Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka, February 2023


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Executive Summary

4th UPR review on Sri Lanka was held from 26th January to 3rd February 2023, in the United Nations Office in Geneva. Photo Courtesy: Sri Lanka Campaign

Context: Report of the Universal Periodic review on Sri Lanka was adopted on 3rd February 2023. In the evening of the same day, protesters who held a protest in Colombo were attacked with water cannons, and tear gas by Police. Government held a pompous military parade celebrating its 75th independence day on 4th of February, amidst protests by civil society groups around the country against the government’s spending on independence day celebrations, and not meeting long term demands of the people. A number of protests were held throughout the month mainly focusing on economic issues, but also against postponing elections by the government, and other issues. Many trade unions protested against the recent increase in personal income tax. The activists and survivors commemorated the 27th anniversary of the Kumarapuram massacre in 1996 in which 24 Tamil civilians were reportedly murdered by the military, and still remains in impunity. The Department of Immigration and Emigration issued the highest number of passports and also recorded the highest numbers in labour migration in the year 2022. The German Ambassador to Sri Lanka raised concerns that German companies operating in Sri Lanka would be compelled to withdraw their operations if the ongoing import ban continues.

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Case updates: Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) Convenor, Wasantha Mudalige who was detained for several months under Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and released on bail last month,  accused several Police officers of having threatened him while he was being detained. On 06th February 2023, the fort Magistrate Prasanna Alwis lifted bail conditions imposed on twenty student activists, who were arrested and charged with illegal assembly, for taking part in a silent protest held three years ago in March 2020. Colombo magistrate Thilina Gamage rejected the request made by the lawyer representing former President Gotabaya Rajapakse, requesting to return him the cash found and handed over by the anti government protesters when they took over the Presidential house on 9th July 2022. The Colombo chief magistrate ordered the Police to submit a progress report on the investigations on a protest march on violence against women organised by the chief opposition party in November 2022, in which police arrested 13 women politicians under the alleged charges of illegal assembly. As the writ petition by a former military officer against holding local government elections was taken for hearing at the Supreme Court, the finance ministry informed the court that they are unable to release funds for the election as government funding has been limited to essential services. The case was fixed for further support in May 2023. Another writ petition against holding elections by a political group of Matara Municipal Council, whose nominations were rejected, was dismissed by the Supreme Court. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) concluded that the Department of Government news has violated the rights of a journalist by not registering his news website, on the basis that the Defence Ministry did not provide a clearance. 

Local government election: Citing financial crisis, President Ranil Wickramsinghe as the Minister of Finance issued circulars instructing government to limit expenditure to a list of essential services, which excluded election related expenses. Subsequently, the secretary to the Ministry of Finance and treasuries informed the National Election Commission (NEC) about their difficulties in releasing necessary funds for the local government election. The Government Printer  said that the printing of the postal ballot papers has been delayed due to lack of Police protection provided and not receiving required funds for the purpose. Filing a special motion before the Supreme Court, the NEC informed the court of its inability to hold the local government election in time due to the government’s failure to allocate required funds. Subsequently Postal voting was postponed until a further notice. 

Repression of Journalists: YouTuber and blogger Dharshan Hadungoda was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department in relation to a video he had shared online regarding the violence on 9th May 2022, the day that pro-government mobs attacked the peaceful protesters, leading to a wave of attacks on the property of government politicians. Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) sent a summon notice to the chairperson of the International Broadcasting Corporation for Tamil (IBC), Baskaran Kandiah, ordering him to provide a statement. 

Arrested Youtuber and Blogger Dharshana Hadungoda being taken to the court. Photo Courtesy: Sri Lanka Brief

Repression of freedom of Freedom of Assembly: Police dispersed a silent protest against the government’s independence day celebrations with water cannons and arrested several protesters, as an unknown group created a tense situation at the location according to the Police.  Police made several attempts to stop another protest against independence day celebrations, while it was moving through the Jaffna town. Two other protests organized by opposition political parties National People’s Power (NPP) and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) , mainly demanding not to postpone elections, were attacked with tear gas and water cannons by the Police. 28 injured and 1 person died during the NPP protest. 17 protestesters along with the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) Parliamentarian MP Selvarajah Kajendra and their legal advisor Lawyer Kanagaratnam Sugash were arrested over protesting against the President Ranil Wickmarsinghe’s visit to an event in Jaffna. A protest organized by Inter-University Bhikkhu Federation (IUBF) demanding to resume the work of Buddhist and Pali University that has been closed since December 2022, was dispersed using tear gas and water cannons. A different protest by a group of nationalist monks against the full implementation of the 13th Amendment of Sri Lankan constitution was obstructed by the Police. A court order was issued against a protest organized by the employees of banking, health, ports, power and energy sectors demanding the revision of the government’s tax policy.

Other incidents: The office of the chairperson of the Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL) Janaka Rathnayaka was sealed by the Police claiming that unlawful activities against the government are happening there. Two days before their raid, the chairman disagreed with the government’s recent increase of electricity tariffs that needed to go through PUCSL’s approval process, and proposed an alternative system. Activist Chiranthana Amarasinghe was arrested while handing over an RTI request to the State Intelligence Services (SIS) headquarters and allegedly tortured while being held in detention by the Cinnamon gardens Police.  Two gazette notifications were issued declaring essential services, a known strategy of preventing trade union actions. Monthly gazette calling out for armed forces to maintain public order was issued the same as the previous month. This provides powers for the military to intervene in civilian affairs. 

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