Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka, July 2023


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1. Executive Summary

Context: Sri Lanka parliament approved a domestic debt restructuring plan. Fitch Ratings downgraded Sri Lanka’s Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to ‘C’ (Near default) from ‘CC’ (Very high levels of credit risk). Trade unions protested against the proposed changes in the labour laws, and debt restructuring process that will affect the superannuation funds of employees. Bilateral talks were held between India and Sri Lanka on a range of issues including the implementation of 13th amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution relating to the devolution of power at the provincial level.  Former Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne received appointment as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Pakistan. He has been previously accused of human rights violations during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Sri Lanka rejected the visa to the Canadian Tamil MP  Gary Anandasangaree. Civil society organisations in the North and East issued statements expressing their dissatisfaction to the Proposed National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) and advocating for an international investigation process, as similar domestic mechanisms in the past have failed to bring justice. A group of Muslim MPs in the parliament submitted a letter to the Justice Minister opposing the proposed progressive amendments in the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). A protest march was organised remembering the 200 years of history of Malaiyaha Tamils, and demanding their rights. Several events were organised remembering the 40th anniversary of Black July pogrom against Minority Tamils in July 1983. As two former LTTE members accused of terrorist attacks were granted presidential pardon, MP  Namal Rajapaksa also requested presidential pardon to the handful of government military who are convicted for war crimes. A hartal was organised in the North and East, demanding an international inquiry into the recently discovered mass grave in Mullaitivu District. The Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) stated that it is struggling to handle the 11,000 public complaints it had received, due to its shortage of staff.

A long protest march was held demanding rights and dignity for Malaiyaha Tamils who have been subjected to historical discrimination and injustices. Courtesy: Daily Mirror

Case updates: Former President Sirisena and others paid less than 9% of the total compensation to the victims of the Easter Sunday Bomb attack in 2018, by the end of the six months deadline as court ordered in last January.  In relation to the case on the disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda in 2010, the attorney general requested court’s permission to present additional evidence in relation to eight phone numbers, for which defence attorneys opposed. Next court hearing is to be held in September.

Nathasha Edirisooriya, after being released on bail, in front of Colombo Fort magistrate court.

Female stand up comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya was granted bail by the Colombo High Court. The bail order included a much progressive interpretation of the ICCPR, considering broader aspects of international law.  Colombo High Court dismissed the revision petition filed by journalist Tharindu Jayawardana seeking to invalidate an order issued by the Colombo magistrate court to conduct an inquiry on alleged contempt of court accusations in relation to the press briefing they held condemning the recent arrest of the female comedian. Former employee of the Swiss Embassy in Sri Lanka, Garnia Bannister Francis, was sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment, suspended for a period of fifteen years, for allegedly making a false statement to the law enforcing authorities claiming that she was assaulted and sexually harassed by five unknown men, for being involved with the Visa process of an exiled Police officer.  Student activist Wasantha Mudalige was arrested and granted bail for not appearing in a court case against him in relation to a protest he took part in three years ago. The magistrate revoked the travel ban imposed on the Senior Police officer, SDIG Deshabandu Tennakoon in relation to not preventing the mob attack on Galleface protesters in May 2022.  A date was fixed for hearing the contempt of Court case against the MP Sanath Nishantha, the State Minister of Water Supply on 27th of September this year. The Supreme Court  dismissed both Fundamental rights petitions on attacks and arrests of participants of the Mirihana protest on 31st March 2022 that later led to Aragalaya anti-government protest movement, and not taking actions to prevent mob attack on Galleface protesters in May 2022, refusing to grant leave to proceed considering the initial objections raised by the state counsels.   However, hearing a writ petition on attack on the Galleface protesters in May 2022, the Court of Appeal ordered the Inspector General of Police to appear at the courts. The Bribery and Corruption Commission informed the court that it expects to record a statement from the former President Gotabaya Rajapaksha in relation to the 17.85 million LKR cash found in the presidential premises by the protesters. MP Namal Rajapaksha and four other suspects requested the court to acquit them from the Money laundering case against them. The Attorney General informed the court that the proposed Private Member bill to reconvene local government bodies without holding elections, is unconstitutional. The Anti Corruption Act was unanimously passed, as all 196 proposed amendments were included in the amended bill.

NameOrdered to payPaidPercentage Paid
The former President, Mathripala Sirisena100 million LKR 15 million LKR 15%
The former IGP Pujith Jayasundera75 million LKR 1.7 million LKR 2.3%
The former Director of SIS, Nilantha Jayawardena75 million LKR 4.1 million LKR 5.5%
The former Secretary, Defence Hemasiri Fernando50 million LKR 1 million LKR 2%
The former CNI Sisira Mendis 10 million LKR 5  million LKR50%
Sri Lankan State1 million LKR 1 million LKR 100%
Total311 million LKR27.8 million LKR8.9%
Table: Amounts ordered to pay and paid. Sources: Supreme Court judgement SC FR 163/2019 and Daily Mirror

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Repression of Media and Journalists: The Police physically assaulted and arrested the journalist and media rights activist Tharindu Uduwaragedara while covering a trade union protest in Colombo. Dharshana Handungoda, a Youtuber and a Journalist was summoned to the Financial Crime Division in Narahenpita in Colombo, linking him with another youtube channel that first published video of the controversial performance of the comedian who was arrested. He was also ordered by the magistrate court to hand over his electronic equipment to the CID of Police in relation to a statement he made in a youtube video accusing a few officials in the AG department for causing a delay in taking legal actions against the X-press pearl ship that sank in SriLankan waters in May 2021.  The Colombo Mayor of the Colombo Municipal Council also made a complaint on alleged defamation against the same Youtuber in relation to another incident. A Regional Journalist of Lankadeepa newspaper was assaulted by two unknown men, while he was at his office providing information to the Police about a recent incident of some unknown persons breaking into his office.

Media Rights activist and journalist Tharindu Uduwaragedara was assaulted and then arrested by the Police while reporting a protest organised by a collective of trade unions. 28th July 2023, Colombo. Photo Courtesy: the leader  

Repression of Freedom of Assembly: A silent protest commemorating the Black July anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983 was disrupted by Sinhala nationalists and Police, while another protest march in Colombo remembering the Black July was also dispersed by the Police, who attacked the protesters with tear gas and water.  A protest held in Colombo against the proposed labour law amendments and debt restructuring plan which involves using the superannuation funds, organised by a joint Trade union collective was dispersed by the Police attacking protesters with tear gas and water. Court orders were issued against three trade union protests, including this. Activist Maurine Noor was summoned to the CID several hours after her Fundamental Rights petition in relation to her arbitrary arrest during a protest in last May was granted leave to proceed. 

As the riot police dispersed the event by pushing off the protesters violently, activists Sandya Ekneligoda, lawyer Srinath Perera fell to the ground. Photo Courtesy. Ishara Kodikara

Repressive Legal and Policy Actions: A circular issued by the Ministry of Health banned its employees from expressing opinions to the media without the approval of their department head. The circular also referred to the recent Supreme Court judgement which upheld the interdiction of Dr. Chamal Sanjeewa for revealing alarming rates of child malnutrition in the country. A gazette notification was issued making several public services as essential services, which is a known strategy for discouraging trade union actions such as labour strikes.  The monthly gazette notification was issued calling for the Armed Forces by the President justifying and providing powers for increased military intervention in civilian affairs.  

Other Incidents: Director of Police Special Investigation Unit who earlier refused to hand over cash found in the President’s house to the Public Security as instructed by a Senior officer, and was subsequently threatened was transferred  as the Director of Research and Development Division of the police department. Several websites expressed their concerns, whether the transfer was an act of retribution. Minister of Urban Development and Housing, Prasanna Ranathunga speaking at a SLPP party event said that anyone who harasses their party supporters would face retribution.

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