Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka, January 2023


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Executive Summary

Context: Local government elections were announced. Parliament passed the Regulation of Election Expenditure Act, a law that regulates election campaigning. However election monitoring organizations said that the bill is inadequate as it does not provide sufficient details on spending limit for a candidate, and does not include an appropriate monitoring and enforcement mechanism. Several government politicians stated that the elections are not a priority, thus should be postponed prioritising the economic needs. Media reported how children’s education was impacted by the economic crisis, and how unemployment has increased. Several protests were held against rising inflation in Sri Lanka, tax hike and other socio-economic issues. A petition against the government’s decision to increase utility bills received 6.9 million signatures across the country. The Defence Ministry vowed to reduce the military cadre to 100,000 by 2030. Journalists and media organizations commemorated Black January in Colombo, Jaffna and Batticaloa, an annual event to remember and demand justice for the crimes committed against journalists. Media reported that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has applied for restoration of his US citizenship. However, Canada imposed sanctions on former Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa and others for “committing gross and systematic violations of human rights.” A bribery case against MP Wimal Weerawansa  regarding unlawful acquisition of wealth estimated at Rs.75 million while serving as a Minister was taken up before the Colombo High Court. The Supreme Court upheld the previous verdict issued by the Colombo High Court punishing former President Maithripala Sirisena’s Chief of Staff for accepting a bribe. A replica of Kandy Dalada Maligawa being constructed in Kurunegala was demolished after the Buddhist monks and politicians alleged it for causing contempt for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy.  Anti-government Aragalaya activist Wasantha Jayakody was arrested by the Police for sharing a problematic post in social media during Independence day celebrations. One extra-judicial killing was reported regarding a person who got arrested for possession of drugs. A lesbian woman filed a historic Fundamental Rights petition at the Supreme court against the Sri Lanka Police in Welisara Mahabage. 

Black flags were raised in the heavily militarised northern city of Jaffna demanding justice for murdered journalists whose cases remain in impunity for decades. Photo Courtesy: Tamil Guardian

Case updates: The 14th Death Anniversary of the late Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was held in Colombo and Batticaloa. Parliament passed the controversial Bureau of Rehabilitation bill with amendments that earlier attracted wide criticism as an attempt to rehabilitate anti-government protesters, now exclusively focusing on drug rehabilitation. However, Amnesty International and others pointed out that the bill could facilitate torture and ill-treatement in the rehabilitation centres. The convenor of the Inter-University Student Federation Wasantha Mudalige was released from terrorism charges, but held in detention further in relation to several other cases. The Inter-University Bhikku Federation Convener Galwewa Siridhamma Thero was ordered to appear before Terrorism Investigation Division. The Supreme Court ruled that the former President and key officials of Defence and Police at the time had failed to prevent the Easter Sunday bomb attack, despite having prior information, and therefore violated Fundamental Rights of victims. They were ordered to pay 310 million of Sri Lankan Rupees in total as compensation to the victims. The Writ Application filed by former President Sirisena seeking dismissal of summons issued by the Fort magistrate regarding Easter Sunday Bomb attack plaint was fixed for hearing on 31st January. Colombo High Court has issued a court order summoning former Northern Provincial Councillor M K Shivajilingham for remembering a Tamil martyr two and half years ago. The Attorney General filed  contempt of court charges against State Minister Sanath Nishantha who criticised the judiciary for granting bail to those who were involved with the anti-government protest movement.

Remembrance of late journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge at Borella Cemetery in Colombo. Courtesy: Daily Mirror

Local Government Elections: Three election commission members received death threats demanding them to resign from their positions. The Secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Council and Local Governments issued a letter asking District Secretaries to refrain from accepting deposits from Election candidates based on a cabinet decision.  A retired Army Colonel filed a writ petition against holding Local Government Election during the economic crisis of Sri Lanka.  The United National Party office in Wariyapola was attacked with a petrol bomb by their political opponents. 

Repression of Freedom of Assembly: The Colombo Fort Magistrate issued a restraining order preventing protestors from entering the Galle Face Green in Colombo. The protest was organized by the Inter-University Student Federation demanding the release of its leader Wasantha Mudalige, repeal Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and reduce utility charges. Police fired tear gas and water cannons at the protesters at Colpetty junction in Colombo. The Chairperson of the Kelaniya University Kelum Mudannayake and student activist Dilshan Harshana were arrested by the Thalangama Police for allegedly damaging a gate, and obstructing Police during a protest last year. The Families of the Disappeared, the University Students of Jaffna and civil society activists who protested during the President’s visit to Jaffna for Thai Pongal celebrations were also attacked with tear gas and water cannons. Later Civil society leader Velan Swamigal was arrested for obstructing the Police during the protest. Thambirasa Selvarani, President of Ampara District Organisation of Relatives of the Disappeared, who led a protest in Thirukkovil in Ampara District demanding justice for the disappeared, was summoned to appear before Pottuvil Magistrates’ Court. Mulliyawalai police summoned six Tamil men who organised Maaveerar Naal (Great Heroes day) remembrance events in November last year.  

Demonstration held in front of the UN Head Office in Colombo. Photo Courtesy: Daily Mirror

Repressive Legal and Policy actions: President Ranil Wickremesinghe said that a new bill will be introduced to regulate social media and electronic media similar to the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) Act 2016 of Singapore.  Two gazette notifications were issued declaring all supplies of electricity, petroleum, fuel and all services of the health sectors as essential services. Declaration as essential services is a well known historical tactic in Sri Lanka to discourage and prevent trade union actions.  The monthly Gazette notification was issued calling out all the armed forces members for maintenance of Public Order, which allows the military to be involved in civilian affairs. 

Other incidents: Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said that he has sought advice to take legal measures against members of Human Rights commission of Sri Lanka for forcefully taking consent of Ceylon Electricity Board officials in issuing an order to provide uninterrupted electricity power during the Advanced Level examinations. State Minister Anuradha Jayaratne stated that some trade unions and student unions can be called as terrorists as they are now attempting to destabilise the country’s economy.  Two trade unionists who went to the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL)along with other civil society activists to show their objection to a change of stance by the commission were later arrested for allegedly threatening the members of the PUCSL. Youtuber Sepal Amarasinghe was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department over blasphemous remarks on the Temple of Tooth in Kandy and charged under section 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act.  Activist Randimage Gamage was arrested by Sri Lanka police upon his arrival at Katunayake Airport over the forceful entry to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLRC) during the anti-government protests. SSP D.S. Wickremasinghe, the Director of the Special Investigation Unit of the Police, informed the Fort magistrate that he was threatened by SDIG Deshabandu Tennakoon, in charge of Western Province for reporting the facts to the court regarding undue influence made by Tennakoon to hand over the money found inside the President’s house to a Minister, without keeping under court custody.

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