information in violation of the public’s right to information through various sources.On 8th of June issuing a media statement titled “circulation of fake news, photographs, videos causing disunity, hate and obstructing the Covid-19 programme”, the Police stated that various individuals and groups have been found to be spreading fake news on social media platforms and they will be prosecuted under Penal code and other relevant laws. Several organizations pointed out this statement could be misused by Police to restrict freedom of speech and expression. 

President issued several gazette notifications declaring a long list of services as ‘essential services’. Declaring government services as essential services has been a known tactic to stop protests and trade union actions in the government sector in Sri Lanka.

Gazettes calling on the armed forces to maintain public order were reissued in April, May and June, providing the military with additional powers to intervene in civilian affairs.

5.6 Other incidents

Repression of dissenting Politicians and their supporters: Government politician MP Wijayadasa Rajapaksa alleged that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had threatened him via telephone over his statement that criticized the port city bill. He told the media that the port city bill provides extensive powers that could turn the port city into a Chinese colony and also criticized the appointment of Basil Rajapaksha, president’s brother as the Minister of Finance over previous allegations of corruption. Later SLPP announced that the party will take disciplinary action against MP Wijedasa for his criticism of the Government and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Jaffna mayor was arrested for ‘promoting terrorism’ as he had selected a blue coloured uniform for an environmental taskforce which allegedly resemebles the uniform of the LTTE Police according to Police. Photo Courtesy: Tamil Guardian

Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of Police arrested the Mayor of Jaffna for allegedly promoting the LTTE’s ideology, in the choice of uniforms for an environment task force of the local municipal council. The police alleged that the uniforms worn by the environmental task force of the Jaffna Municipal Council were similar to those formerly worn by the LTTE’s police force. He was accused of committing an offence under Section 120 of the Penal Code ‘exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards the President and the government.’ Speaking at a press conference, the Mayor said that similar uniforms were worn by a similar Task Force in Colombo Municipal Council. In a different incident, Police interrogated the chair of a divisional council in Kilinochchi over the naming of a street in Santhapuram as ‘Vettri Lane’, after a former LTTE cadre who had undergone the government’s rehabilitation programme. Police have asked the Divisional Council to replace the name to reflect the former cadre’s birth name instead of the nom-de-guerre. They have also threatened to take legal action for allegedly attempting to revive terrorism in case if they faild to do so.

Opposition MP Harin Fernando filed a petition at the Supreme Court requesting to prevent his imminent arrest in connection with Easter Sunday attacks, while there is no evidence against him to make such a claim. As MP Fernando was receiving medical care, the Police had questioned his sister for over five hours. Harin Fernando said he had reliable information that the authorities were seeking to arrest and detain him under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) as he has been critical of the government.

Several opposition political party members who protested against the government’s decision to increase fuel price by travelling in bullock carts were arrested by Police for allegedly violating quarantine regulations.Police said that suspects were released under Police bail. The protestors wore masks and social distancing was maintained during the protest as per the photos and videos published in media. INFORM believes that these arrests indicate reprisal against criticisms of the government rather than any health priority.

A social media activist supportive of Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) named Sumudu Tharanga Waidyarathne residing in Galle was arrested in relation to a post he has posted online. He was later released on the same day. According to Lankadeepa he had published a Facebook post accusing that the government had knowingly brought the xpress pearl ship to be sunk in Sri Lankan seas. This statement could have been in the context that government MP Vasudewa Nanayakkara made a public statement claiming that Xpress Pearl ship is a windfall for the country that is amidst much economic difficulties. Other politicians and social activists also expressed their doubts about lack of clarity on how the ship was allowed into Sri Lankan waters when two harbours have already refused their lack of expertise to handle cargoes that were leaking with chemicals.

Freedom of expression online: Various environmental activists accused that their profiles were either blocked, or their posts relating to environmental destruction were removed, allegedly claiming that they have violated community guidelines. According to them, the posts were sometimes removed considering terminology, without considering the context or perhaps based on direct translations. Also they pointed out pro-government facebook users are not blocked for publishing the same content, it seems that they were targeted for publishing content criticizing the government. Government MP Sampath Athukorala published a facebook post alleging that youtuber ‘Ratta’ is a member of Opposition Party JVP and spread false news targeting the government as he had criticized government’s failure to bring justice to the victims of Easter Sunday Bomb attack in April 2019. The statement was later edited and Ratta’s name was removed due to public pressure and criticisms. The media spokesperson of Our People’s Party attached to infamous ultra nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena, Dan Priyasad has lodged a complaint with the Police Headquarters against the Vasthi YouTube channel alleging that a video to be aired on the Vasthi YouTube channel has insulted Sri Lankan culture, history and the Sri Lankan army. Vasthi is a popular youtube channel that publishes comedy videos.

Other incidents: Director of the Disaster Preparedness and Response Division at the Ministry of Health, Dr. Hemantha Herath was caught on camera telling reporters after a media conference that some journalists killed in the past were “3rd class” journalists. Six Sri Lankan Media rights groups issued a statement condemning his statement and demanding public apology for allegedly insulting and undermining the journalists who were killed because of their important work in a context where many of their cases remain in impunity. Such defamatory statements about assassinated journalists from public officials could hurt the feelings of family members and others pursuing justice, and could contribute to long remaining impunity.

A Tamil youth has been arrested in Kopay, Jaffna for allegedly having a photo of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on his smartphone. Kopay police have filed a B report against the youth on charges of “inciting or attempting to incite hatred” under Section 120 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code. A covid19 patient in an intermediary treatment centre in Bindunuwewa run by the military has been allegedly brutally assaulted and tortured by a military official for demanding an additional water bottle for his consumption. The victim Saman Abeygunawardane has published a social media post on the incident.

A Buddhist monk named Thiththagalle Devananda Thero residing in Weligama Kapuwatte Sri Wiwekarama temple has been assaulted and killed by a group of fishermen after the monk had advised them to refrain from fishing in front of the temple. A priest of Devale in Balagolla area has kidnapped two persons for allegedly insulting him through facebook and crucified and tortured them as revenge.

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