PUBLICATIONSRepression of Dissent

Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka: January-March 2021

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1. Methodology

The report is based on 78 incidents related to repression of dissent in Sri Lanka during . It provides some general trends and details of some significant incidents related to the repression of dissent in Sri Lanka in the months of January to March 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.

2. Context

UNHRC adopted a resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka in March 2020. While GoSL did not support the resolution, the foreign minister Gunawardane speaking at the parliament said “move was unhelpful, divisive and went against the principles of the UN Charter”. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 22 in favour, 11 against and 14 abstentions. The Council decided to strengthen the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.

The Report of the Commission of Inquiry to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimization was tabled in parliament in early March, which was subjected to strong criticisms for its undue implications on the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law and democracy in Sri Lanka. Civil society groups, lawyers and politicians criticized the report and some went into courts against the implementation of its recommendations. The Controversial chinese funded Colombo Port City economic commission gazetted in March 2021 was also subjected to strong skepticism for risks of undue geopolitical influences, territorial integrity, money laundering, in addition to already being a debt trap.  

Acquittal of suspects: On 13th January, former LTTE member and pro-government politician Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan and 04 other suspects were acquitted and released in the Joseph Pararajasingham murder case by the Batticaloa High Court, after Attorney General Department withdrew the charges. Pararajasingham is a Tamil MP killed in 2005, while attending a church mass. Amnesty International stated “the collapse of this case marks yet another sorry milestone in the Sri Lankan authorities’ continued failure to ensure justice for crimes committed during the armed conflict.

On 12th January, Anusha Palpita, a state employee then accused of an ongoing corruption case relating to misuse of state funds, was appointed as the Secretary to the Ministry of Industries. After two months he was released from the charges.  

DateAccusedAlleged accusation
13th JanuaryFormer LTTE member and pro-government politician Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan and 04 other suspects Alleged involvement in Joseph Pararajasingham murder case
22nd JanuaryFormer Director of the Sri Lanka Customs, Ranjan Kanagasabeyallegedly soliciting a bribe of Rs 1.6 million to compile a report for the release of certain goods
25th Februaryagriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamagealleged misappropriation of Rs.3.9 million from a trade union affiliated to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)
15th Marchformer MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardenaalleged misappropriation of Rs 883 million funds while functioning as the CEO of Mihin Lanka
15th MarchEx-DIG Vaas Gunawardena and his wife Shayamali Priyadarshani PereraAlleged Illegal acquiring of a land
15th MarchFormer Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunge and former Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) Director General Anusha PalpitaAlleged misappropriation of Government funds by distributing ‘Sil’ cloth to temples islandwide at a cost of Rs. 600 million belonging to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission during the 2015 Presidential Election.
18th MarchMinister Rohitha Abeygunawardena alleged unlawful acquisition of assets estimated at Rs.41.1 million 
26th March Minister Johnston Fernando, Ex-Sathosa Chairman Eraj Fernando, and Former Director of Operations at Sathosa Mohamed ShakeerAllegedly removing 153 Sathosa workers from official duties and using them for political activity during 2010-2014 period and causing losses to the state.
30th March Former Attorney General & Former Chief Justice, Mohan Peiris, Former Deputy Solicitor General, and Present Supreme Court Judge A. H. M. D. Nawaz, and Former Energy Secretary M.M.C. FerdinandoAllegedly preparing an erroneous Attorney General’s Report to avoid taking legal action against irregularities committed in the purchase of lands for LECO while Mohan Peiris was the Attorney General.
Table 1: Acquittals of accused or convicted persons in crimes and corruption cases related to key politicians and state officials

Number of politicians and some state employees were acquitted from a number of bribery and corruption cases, often citing technical weaknesses.  On 22nd of January, former Director of the Sri Lanka Customs, Ranjan Kanagasabey, who was charged with soliciting a bribe of Rs 1.6 million to compile a report for the release of certain goods was acquitted. The high court judge held the opinion that there was a discrepancy in evidence and insufficient evidence to prove the charges against the accused. On 25th of February, Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage was acquitted and released from the case that alleged he misappropriated Rs.3.9 million from a trade union affiliated to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Judge held that the prosecution had failed to prove charges against the accused beyond reasonable doubt. On 15th of March, the Bribery Commission informed Colombo Chief Magistrate to withdraw the charges pertaining to a case of alleged misappropriation of Rs 883 million funds by former MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardena while functioning as the CEO of Mihin Lanka, due to technical shortcomings. Accordingly, he was acquitted from the case.  On 15th of March, Ex-DIG Vaas Gunawardena and his wife Shayamali Priyadarshani Perera were also acquitted and released from a case filed against them with regard to illegally acquiring land. They were released as the time period to lodge such a complaint has exceeded. On 18th March, the Colombo High Court ordered the release of Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena from a corruption case for the alleged unlawful acquisition of assets estimated at Rs.41.1 million following the Bribery Commission’s decision to withdraw the indictments, on the basis that the case was filed without obtaining directions from all the directors.On 30th March, former Attorney General & Former Chief Justice, Mohan Peiris and two others were acquitted and released from a case filed by the bribery commission, after the commission withdrew its allegations. On 15th March the Colombo High Court concluded case proceedings against former Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunge and former Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) Director General Anusha Palpita in connection with the controversial Sil Redi distribution case during an election, based on a previous order made by the Court of Appeal acquitting the two suspects. They had been previously convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Minister Johnston Fernando, Ex-Sathosa Chairman Eraj Fernando, and Former Director of Operations at Sathosa Mohamed Shakeer were acquitted from two separate bribery cases filed against them for allegedly using 153 government workers for political activity and causing losses to the state by the Colombo magistrate court, based on a previous order issued by the Colombo High court.

Arrests related to alleged terrorism: Police said that two people have been arrested in Jaffna on charges of promoting terrorism. According to Police, the suspects are reported to have operated a website and a YouTube channel promoting the LTTE and terrorism related activities. Rasheed Hajjul Akbar, who headed the Jamaat-e-Islami organisation for 24 years was arrested for allegedly promoting extremism in the country for allegedly promoting Wahhabism and Jihadist ideology in Sri Lanka. Former Western Province Governor Azath Salley was arrested under charges of terrorism after making a controversial statement, however later it was said that he was arrested for his alleged involvment with Easter Sunday bombing.  All these arrests were made under controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). 

Police violence and corporal punishment:  A 15 year old student who was assaulted by a teacher and consequently lost hearing in 2017 was ordered to pay compensation after the Supreme court decided that his fundamental rights have been violated. A footage of a Police officer publicly assaulting a lorry driver went viral, after the lorry had knocked down another police officer. The relevant police officer was interdicted and legal action was taken against. A civilian in Mullaitivu alleged that soldiers have beaten and tortured a Tamil man from Keppapulavu in Mullaitivu after one of his cows accidentally broke through a weak fence and entered an army camp. According to Tamil Guardian, he has been also warned not to speak to the media regarding what happened.  

A traffic cop brutally assaulted a lorry driver in public. Photo courtesy: Newsfirst

Women’s rights : A fundamental rights petition was filed by 32 Senior Superintendents of Police (SSP) seeking an annulment of the promotion of Bimshani Jasin Arachchi, Sri Lanka’s first female Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG), claiming that the promotion was made in violation of the standard promotion procedure. The petition claims that no female police officer in the country can be appointed as the DIG of Police as the word ‘women’ is not mentioned in the regulations pertaining to promotions. Meanwhile a 9 year old child was beaten to death during an exorcism ritual. Subsequently the mother of the child and the shaman were arrested. Four young women were reported to have been arrested without any reason for allegedly idling on Colombo Streets. Out-dated vagrancy law is discriminatively implemented against women.  

Burqa ban and burial of covid-19 bodies:  Muslims in post-war Sri Lanka have been periodically subjected to communal violence, discrimination and other forms of vilification. In the context of Covid-19, the mandatory cremation practice of COVID19 dead bodies in Sri Lanka was discriminatory towards minority Muslims, as Islam did not allow the cremation of the dead. While GoSL claimed such burials could lead to groundwater pollution with COVID19 virus, other countries and WHO guidelines allowed both burial and cremation.  Almost a year later in late February this year, GoSL allowed the burial of those who died from COVID19, after continued public outcry and pressure from the international community for a long period.  In the following month, the State Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekara made a controversial statement to the media claiming that a cabinet proposal has been submitted to ban burqa in Sri Lanka, and also to shut down 1000 madrasa (Islamic) schools. He also said that ‘burqa is a symbol of extremism’. However, the government later claimed that it would require more time to consider the proposal. 

protest in Colombo in December over the Sri Lankan government’s policy of forced cremations in Covid-19 deaths.
Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty

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4. Statistical Analysis 

In total 78 incidents during the 3 months period covered in this report from 1st January 2021 to 31st March 2021. These individual incidents may include multiple victims. At times, it was difficult to estimate how many individuals would be affected, particularly for incidents relating to legal, policy and institutional actions.

LocationNumberPercentage
North and East3444%
Colombo1013%
Gampaha and Kalutara79%
Other areas810%
Not Applicable1823%
online11%
Total78100%
Table 2: Geographical Location of incidents

When geographical location is analyzed, 44% of the incidents were reported from the Northern and Eastern Provinces, former civil war zones. Western Province reported 22% of the total incidents, including 13% of incidents from Colombo district, where the country’s capital is located. Only 10% of incidents were reported from other areas in the country. one percent of incidents were reported online. Twenty-three percent of incidents were considered not applicable, as they were legal, policy, and/or institutional actions affecting more than one specific geographical area in the country. 

Gender of the victimNumberPercentage
Male3849%
Female45%
Not Applicable3646%
78100%
Table 3: Gender of the victims in incidents

 When the incidents were analyzed in relation to the gender of the victims, the majority (49%) of the victims were male. Only 5% of the incidents related to women. In 46% of incidents, gender was considered not applicable, as the incidents involved institutions or organizations, or they included persons from both genders.

Ethnicity of the victimNumberPercentage
Sinhala1722%
Tamil3646%
Muslim56%
Not Applicable1924%
Not mentioned11%
Total78100%
Table 4: Ethnicity of the victims in incidents 

When the incidents were analyzed in relation to the ethnicity of the victims, the highest percentage (46%) of incidents were related to the ethnic minority Tamil individuals. Second, 22% of incidents were related to ethnic majority Sinhalese individuals. Third, 6% of incidents were related to Muslim individuals. These figures indicate a large deviation from the general ethnic composition in the country. This shows systematic discrimination and targeting of the country’s ethnic minorities, especially of Tamil individuals. 24% of incidents were related to victims of more than one ethnic group, while in 1% of incidents, we were unable to find the ethnicity of the victims.

Type of victimsNumberPercentage
Journalists1519%
writers23%
protestors1418%
politicians1418%
Activists810%
Trade unionists45%
state officials56%
lawyers11%
Witnesses11%
other1418%
Total78100%
Table 5: Type of victims in incidents

 Nineteen percent of incidents were related to repression of journalists and media workers, while 2 percent of incidents were related to other writers. Another 18% of incidents involved repression of protests mainly in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Eighteen percent of incidents involving politicians were also mainly related to the protests held in Northern and Eastern Provinces, though they also included few incidents in relation to the politicians in the south. In 10% of incidents, the victims were activists and civil society organizations. In 5% of incidents, the victims were trade unionists. In 6%, the victims were state officials. 2% of incidents were related to lawyers and witnesses.  Eighteen percent of incidents involved other types of victims.

Type of violationNumberPercentage
abduction11%
physical attacks1114%
verbal threats34%
Arrest68%
Court order or summons56%
Legal action23%
Destruction of memorials23%
Problematic verbal statements45%
hate speech11%
Military/police questioning1418%
intimidation79%
legal, institutional and policy1215%
others1013%
Total78100%
Table 6: Types of violations

There was one incident (1%) of an alleged abduction. Fourteen percent of incidents (11 incidents) involved physical attacks.  Verbal threats were made in 4% of incidents. There were 8% of arrests.   Court orders were taken mainly against protestors in 6% of incidents. Police went to courts against protestors in 2 other incidents (3%), though courts did not accept the claims made by the Police. In another 2 incidents (3%), memorials were destroyed. In 5% of incidents problematic verbal statements were made by politicians, while in 1% of incidents a hate speech campaign was launched against a whistleblower of an environment destruction. 18% of incidents were related to military and Police questioning individuals. 9% were related to intimidation. 15% were related to legal, institutional and policy actions that seemed to repress dissent.  There were also 13% of other incidents. 

Perpetrator/ Responsible partyNumberPercentage
Military or Police3140%
Government Institutions and officers1519%
President or central government68%
Other Politicians45%
Business persons23%
courts68%
unknown79%
others79%
Total78100%
Table 7: Types of alleged perpetrator

As in previous reports, the alleged responsible party in the majority of incidents were government institutions, officials, politicians, and other government agents. The President and/or the central government were allegedly responsible for 8% of incidents, while other politicians were responsible for 5% of incidents. In 40% of incidents, the alleged responsible parties were military or police. Courts and other judiciary bodies were allegedly responsible for 8% of incidents. In 19% of incidents, other government institutions and officials were responsible. Business persons were allegedly responsible for three percent of incidents. In nine percent of incidents, other parties were responsible. In another nine percent of incidents, the alleged responsible parties were unknown.

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5. Summary of incidents

5.1 Repression of Media and journalists

Journalist Sujeewa Gamage speaking at a press conference after being released from the hospital. Photo courtesy: Sri Lanka Brief. 

Physical attacks and abductions : Siyarata News website Journalist Sujeewa Gamage has been allegedly abducted and tortured by unknown persons who demanded him a memory chip containing controversial information.  After being released from hospital, he was arrested by the Police for allegedly making ‘false claims’ on abduction. A Tamil journalist, Kugarasu Subojan was assaulted and threatened by a group of unidentified persons, when he went to film a protest in Batticaloa in the Eastern province. The journalist had been threatened to stop filming and delete footage, before the group had assaulted him.  Another journalist working for a  IBC Tamil news website has been assaulted while covering the Pottuvil to Polikandy (P2P) protest March. 

Verbal threats, intimidation and surveillance: Mawbima newspaper’s editorial director and other journalists were threatened by the Secretary to the State Minister of Public Security over publishing news of Police involvement in the demolition of some shops in a suburban area in Colombo.   The Kataragama local correspondent M. K. Nandasena of the Lankadeepa newspaper has been threatened over the phone by a local Police officer over reporting covid-19 status of the Police officer.  Balanathan Satheesan, a local journalist based in Vavuniya has been threatened and harassed by a person identified as an ‘investigator’  when he was covering the protest organized by Vavuniya families of the disappeared. Tamil Guardian correspondent Kanapathipillai Kumanan  has been allegedly intimidated and harassed by three Sri Lankan Forest Department officials in Mullaitivu, when he went to report on a land dispute in Thannimurippu, Mullaitivu. The officers have photographed the journalist and demanded for his personal information. BBC Tamil correspondent Ranjan Arun Prasad has lodged a complaint with the Police Headquarters alleging that a suspicious group were searching for his personal information in his residential area in Colombo, his wife’s hometown in Kandy and that the group had followed him when he visited North for his official work.

Arrests: The office of the YouTube channel tubetamil and the website www.tubetamil.com situated in Naver Street, Jaffna was raided and two employees were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. 

Other violations: A well-known news anchor attached to a local TV in Jaffna had been summoned by the Terrorism Investigation Division of Sri Lanka Police and inquired details about one of his facebook friends as tweeted by former Senior Lecturer in Law at University of Jaffna, Dr Kumaravadivel Guruparan. The Navy has denied entry to Ruki Fernando, a freelance journalist and a human rights activist, and two other journalists to enter Iranathivu Island in the Kilinochchi District of the Northern Province, without providing a legitimate reason for refusal of entry. The State-owned television network ITN published defamatory news about exiled journalist Sunanda Deshapriya and exiled Police crime investigation officer Nishanta (de Silva). 

Legal and policy issues: Cabinet press briefing informed that the Press Council has been identified to be “structurally reformed as a Tribunal for journalists and media institutions covering electronic, print and new media.”  Press council law has been severely detrimental to media freedom over the years, and therefore media activists have been calling for abolition of the law rather than reforming it.  

President Gotabaya Rajapakse made a controversial statement calling certain media institutions as ‘mafia’ and that he knows how to teach them a lesson. The statement indirectly targeted Capital Maharaja Media Group- a company that owns five radio stations and three television channels. Six media rights organizations collectively issued a statement condemning the president’s statement. Their statement mentioned that they believed ‘that this statement aimed at a specific media will intimidate especially those who make critical remarks against the government’.

5.2 Repression of Freedom of Assembly 

Destruction of memorials: On 8th of January, Jaffna university authorities bulldozed Mullivaikkal monument located in Jaffna university premises, built in memory of those killed in the last phase of Sri Lankan war in 2009. University students and community members protested against the demolition of the monument. Though the university grants commission (UGC) initially claimed that the monument was a threat to national unity, later authorities promised to rebuild the monument. Various threats were made against the protestors who were protesting against the demolition of the monument including conducting forceful PCR tests.On 28th March, the entrance to the Kittu Memorial Park in Nallur was destroyed due to an alleged arson attack by an unidentified group. The park was constructed in 1994 by LTTE rebels, naming it after a fallen LTTE leader.  Kittu Park has been a frequent gathering place for many protests organized in the area.

The P2P protest was a days-long walking rally  from Pottuvil in Ampara to Polikandy in Jaffna demanding rights of ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka. Photo Courtesy: Tamil Guardian 

Court orders banning P2P protest: On 3rd February to 7th February, activists, politicians, civil society members and victims rallied from Pottuvil in Ampara to Polikandy in Jaffna despite a number of court orders issued against the March.  This protest was called the P2P protest.  After Police claimed that protests could lead to spread of covid19, the Jaffna Magistrate Court banned all protests for 4 days between February 3rd to February 6th. Orders were issued against 32  individuals including leading politicians and civil society leaders banning them from participating at protests. Later the court withdrew its order later, after public health officials declined the claim of covid19 spreading through protests. Police filed legal cases against protestors at multiple local magistrate courts. Mallakkam magistrate postponed the case requesting the Ministry of Health to produce a report substantiating claims that the protests will extend COVID-19 spread.  Other cited reasons for injunctions were public nuisance and attempting to smear Sri Lanka’s image ahead of the upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva. The Chavakachcheri magistrate court dismissed petitions submitted by the police on the grounds that people have the right to freedom of speech and assembly.Mannar magistrate court, Point Pedro Magistrate and Kalunvanchikudy Magistrate court in Batticaloa issued orders banning the protest.

Vavuniya Magistrate Court imposed a ban on demonstrations and hunger strikes planned by families of the disappeared marking the National Independence Day of Sri Lanka held on 4th February annually, citing covid19. 

Other intimidations on protestors: Security forces have allegedly attempted to break up the rally at various points of the march by threatening protesters, obstructing protestors with roadblocks, but protesters have defied these moves and continued their demonstration. Public waiting to greet protestors in Mullaitivu were disrupted and protestors were also asked to be dispersed by the Police due to alleged COVID-19 concerns.At the Vavuniya bus stand, Police were seen recording the vehicle numbers of vehicles and motorcycles that the supporters of Pottuvil to Polikandi (P2P) protest were travelling. Nails had been allegedly placed on the road near the military checkpoint in front of the Yan Oya bridge near Pulmoddai in an alleged attempt to damage the tyres of the vehicles where protestors were travelling to join the procession in order to stop them participating in the protest.  Previously another similar incident had been reported in Kinniya in the same district in relation to another protest

Arrests: 26 year old young man was arrested in Point Pedro in Jaffna for taking part in the Pottuvil to Polikandy protest. He was released after 6 hours in police custody, after recording a statement.

Police recorded statements from Politicians

Police officers from six different stations recorded a statement from TNA MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam at his office, about his participation in the P2P protest rally. Photo Courtesy: Newswire

Number of politicians were summoned or their statements were recorded by the Police regarding their participation in the Pottuvil to Polikandy (P2P) March. MP M.A. Sumanthiran was questioned regarding his participation in the protest, and government security provided to him was withdrawn immediately following his participation at the protest upon alleged orders of the public security minister.  Police officers from six different stations recorded a statement from TNA MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam at his office, about his participation in the P2P protest rally. Similarly TNA MP Selvam Adaikalanathan was questioned at his office by Mankulam and Vavuniya police stations. Despite two rounds of questioning at his office, Adaikalanathan has been ordered to appear at the Oddusuddan police station for further interrogation. TNA MP S Shritharan was also questioned by the police at his office. TNA MP Vino Noharathalingam was also questioned by Mankulam police for allegedly violating a court order over participating in the P2P protest. Former Northern Provincial Council member, Thurairasa Ravikaran was summoned for allegedly defying police orders by continuing the protest when it reached Nayarthu bridge in Mullaitivu district.  TNPF leader Gajendran Ponnambalam and General Secretary Selvarajah Kajendran were subjected to questioning at their office. Murunkan police visited the home of Nanattan Pradeshiya Sabha chairperson Thiruselvam Paranjothy and ordered him to go to the police station to record his statement. Former Vanni MP and Attorney-at-Law Hunais Farook also provided a statement to Mannar police over his participation at the protest. Mallavi, Mullaitivu and Mankulam police stations have questioned former Northern Provincial Council member, Thurairasa Ravikaran regarding his participation in the Pottuvil to Polikandy (P2P) rally. 

Police have also questioned Mariyasuresh Eswary, the head of the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Persons in Mullaitivu, over her participation in the Pottuvil to Polikandy (P2P) rally. 

Other incidents: Secretary and President of the Vavuniya Families of the Disappeared Association were summoned to the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) and questioned on their involvement in the hunger strike and protests held in early February. 

The President issued two extraordinary gazettes on 30th January and 1st March, declaring the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and its services Essential Public Services. This was issued in the context of port workers and trade unions protesting against a controversial joint business venture in the Eastern port with an Indian company. Declaring that government services are essential services has been a known tactic to stop protests and trade union actions in the government sector in Sri Lanka. This tactic has been used historically by different Presidents since 1978. Similar gazettes were previously issued in the month of December. 

5.3 Repression of Environmental activists 

Lakmal Ranabahu while in the hospital following the attack. Photo courtesy: The leader.

Physical attacks: Environmental and social activist Lakmal Ranabahu was assaulted on 24th January in Kalawana area in Ratnapura district, over an alleged dispute with the Divisional Secretary after inquiring about an environmental destruction in the area. Ranabahu has been an activist on environmental and land issues concerning Sinharaja forest reserve which is a biodiversity hotspot and World Heritage Site recognized by UNESCO. A young man named Saranga Madushan has been assaulted by unknown persons as his brother abroad has expressed concerns regarding a road development project that allegedly causes environmental destruction in the Rumassala area in Galle.  

Surveillance and Threats: Environmental activist Rev. Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thero made a complaint to the Police headquarters stating that he has faced life threats as a reprisal for opposing environmental destruction and unidentified persons claiming to be from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) have visited his driver’s house and several other neighbouring houses inquiring about him at multiple times. A farmer in Alakolawewa area in Dambulla has been assaulted and threatened with death as a reprisal for informing authorities and media about an alleged land grabbing in the area. The victim D.M. Dissanayake has exposed an illegal business of acquiring and selling forest lands in the area. Bhagya Abeyrathna, a young school student was subjected to threats by Police, and government authorities after exposing alleged deforestation in Sinharaja world heritage site. While participating at the ‘Lakshapathi’ millionaire quiz show at a national television channel, she expressed concern and dissatisfaction about ongoing deforestation in her neighbourhood as a hotel was being constructed clearing a forest land located at the border of the Sinharaja forest.   The next day, the Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation stated that her statement was factually incorrect as alleged construction occurs in a private land. Two police officers of the Rakwana police had gone to her residence and recorded a statement inquiring as to who had influenced her to express these views. Later several forest officers who have also visited her have said that she should not speak about deforestation in the forest without knowing the exact borders of the forest.She was also subjected to a hate speech online campaign for her views expressed.  

Reprisals against government  forest officers: Devani Jayatilake, a government forest officer was subjected to harassment after whistleblowing about a near-extinct tree that was about to be removed due to a road development project. On 9th February, the Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation C.B. Ratnayake made a statement at the parliament claiming “some officers promote themselves like mentally ill people”, targeting Jayatilake. Two days later, additional Conservator General of Forests Thilak Premaratne stated that Jayathilaka may have violated institutional guidelines by speaking to the media and the government attempted to launch a disciplinary inquiry against the forest officer. However, the inquiry was withdrawn due to huge public outcry. In a separate incident, the State Minister of Wildlife Protection – Wimalaweera Dissanayake had allegedly threatened the officials at the Maha Oya Forest Office in Ampara and secured the release of a suspect in their custody after the suspect had been arrested by the wildlife officials for falling down four large trees in the Tampitiya proposed reserve. 

The Stop Ecocide Mural made by a group of youth environmental activists was forcibly removed by the Colombo Municipal Council, despite prior-approval granted. Photo Courtesy: @MevanPeiris Twitter

Other incidents: Colombo Municipal council (CMC) has forcefully removed the ‘stop ecocide’ mural built by a group of youth environmental activists, to raise awareness on climate change and ongoing deforestation in the country. Despite prior-approval granted to the event by the CMC, the 70 x 20 foot mural has been taken down, reportedly on instructions by the Presidential Secretariat. It was removed, reinstalled on the next day, and then removed once again despite the protest by the youth who took part at the event. President Rajapaksa said the Ecocide Mural which was set up at the Viharamahadevia Park in Colombo had caused damage to the environment adding displaying murals is not the way to protect nature.

The Environment Ministry stated that they are planning to set up a special unit to monitor accurate and false information published on social media pertaining to incidents of environmental destruction. Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said nearly 323 environmental officers will be recruited at the Divisional Secretariat Level for this purpose and legal action will be taken against those found to be posting false information. While it is important to tackle fake news, INFORM believes that limiting it to ‘environmental destruction’ and taking legal action against those who publish ‘inaccurate’ information could be possibly targeted at silencing people from speaking about environmental destruction.

5.4 Legal policy actions 

A gazette notification was issued appointing a Special Presidential Commission to implement the recommendations of the controversial Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Political Victimisation. The PCoI on Political victimization had recommended the discontinuation of many ongoing legal cases regarding major human rights violations, and incidents of corruption in Sri Lanka and taking legal action against witnesses, victims, and lawmakers for allegedly engaging in a process of politically targeting state officials and others.  The report was subjected to various criticisms by opposition political groups, and activists. And many pointed out that the commission has acted beyond its mandate. 

Gazettes calling on the armed forces to maintain public order were reissued in February, March and April, providing the military with additional powers to intervene in civilian affairs. Human rights defenders, families of victims, and survivors of violations fear that this may lead to more intimidation and surveillance of them, and restrictions on activities that may be perceived as dissent.

The Ministry of Defence criminalized 7 Tamil diaspora organizations and around 300 individuals under the List of Designated Persons under Regulation 4(7) of the United Nations Regulation No. 01 of 2012. Following organizations were banned: (1) British Tamil Forum, (2) Canadian Tamil Congress, (3) Australian Tamil Congress, (4) Global Tamil Forum, (5) National Council Of Canadian Tamil (6) Tamil Youth Organization, (7) World Tamil Coordinating Committee. Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group tweeted that “in an extraordinarily regressive move, the government of Sri Lanka has used terrorist designation law to effectively criminalise a large portion of the politically active Tamil diaspora – potentially putting at risk any in Sri Lanka with even limited contact”.

On 19th April, the Cabinet of Ministers issued a statement that an Act for the Regulation of Publishing Buddhist Publications will be enacted to counter distorting the pure Buddhism and Buddhist traditions.  Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs Secretary Prof. Kapila Gunawardana has said publications that contain material related to Buddhist teachings, the character of the Buddha, or which have any relevance to Buddhism are to be reviewed, regulated, and censored by a committee appointed by the government.  The proposed Act is to be introduced to counter publications that use Buddhism or the character of the Buddha in “disrespectful ways in order to spark controversy”, or oversimplify or misinterpret Buddhist teachings. The Government also appointed a Committee to present recommendations on how to deal with those who misinterpret and spread falsehoods about the Buddha’s character, the Tripitaka and Buddhist sacred sites.  

Similarly a notice was issued by the Deputy Director of Customs stating that from 5th March onwards “any Islamic religious books brought into the country should be released only on approval from the Ministry of Defence”. This order could be used to censor islamic books and publications brought to Sri Lanka without consulting the views of the Islamic community or the scholars. Also the  law seemed discriminatory as it targeted only Mulilms. A letter issued by the Defence Ministry dated 22nd of February mentioned an incident where the Ministry of Defence has denied the release of a box of 90 books, because of 4 books that contained ideas related to Wahhabist and Salafi Islamic traditions.  

5.5 Other incidents

Protesting garment workers about increasing labour rights issues in the covid19 context. Photo Courtesy Sri Lanka Brief. 

 Reprisals against protesting workers: Workers of a garment company faced reprisals for establishing and joining a trade union. In January 2021 workers at the Katunayake factory of Next Manufacturing Limited formed a branch of the FTZ & GSEU trade union. Workers experienced various threats and forms of intimidation to resign from the union. In another incident, workers at Chiefway Katunayake garment company participated in a protest previously and were denied the bonus payment given to other workers. When workers complained they were told that their next bonus would also not be paid they protested. In early 2021, according to worker representatives, Chiefway agreed to pay some of the bonus, however 25 workers involved in the protest for their bonus have been dismissed for alleged misconduct. Ten workers involved in a labour strike in the Alton tea estate in the Up-Cot, Masekeliya area have been arrested and jailed by police for allegedly assaulting an estate manager. Incident occurred when workers were continuing an indefinite strike since 3rd February demanding a 1,000-rupee ($US5.19) basic daily wage. Workers allege that Police acted in a biased manner, and deny the alleged assaults on the managers. Later 38 employees were suspended for alleged involvement in the physical attack on the estate manager. Though the alleged attack on the estate manager might have happened the actions taken against the estate workers seemed excessive.

Freedom of expression in social media: A resident of Dehiwala was arrested by the Cyber Crime Unit of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for allegedly publishing a defamatory statement criticizing the President. In a separate incident, TID of Police arrested a young man in Wattala for posting photos of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on  TikTok. The suspect has been allegedly accused of promoting a terrorist organization by posting these photos. A writer and a businessman named Fazl Muhammed Nizar was arrested by the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) of Police on charges of issuing statements via Facebook allegedly inciting racial tensions, an offence under the ICCPR Act.  As reported by Free Media Movement, the arrest was prompted by a video posted on Facebook by Nizar directly addressing the President and criticizing a controversial statement made by the President in Ampara. The latter part of the video contains a section where the monks are scolded in obscene language. He has also written many articles for the Colombo Telegraph website.

Opposition MP Harin Fernando representing the main opposition party SJB alleged that the government has recently bought pegasus software. Pegasus is an infamous spyware that has been allegedly used for surveillance of human rights defenders by repressive governments in many countries including india, Mexico, Morocco and UAE.      

Repression of Opposition Politicians: During the President’s speech in Walapane during ‘a dialogue with the village programme’, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa read out some details about several fake news that had been published by a facebook page named ‘JVP parisarwediyo (environmentalists).’  JVP is a leftist opposition political party representing the parliament. The speech attempted to level the accusations of environmental destruction as fake news spread by the political opponents. The next day, the JVP MPs lodged a complaint at the CID of Police claiming ‘JVP parisarawediyo’ as a fake facebook page which facebook had already taken down at the time of President’s speech based on a complaint they had made earlier. They also demanded an inquiry into the matter. 

On 10th January, Samagi Jana Balawegaya MP Harin Fernando has informed the Inspector General of Police that President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s statement made at a function in Ampara has posed a severe threat to his life and has requested that IGP intervenes to protect his life and freedom. The President made these remarks at the “Discussion with the Village” programme held in Lathugala, Uhana in Ampara district on 9th January 2021. During the speech the President went on to compare MP Fernando’s behaviour with the behaviour of LTTE. And told that the LTTE leader was “killed like a dog.” MP Fernando in his letter stated “The President clearly insinuates that he is capable of having me “killed like a dog” if I continue saying things that displease him”.

MP Ranjan Ramanayake was sentenced to 04 years of rigorous imprisonment by the Supreme Court for committing contempt of court. On 21st of August, speaking to the media, he made a controversial statement accusing the majority of lawyers and judges in Sri Lanka as corrupt. At the time he was a deputy Minister of the ruling government. Subsequently he also lost his parliamentary seat. While the judgement might not be a consequence of political influence of the ruling regime, INFORM believes that contempt of court laws should be changed and freedom of expression should be promoted. 

Repression of Witnesses and lawyers : In March, the long detained poet under Prevention of Terrorism Act Ahnaf Jazeem was finally granted access to his lawyers, after months of continuous appeals. However, the lawyers for poet Ahnaf Jazeem have complained to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) about TID officers listening and audio-recording the conversation between the lawyers and their client, Ahnaf Jazeem. They have complained that the entire conversation was under police surveillance. 

A witness who appeared at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday attack has been assaulted by a group as an alleged reprisal about his statements provided to the commission. The witness Rishath Marush had been assaulted by a group of residents in Galkiriyagama area in Anuradhapura district. Following the attack, he has been admitted to the Dambulla hospital for further treatment. 

Assaulted law student. Photo courtesy the leader

Police officers have allegedly assaulted a law student who had been visiting a detainee at the Peliyagoda police station. The victim Guneratne is the son of politician Maithri Guneratne and the brother of lawyer Charitha Guneratne, had been assaulted while carrying food to a suspect that his brother is representing. Previously there had been an argument between the lawyer Charitha and the Police, which he believes that his brother has been assaulted as a retribution for his act, mistaken for him as both of them look alike. Though the government claimed to take immediate actions regarding the incident, Police failed to arrest the suspects for almost three weeks. 

Repression of State officials: Several Police officers attached to Aluthgama Police station have been allegedly assaulted for implementing a court order relating to a property related lawsuit. Subsequently, 4 persons have been arrested for allegedly disturbing the duties of Police and judicial officers, contempt of court and assault.  Excise officers who attempted to arrest 3 drug related suspects have been assaulted.  Two assaulted officials have been hospitalized. The suspects were later arrested by Parasangaswewa Police in Kokpetiyawa. In another incident, a suspect has assaulted a Police officer with a sharp weapon during an arrest, in Nagaswatte area in Kirulapone. 

Other incidents: The secretary of Kiribathgoda Traders Association has been assaulted by two local politicians over a controversy about opening the public vehicle park without informing certain politicians. CCTV footage showed a group of persons led by two local politicians assaulting the victim in a restaurant. 

Click here to download the full report.

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 statistical analysis of the incident included in the report looking at geographical location, ethnicity and gender of the victims, types of violation, category of victims, and perpetrators. Section 5 provides a thematic summaries of the incidents described in the report. This month’s report is organized under 5 themes: (5.1) repression of journalists and media workers, (5.2) Repression of Freedom of Assembly, (5.3) Repression of environmental Activists, (5.4) Repressive legal and policy actions and (5.5) Other incidents. Section 6 includes the list of incidents presented in a table, with a brief description about each incident.

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