PUBLICATIONSRepression of Dissent

Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka: July-Sep 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 July to September 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.

In this report, “dissent” is broadly defined to include acts of protest, resistance, defiance, challenge against, question or attempt to record rights violations, social injustice at the hands of state or non-state apparatus, including police, armed forces, religious groups, and politicians among others. “Repression” is defined as any attempt by the above state or non-state actors to suppress the acts of dissent. Any rhetoric decrying human rights has also been considered as repression of dissent because of its potential to erode rights. We have also included government officials who had faced reprisals when trying to do their duties.

The report is based on 83 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 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, Mass Media and Social Media, (5.2) Repression of Whistleblowers, activists, and civil society, (5.3) Repression of Freedom of Assembly (5.4) Repression of other State officials and (5.5) Other incidents. Section 6 includes the list of incidents presented in a table, with a brief description about each incident.

2. Context

Legal and policy changes: Sri Lanka relaxed two months long travel restrictions on 10th July, while inter-provincial travel restrictions continued throughout the period.1 On 20th August Sri Lanka announced another nationwide lockdown due to the increasing number of covid-19 cases. The lockdown was lifted on 1st October. On 30th August, Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency under the pretext of Covid19 and need to control rising food prices. Declaration of state of emergency provides wide powers to the President with limited checks and balances. Freedom of dissent could be easily at stake in the context of a state of emergency.

In June, the Kotelawala Defence University Bill was presented to the parliament2 and it wa approved by the parliamentary Consultative Committee on Defence in July3. It was subjected to much criticism as opposition political parties and activists alleged it as an attempt to militarize education, and end the free education system. Number of protests were organized against the bill. The protests were organized against the bill.

In July Sri Lankan teachers launched an online strike and withdrew themselves from online teaching demanding to solve their salary anomalies in addition to physical protests they organized country wide. Online communications became more important in the covid19 context. Sri Lanka also said that they are introducing the Cybersecurity Bill and the Cyber Defence Command Bill soon.4

Changes in party politics: On 6th July, Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Jayantha Ketagoda resigned from his position as a national list MP allowing the fourth member of the Rajapaksa family to enter into Parliament5. Basil Rajapaksa was disqualified to compete in the previous parliamentary election as he was a dual citizen. However, the 20th amendment passed in Parliament in October 2020 now allows dual citizens to become members of parliament. On 8th of July, Basil Rajapaksa was sworn in both as a MP and the Finance Minister of the Country.

Acquittal of suspects: Accused in several high profile corruption cases were acquitted as the Attorney General decided to withdraw the cases. On 2nd July, all the remaining six suspects including ex-Chairman of the Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation (SLLDC), Prasad Harshan de Silva, Badra Kamaladasa, Sudammika Atigalla, Saman Galappaththi, M. Mahinda Saliya and Srimathi Senadeera were acquitted from the alleged misappropriation of public funds in the D.A. Rajapaksa Museum case. The case was filed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and several others over an allegation that the D.A.Rajapaksa Museum and Memorial in Medamulana was built using public funds amounting to Rs.33.9 million. In November 2019, President Rajapaksa was released due to Presidential immunity. As the Deputy Solicitor General Dileepa Pieris appearing on behalf of the Attorney General informed court that he would not be conducting evidence on the charges filed against the accused under the powers vested in the Attorney General under Section 194 (1) of the Criminal Procedure Code, the bench ordered suspects to be released6. On 27th July, The Colombo High Court released Avant-Garde Chairman Nissanka Yapa Senadhipathi and former Chairman of Rakna Lanka, Major General (Retired) Palitha Fernando from the Avant-Garde bribery case. Bribery Commission’s Assistant Director General Thushari Jayaratne appearing for the Bribery Commission informed the court that the Bribery Commission had decided to withdraw the case due to technical weaknesses in the case7. On 30th July 2021, former Petroleum Industries Deputy Minister and former Chairman of Development Lotteries Board (DLB) Sarana Gunawardena was released from eight cases filed by the Bribery Commission as the Assistant Director of the Bribery Commission Asitha Anthony told the court that the cases were filed against the Ex-Deputy Minister without the written approval from the three commissioners and therefore an issue had arisen with regard to proceeding with the case. The case was filed against him for causing losses to the state by leasing vehicles to the Development Lotteries Board while he was the Chairman in 2007 without following the proper tender procedure.8 Similarly Former Laksala chairman Anil Koswatte and four others were also acquitted from a bribery case9.

Protesting Prisoners on the roof of Welikada prison demanding to reduce long term sentences under the systematic implementation of the Prisoner review system. Photo Courtesy: Daily Mirror

Rights of Prisoners: In September, death row prison inmates of Welikada Prison started a protest demanding systematic implementation of the prisoner review system once in four years as per the prison ordinance, based on which convicted prisoners can get relief for their sentences, such as conversion of death sentences to life sentences and life sentences to 20 years. A similar protest was previously conducted in June. 48th session of the Human Rights Council from 13th September to 11th of October. Updates on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation were discussed at the sessions. On 12th September, the State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Lohan Ratwatte allegedly threatened the Tamil prisoners in Anuradhapura prison at gunpoint and forced them to kneel down. Amidst huge public outcry and local and international pressure, the state minister was forced to resign from his position of Prisons Minister personally acknowledging his responsibility for the incidents to the President,10 though he continued as the Minister Of Gem And Jewellery Related Industries. Ratwatte was previously charged for the 2001 murder of 10 Muslim youths in Udathalawinna. Along with his father, a former deputy Defense Minister, Lohan Ratwatte was acquitted of all charges by the Colombo High Court in 2006, while 5 of their security guards were convicted and sentenced to death11. Later eight prisoners filed a Fundamental Rights petition against the Minister and they were granted an interim order to be transferred into another suitable prison in October12. On 22nd Of September, the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners submitted a letter to the United Nations explaining a number of issues faced by Sri Lankan prisoners.13 Meanwhile Sri Lankan Opposition leader also advocated for death penalty for terrorists and drug traffickers14.

Number of protests and public gatherings were controlled using court orders and other measures. Police also used physical force and covid19 context, health guidelines and quarantine laws were misused to control dissent. In September a court order was issued against a dead politician preventing him from organizing a remembrance event.15 This shows the extent of how carelessly these court orders were issued against individuals, and civil society activists.

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3. Case updates

Disappearance of Journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda: Wife of disappeared journalist and activist Sandya Ekneligoda received a strange letter dated 4th of August from the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) asking her to submit further information regarding the disappearance of her husband as the information available to the OMP is not sufficient to search about the case. The disappearance of her husband journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda is well known both locally and internationally. Sandya Ekneligoda in response to the letter has written to the OMP stating that Upali Abeyratne current chairperson of OMP in the capacity of former chairperson of Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on Political Victimization had pressured and influenced witnesses, and recommended the accused of the court cases on the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda to be released, and investigating officers to be punished16.

Letter sent by OMP addressing to Sandya Ekneligoda. Photo Courtesy: Sri Lanka Brief.

Arrest of Kokilan Thasan under PTA: Journalist Kokilan Thasan who was arrested in November 2020 still remains in detention. Though Kokilan’s mother had made a complaint to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) in December 2020, there has been no response from the Commission for 7 months. In July 2021, the family inquired about the progress of the case from HRCSL through Attorney-at-law and activist Sanjaya Wilson Jayasekara. The letter sent by the lawyer stated “my client had only posted on his facebook wall several photographs of bereaved relatives commemorating their loved ones who lost their lives during the 26 year racist war waged by successive Sri Lankan governments since 1983 against Sri Lanka’s Tamil Community in the North and East. The photographs were captioned with poetic texts expressing the grief and sentiments of those relatives who commemorated their loved ones, the victims of war.17” Following the letter, HRCSL has summoned Valaichenai Police to inquire about the progress of the case on 30th July 2021. At the inquiry conducted by the HRCSL, Valaichenai police have failed to produce any material to substantiate any reasonable grounds for the arrest and detention. Subsequently HRCSL ordered them to submit any proof for their claims of a reasonable arrest within two weeks.18 Reportedly Kokilan Thasan is still held in detention despite HRCSL’s intervention.

Arrest and Detention of poet Ahnaf Jazeem: On September 7, 2021, Freedom Now filed a petition with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of Sri Lankan poet Ahnaf Jazeem. On 4th of August Supreme Court allowed poet Ahnaf Jazeem to have confidential access to his lawyers19.

Arrest and detention of Hejaaz Hisbullah: In June 2021, another two Fundamental Rights petitions filed on behalf of two teachers of the Al- Zuhriya Arabic College said that they were forced by the CID to implicate Hizbullah.20

Threats to Chamuditha Samarawickrama: Around 6th of July, Colombo Crime Division officers questioned model Piumi Hansamali following a complaint on threats to the life of television presenter Chamuditha Samarawickrama. In June, journalist Chamuditha Samarawickrama wrote to the Inspector General of Police claiming that he received death threats after he commented regarding a party organized by a fashion designer and an actress violating the covid19 health guidelines. While no other actions taken regarding the incident were not reported, journalist Chamuditha was questioned regarding alleged ‘anti-government’ statements he had made (See the section on Freedom of journalists and media workers).

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4. Statistical Analysis

Since this report is mainly based on media reports these statistics are impacted by the media trends both in mainstream and social media. An incident sometimes included one individuals, several individuals or large groups, or legal and policy actions that could impact to general public.

Geographical coverage of the incidents

LocationNumberPercentage
Colombo (WP)3643%
Gampaha and Kalutara (WP)34%
North and East1113%
Other areas911%
online45%
phone calls56%
Not Applicable1417%
Not mentioned11%
Total83100%
Table 1: Geographical distribution of the incidents

The highest percentage of incidents, 47%, were reported from the Western Province. 13% of incidents were reported from Northern and Eastern Provinces. 11% of incidents were reported from other areas. 5% of incidents were online, while another 6% were phone calls. In 17% of cases geographical location was not applicable as they were incidents such as legal and policy actions that impact more than a single geographical area.

Types of violations

Type of violationNumberPercentage
Arrests1720%
Military/police questioning1417%
legal, intuitional and policy911%
verbal threats1214%
physical attacks78%
other problematic verbal statements34%
Negative media reporting34%
Surveillance22%
censorship / restrictions on media22%
Court orders34%
Instances that the court rejected issuing orders preventing protests etc.45%
visits, inspection and questioning34%
Attempted abduction11%
other34%
Total83100%
Table 2: Types of violations

20% of the incidents were arrests. 17% of incidents were related to questioning and summons by Police and military. 14% were verbal threats, while 8% were physical attacks. There were also 11% of repressive legal, policy and institutional actions that could impact on the freedom to dissent. There were also other incidents relating to problematic statements to restrict freedom to dissent by politicians, negative media reporting and fake news targeting civil society, calls for censorship of media and social media, surveillance, court orders issued and requested to restrict protests, and other events often citing Covid-19 as a reason, visits to houses and offices of journalists and activists, and one incident of alleged abduction.

Confiscation of digital equipment, and online threats

Though it was not specifically mentioned in the above categorization, in 3 incidents digital equipment belonging to journalists were confiscated, while in one case Police demanded login details into social media profiles of a journalist, while interrogating him.

There are four incidents that were reported online. Two of them were related to threats made to journalists by Police and military officers through facebook comments, when they shared news they have written in their personal facebook profile. In another case, an activist was threatened through whatsApp messages after participating in a protest.

Arrests: Though the number of incidents relating to arrests were considered as 17 incidents, the actual number of arrests relating to those incidents constitutes the arrest of 132 individuals. Below is a detailed list.

Incident of the arrestNumber of persons arrested
Arrest of Journalist Keerthi Ratnayake1
Arrest of trade unionist Ananda Palitha1
Arrests related to the protest against the proposed KDU Bill and other arrests of student activists Wasantha Mudalige, Chameera Koswatte and Koshila Hansamali, Amila Sandeepa, Heshan Harshana5
Drivers who transported protestors3
Arrest of protestors in Batticaloa18
Teachers who protested in front of Presidential Secretariat44
Teachers protest held in Kandy2
Protest against fertilizer import ban and fuel shortage in Akuressa13
Protest against proposed KDU bill in Hatton4
Protest against fertilizer import ban in Boralanda5
Protest against KDU bill – arrest of Joseph Stalin and others33
Arrest of Southern Provincial Councillor Ranjith Munasinghe in relation to a protest1
Arrest of MP S. Kajendran for commemoration of Thileepan1
Arrest of a young man for sharing a photo of Prabhakaran1
Total number of arrests132
Table 3: Details of the arrests

Profile of victims: In 25% of the incidents, protestors and participants of memorial events were affected. In 23% of incidents journalists were affected. In 18% of incidents state officials were affected. In 11% of incidents NGOs, civil society and activists were affected. 5% of incidents were related to the repression of student activists, while another 5% of incidents were related to the repression of opposition politicians. 2 incidents were related to trade unionists. However, the number of individuals arrested in one of these two cases was 44 individuals.

Type of victimsNumberPercentage
protestors and participants of memorial events2125%
Journalists1923%
State officials1518%
NGOs and civil society and activists911%
Student Activists45%
Trade Unionists22%
lawyers11%
politicians45%
other78%
Not applicable11%
Total83100%
Table 4: Category of victims or activists affected by the incident

Ethnicity of the victims: 36% of incidents were related to sinhala, while 13% were related to Tamils, and 1% were related to Muslims. Sinhala are the ethnic majority in the country, while ethnic Tamils and Muslims are minorities.

Ethnicity of the victimNumberPercentage
Sinhala3036%
Tamil1113%
Muslim11%
Not Applicable3239%
Not mentioned911%
Total83100%
Table 5: Ethnicity of victims or activists affected by the incident

Gender of the victims: Victims were predominantly male. In 54% of incidents, victims were male, while in 6% of incidents females were victims. In 40% of incidents, gender was not applicable as they were related to groups of individuals in which both men and women were included and legal and policy actions that could apply irrespective of gender.

Gender of the victimNumberPercentage
Male4554%
Female56%
Not Applicable3340%
Total83100%
Table 6: Gender of victims or activists affected by the incident

Alleged perpetrators or alleged responsible parties were mainly related to the state. In 55% of incidents, military or Police were allegedly responsible for the incident. In 10% of the cases, the President or central government was allegedly responsible. In 6% of incidents, other politicians were responsible. Drug traffickers, illegal sand miners, courts, newspapers that published disparaging articles, and others were responsible for around 30% of other incidents.

Alleged Perpetrator/ Responsible partyNumberPercentage
Military or Police4655%
President or central government810%
Other Politicians56%
Illegal Business persons34%
court34%
newspapers/website34%
unknown78%
other810%
Total83100%
Table 7: Alleged responsible party

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5. Summary of incidents

5.1 Repression of journalists, Mass Media and Social Media

Arrests: On 14th August, Keerthi Ratnayake, a journalist affiliated with Lanka e News, was arrested for allegedly providing intelligence information to the Indian embassy in Sri Lanka and currently being held in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). His house was searched, his computer, mobile phones and USB storage disks were also seized by the Police. Ratnayake is a former Air Force Intelligence Officer who currently works for the London based Sri Lankan news website.

Lanka Enews Journalist Keerthi Rathnayake was arrested by Sri Lankan authorities after he warned the Indian High Commission about the risk of an Extremist terror attack. Photo courtesy: Taz

Summoning and questioning by Police: On 17th August, social media journalist Thushara Wanniarachchi was summoned to the CID to record a statement in connection with her alleged links to Keerthi Ratnayake. On the previous day, the Police searched her house and seized old laptops, and mobile phones that she had used. She claimed that the police officers had indicated that she was in possession of a computer and telephone belonging to Ratnayake.

On 28th September, Criminal Investigations Department (CID) summoned six journalists including several editors who had reported on alleged corruption in Sathosa- the government retail network based on statements made by the former Executive Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority. With regards to the same incident, a team of CID Police officers arrived at the office of Lankadeepa newspaper expecting to interrogate the journalists. As strong criticism mounted towards the government, the Media Minister informed that summoning journalists was a mistake that was corrected with the intervention of the Prime Minister.

On 12th July, officers with the Batticaloa district’s Terrorism Investigation Division, a branch of the Sri Lankan police, interrogated Nilanthan, a freelance Tamil journalist and the secretary of the Batticaloa District Tamil Journalists Association, a local press freedom group, for about three hours. Officers questioned Nilanthan about his income sources, and demanded the login details of his Facebook, WhatsApp, email, and bank accounts and also asked whether he supported the LTTE. In August and September, the treasurer of the Batticaloa District Tamil Journalists Association Union and journalist Punniyamoorthy Sasikaran was interrogated for several hours by Special Crime Prevention Unit attached to Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) office in Batticaloa for his alleged involvement in organizing a memorial event in January to pay tribute to Indian fishermen who died at sea in 2020, which he said he merely covered as a journalist.

In early July, journalist Chamuditha Samarawickrema was summoned to Colombo Crime Division (CCD) and asked to provide a statement clarifying over disparaging comments on the government based on a complaint made by the Inspector General of Police (IGP). Samarawickrema had made several comments in a youtube video criticizing the few statements made by government politicians that were accessible to the public. Also in the same month, Editor of VoiceTube news website and youtube channel, Thushara Sewwandi Witharana was summoned to the CID for publishing a statement made by an activist criticizing Sinovac vaccine based on a complaint by the State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals Channa Jayasumana.

Freelance journalist Nandana Weeraratna was also summoned by the CID on 30th July and interrogated about an article he had published about Killings in Welikada prison during Black July in 1983 for naming several alleged perpetrators.

Intimidation, surveillance and other threats: In mid-August, two men claiming to be officers of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) had attempted to enter the house of the Editor of a Tamil newspaper, R. Sivarajah and visited his apartment at around 2.30 am demanding to search the premises. However, the security guards at the gate had refused to allow the ‘CID officers’ inside. The editor has made a Police complaint regarding the incident while Police were unaware of such a search. Later in August, Journalist Tharindu Uduwaragedara also made a complaint to the Inspector General of Police regarding an attempt to obtain his personal information by a person who claimed to be a Police officer. He said that a female who introduced herself as a police officer attached to the Medical Officer of Health office of Kolonnawa called him and asked for personal information. When he inquired from the office, he was informed that no such information gathering was conducted.

On 1st July, Deputy Inspector General Deshabandu Thennakoon made several comments in a threatening tone in response to a news article shared by Journalist Tharindu Jayawardane in his facebook wall. During a series of facebook comments, Thennakoon repeatedly said that Jayawardane has published false news and also said that ‘nature will punish Jayawardane and he will face the destiny similar to Prabhakaran and others’ and also equated journalist Jayawardane with Velupillai Prabhakaran the leader of the LTTE tamil rebels who was killed in the year 2009 at the end of civil war. In Mid-August another Journalist Vimukthi Dushantha was threatened by an Army Captain named Chaminda Liyanage regarding a facebook post he had published criticizing a news article published in Army Website. Vimukthi Dushantha is the editorial director of infosrilanka.lk website. He is also an executive committee member of the Professional Web Journalists’ Association.

Around 25th September, a video showing Jaffna Police seizing the mobile phone belonging to a female journalist was published in several websites. As shown in the video, when a lawyer intervened and requested for a court order for such an action, the Police officer argued that they have the authority to seize a person’s mobile phone without a court order. As reported by JDSLanka the mobile phone has been confiscated when the journalists filmed the arrest of MP Selvarajah Kajendren during a memorial event. In another incident, a convener of a collective of artists in Anuradhapura has threatened a journalist working for Mawbima newspaper after they have inquired about collecting money from people with the promise of providing lands to Artists without a legal authority to do so.

Physical attacks: In August, Derana Journalist Sumedha Sanjeewa who went to cover gas shortage in Pelawatte area was assaulted by a civilian. This incident may have occurred in the context that the specific media institution has been pro-government and people are angered about the rising cost of living in the country.

Legal and Policy concerns affecting media and journalists: Daily Mirror published that journalists are finding it difficult to ask critical questions or follow up questions with government ministers and officials during press briefings and cabinet briefings held online as they are given limited time and sometimes no opportunity given at all to raise if they represent a media institution usually critical of the government. It was also alleged that “media secretaries and speechwriters” attend the meeting with pre-prepared questions.

In early July, the Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa alleged that a high profile group related to the government along with a group of lawyers are making attempts to revoke the broadcasting license of the Sirasa Media network. Sirasa Media Network has been much critical of the government in the recent past. Later Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told the media he has recently sought legal advice regarding the conduct of Sirasa TV and spoke justifying his actions.

On 17th July the Minister of Mass media participating at a television talk show stated that the duty of (investigative) journalists is not limited to publishing in the newspaper, but also to provide such information to legal authorities. He also noted that Code of Criminal Procedure recognizes that concealing evidence is a criminal offence. Media rights organizations pointed out such a policy could risk the safety of journalists and their sources.

Repression of Social Media: Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella speaking at a Press Briefing stated that the government is contemplating legislation that will target websites whose posts it deems “defamatory” and have no visible ownership and they are developing a mechanism to control such websites. On 4th August, Labour Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva speaking at the Parliament said that social media networks should be controlled as they are responsible for the child abuse, and proposed to adopt measures similar to China. In September, Police Spokesman SSP Nihal Thalduwa told DailyMirror that police are monitoring all suspicious groups on social media which could be a threat to national security. Though the statement was made in relation to a suspicious group linked to terrorism, INFORM believes this may extend to monitoring civil society groups and others using national security as an excuse.

On 2nd July, Trincomalee Police arrested a young Tamil man from Trincomalee under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) after he shared a photo of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on Facebook. On 13th August, a court order was issued banning a Rap song on underworld for containing abusive language and bad influence to children based on a complaint made by a group of parents. The song was made by the group named Rasthiyadu Padanama.

5.2 Repression of Whistleblowers, activists, and civil society

Trade Unionist Ananda Palitha was arrested by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) for making a statement about fuel shortage in Sri Lanka. Photo courtesy: Sri Lanka Brief.

Repression of Whistleblowers: In late September, former Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Executive Director Thushan Gunawardena who exposed the Sathosa (government retail network) corruption incident relating to Garlic purchase stated that he received a number of threatening whatsapp messages. On 21st August, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) Secretary Ananda Palitha was arrested by the CID for exposing details about fuel shortage in the country. He was granted bail on the next day as the court held the view that Freedom of expression could not be limited in such a manner. In both months of August and October, former Health Ministry spokesman Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara was summoned to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) over several comments he made during a YouTube Interview with senior Journalist Chamuditha Samarawickrama about alleged corruption involving State Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Corporation and National Medicines Regulatory Authority. In mid October, a medical doctor working in the Avissawella government hospital was visited by the state intelligence officials to obtain a statement regarding facebook posts he had published on the covid-19 situation and difficulties faced by the health sector.

Repression of NGOs: On 9th August, during a cabinet meeting the President in the capacity of Defence Minister instructed the Legal Draftsman to prepare a new bill to amend the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration & Supervision) Act, No. 31 of 1980 to suit the present day needs. INFORM believes any new laws on NGOs could further restrict the activities of NGOs and might lead to increased surveillance and monitoring of NGOs by state bodies such as NGO secretariat functioning under the Ministry of Defence and could pose new challenges to the freedom of civil society.

Divaina newspaper published several disparaging articles targeting NGOs without any factual basis. Articles seem to have attempted to create a moral panic and hostile attitudes towards western funded NGOs. For example, on 11th September Divaina published an article claiming that an unregistered NGO run by a person who has strong connections with foreign embassies has prepared and shared a report internationally claiming 66.4% of Sri Lankan citizens are anti-government. Similarly on 9th September Divaina also published another article titled “a fake NGO earned Dollars found.” The article said that state intelligence have found information regarding an NGO that acquired 1-5 million USD funds without government registration. It also said the NGO was run by a person who has strong connections with the US embassy. In both articles, no individuals and organizations were named.

Threats to activists and civil society members: In August, Ratkerewwe Jinarathana Thero, former Convener of Inter-University Student Federation said that he has been threatened with abduction following recent student protests: In the same month, a leading activist of Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA), Dr. Mahim Mendis of Open University was also threatened over the phone multiple times for speaking at the FUTA protest on 3rd August.

In August 2021, Shehan Malaka Gamage a young activist representing victims of Easter Sunday Bomb attack was questioned for over 70 hours during 8 consecutive days after he made a statement at a press conference alleging that political actors related to current ruling government might have played a major role in the Easter Sunday bombings. Soon after his statement, Gamage was summoned and interrogated at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Sri Lanka Police for 8 consecutive days daily. Gamage was interrogated about his personal life, his friends, and connections he had with other people, in addition to the statement he made. He noted that he experienced psychological distress by being questioned for such a long time daily, and also noted that it could be largely an intimidation of victims of Easter Sunday Bombing, rather than an investigation into the matter.

Prisoners rights activist Sudesh Nandimal De Silva. Photo Courtesy: Sri Lanka Brief

In July, unidentified persons visited the apartment complex where activist Sudesh Nandimal De Silva is living and also visited a relative’s house where he had previously lived. He is a leading prisoners’ rights activist and an eye witness in the Welikada Prison massacre in 2012. On 25th of August, Sabaratnam Sivayoganathan of Batticaloa Civil Society Forum was again questioned on 25th August by Counter Terrorism Investigation Division at Saravana Road, in Kallady, Batticaloa. He was initially visited by CTID officers on May 23rd to obtain a statement on his involvement in the P2P protest march.

5.3 Repression of Freedom of Assembly

Arrests of protestors:

On 7th July, Batticaloa Police arrested 18 people who protested demanding justice about the death of Mahalingam Balasundaram who was shot dead by a Ministerial Security Division (MSD) officer attached to parliamentarian Sathasivam Viyalendiran. The protest was held at the Gandhi Park in Batticaloa. Parents of the deceased were among those who were arrested.

The convener of IUSF Wasantha Mudalige who organized a protest was arrested without a court order in the wee hours of 6th August, when he was returning after a political talk show on television. Video: Sirasa Tv https://youtu.be/xuro1yswfsc

Convener of the Inter-University Students Federation Wasantha Mudalige, President of the Sri Jayewardenepura University Students’ Federation Amila Sandeepa, Administrative Secretary of Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) Chameera Koswatte and student activist and member of FSP Koshila Hansamali were arrested at different locations following a protest held against Kotelawala Defence University Act. Mudalige was arrested in the wee hours of 6th August, when he was returning after participating at a political talk show on Sirasa TV. They were accused s of damaging public property and injuring a Police officer during the protest. In addition the Police had also started going to the houses of some of the protestors, using a list of names on 3rd August night. Three drivers who transported protestors to the IUSF protest were also arrested for allegedly violating Covid-19 travel restrictions. On 13th August, Heshan Harshana, another student leader attached to Rajarata University was arrested by the police at his home, 48 hours after Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) activists handed over a detailed report on the recent wave of arrests to 8 diplomatic missions in Colombo. On 6th August, Police officers in civvies allegedly attempted to abduct Aminda Lakmal a university lecturer working in the Sri Jayawardanapura University when he along with other university teachers and students were returning after a protest against the proposed Kotelawala Defence University Bill.

On 1st July, Five including Samantha Vidyarathna and Namal Karunaratne were arrested for allegedly violating quarantine regulations during a protest they organized in Boralanda in Badulla district. In another protest held in Hatton against the Kotalawala Defence University (KDU) Bill, four people including Nuwara Eliya district JVP organiser Manjula Suraweera Arachchi was arrested. Later in the same month, 13 members of the JVP political party including two former provincial councillors were arrested at a protest staged in Akuressa in Matara district, against the fuel price increase and the government’s controversial chemical fertilizer ban.

On 8th of August, former Southern Provincial Councillor Ranjith Munasinghe represenging Opposition political party Samagi Jana Balawegaya was arrested for not wearing a mask during a protest held on 20th July. He was arrested when he went to the Police to provide a statement after being summoned by the Police.

On 23rd of September, Opposition Member of Parliament (MP) Selvarajah Kajendran was arrested by Police and bundled into a police vehicle for organizing an event for memorializing Thileepan- former Tamil rebel. Video footage shared on social media showed Kajendran resisting arrest and eventually being forced into the police vehicle along with two of his aides at Nallur.

Arrests related to Protests of Teachers and educational activists:

A Buddhist monk being unceremoniously carried away by PPE-clad police officers, during a protest against the Kotelawala Defence University Bill on July 8. Photo courtesy: Dineth Chamalka/ENCL

On 8th of July, thirty-three people including Sri Lanka Teachers’ Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin were arrested over a protest held against the proposed Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) bill at the parliament roundabout in Sri Jayawardenapura, Kotte. Police accused them of unlawful assembly, causing road traffic and severe public disturbance. After the Court granted the bail Police requested to send them for quarantine process which the court said it had no jurisdiction to make such an order. However, upon their release Police took them for quarantining forcefully. Subsequently Secretary General of Sri Lanka Teachers’ Union Joseph Stalin and 15 others were forcibly sent off to a quarantine centre in Mullaitivu. On the following day speaking from the quarantine centre, Stalin made a statement that they were not given proper food or clothing. Due to continuous protests, trade union actions and widespread criticism of the government, they were released from quarantining after one week.

Following these incidents teachers and principals began a protest requesting to solve their long standing salary anomalies. On 4th August, Police arrested a total of 44 people and seized 10 vehicles following a massive protest organized by school teachers and principals that took place opposite the Presidential Secretariat. 44 arrested persons included 22 male teachers, 16 female teachers and 6 other persons. They were accused of unlawful assembly, obstruction of vehicle movement, and violating the Quarantine Rules and Regulations. On the same day, participants of another teachers’ protest were arrested in Kandy.

In mid-September, Eastern Province Secretary of Ceylon Teachers Union, Ponnuthurai Udayarupan said that he had received death threats from influential provincial supporters of the ruling SLPP party for his role in the teachers strike.

Banning protests through courts and other measures and undue influences to the judiciary:

On 6th July, Sri Lanka banned protests and public meetings until further notice to prevent large gatherings and further spread of COVID-19, based on a letter written by Director General of Health Services Dr Asela Gunawardena to the Inspector General of Police informing him of the decision. However, Gampaha magistrate Manjula Karunarathna stated that protests could not be banned based on a letter from an official.

On 23rd September, the Jaffna Magistrate Court issued a ban on commemorating the 34th anniversary of Tamil rebel Thileepan’s hunger strike unto death based on a request made by the Police on the basis that the event had possible links with the LTTE members and it violated the Covid-19 regulations.

However, several courts rejected requests made by Police to ban protests. On 4th July, Welimada Magistrate Court rejected a request by Bogahakumbura Police to issue notice preventing five people including All Ceylon Farmers’ Federation National Organiser Namal Karunaratne and former Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Provincial Councilor Samantha Vidyarathna for organizing a protest against the fertilizer crisis in violation of quarantine regulations. On 6th of July, Mount Lavinia Additional Magistrate Sanjaya Wijesinghe dismissed the prohibition order requested by the Dehiwala Police preventing a protest that was to be staged on 7th July opposite the Buddhist Center along Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha in Dehiwala, by Venerable Akmeemana Dayarathana Thero and several others. On 2nd August, Colombo Chief Magistrate rejected a request made by Cinnamon Gardens Police to issue an order restraining a protest scheduled to be held in front of University Grants Commission located in Cinnamon Gardens. On 6th of August Gampaha Chief Magistrate Manjula Karunarathna rejected a request made by Bemmulla Police to ban a protest organized by teachers on their salary anomalies. As the Police submitted the letter issued by the Director-General of Health Services sent to police, the magistrate ruled that protests could not be banned using a letter issued by a state official.

Daily Mirror reported that Judicial Officers and lawyers have expressed dismay over a recent Judicial Service Commission (JSC) meeting where judges have been insisted by the government to use specific sections of Code Criminal Procedure to control protestors and public gatherings taking Covid-19 context into consideration. The meeting titled “Matters relating to judicial proceedings in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic” was held on 13th August with the participation of Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya. A magistrate who spoke to the Daily Mirror has said that the JSC meeting resulted in an impression that the Magistrates should follow those instructions contrary to applying their judicial mind and this can be considered as a subtle pressure on Magistrates when engaged in the performance of their official duties.

In July and August, the President issued multiple gazettes declaring a long list of services as ‘essential services’ from time to time. 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.

Summons and interrogations: In late September, the President of Sri Lanka National Association of Principals Mohan Parakrama Wickramasinghe and a female teacher in Dewalapola Vidyalaya in Minuwangoda and Independent Education Workers Union member Ms.Sirini De Silva were summoned to CID and their statements were recorded regarding their involvements in the protests.

Surveillance and attempts to create public hostility towards the protestors: Pro-government parties accused teachers of spreading Covid-19 by organizing protests. On 25th July and 5th August Kalutara Chief Police Inspector of Police Head Office had written a letter to the Divisional Secretaries in Horana, Madurawala, and Millaniya DS Divisions with the heading “getting information about an inquiry conducted by Criminal Investigation Department (CID).” The letter had requested information on protests, marches and other meetings organized on the issue of salary anomalies of teachers, venues, names of the organizers, names of teachers and principals who tested positive for covid-19, and any deaths of teachers and principals due to covid-19. In September Police informed the protestors who participated in a vehicle parade protest in front of Presidential Secretariat on 4th August to be present at the Fort Police on 2nd October. Police had documented the vehicle numbers of people who attended the protest, and acquired the information of the vehicle owners through the Department of Motor Traffic.

Government attempted to use state resources to disparage the protests organized by the teachers. In late August, the state owned newspaper published a fake news headline claiming “Teachers took at the protests got covid-19, leading to 25 deaths and 400 covid-19 positive cases.” The teachers trade unions wrote a letter to the media minister Dallas Alhapperuma asking to take action on this, as this fake news seemingly intended to create hate among the public towards teachers who were protesting. This seemed further evident in the statement made by the Cabinet Spokesman and Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella who said that there was a possibility that the public would attack the protestors, if the teacher Trade Unions did not call off the trade union action at public places.

5.4 Repression of State officials

Within a period of 38 days, four Supreme Court judges withdrew from hearing the Fundamental Rights Petition filed by MP Rishad Bathiudeen and his brother Riyad Bathiudeen. Justice Samayawardena is the fourth Supreme Court Judge to refrain from hearing these petitions. Earlier Three judges withdrew from hearing these two petitions. Except Justice Janak de Silva also declined to hear these petitions for the reason he was presiding at the Presidential Commission which made recommendations against the petitioners, others withdrew citing personal reasons. Withdrawal of 4 judges within such a short period brings doubts whether there has been any influences on judges that prevent them acting independently.

In several incidents, Police officers were reported during raids. Around 15th September, two policemen sustained injuries during a raid on a heroin hideout at Dematagoda in Colombo District. Around 19th July, two officers attached to Kekirawa Police in Anuradhapura district were injured after being knocked down by an illegal sand miner transporting sand. Around 22nd September, a Police officer was injured during a drug raid in Obesekerapura, Rajagiriya area in Colombo, when a suspected drug dealer drove a vehicle knocking down a Police officer. Around 19th September, two Police officers in Aluthgama Police were assaulted by a suspect and their relatives while trying to arrest a suspect in Pinhena area in Beruwala.

Cctv footage of drug dealers hitting and dragging away the police officer. Photo courtsey: Adaderana.

Attacks to health workers were reported in several incidents. Around 15th July, two persons who were not wearing facemasks assaulted a railway train guard of Dehiwala railway station when he had asked them to wear facemasks. Around 15th September, a Public Health Inspector (PHI) in Kekirawa was assaulted by a monk for asking to come on the following day to receive the second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine as the day’s vaccine quota had been finished. Around 16th August, the residents of a quarantined house attempted to assault and verbally abuse Public Health Inspectors (PHI) when PHIs had arrived at a household where the quarantined residents had been drinking alcohol with a group of friends violating health guidelines. In mid-August, the Prison Department initiated the investigation against MP Rishad Bathuideen who had allegedly made death threats to a prison doctor. However, the reasons led to such a threat were unclear. At the time, MP Rishad Bathiudeen was held in detention under draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act for his alleged connections with Easter Sunday Attacks.

Around 12th August, Matale Chairperson of Central Province Road Passenger Transport Authority (CPRPTA) Hasitha Wijetilake was threatened with death by another officer working in Matale for not approving a promotion for an unqualified internal candidate. Around 28th September, Colombo Municipal Councilor Mohamed Ramsey was arrested by Cinnamon Garden Police for threatening the Colombo Municipal treasurer.

5.5 Other incidents

On 30th August, Sri Lanka declared a state of emergency under the extra-ordinary gazette 2243/1, claiming that emergency regulations are required “to ensure the Public Security and wellbeing and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community” “in the context of the COVID – 19.” Regardless of the reason, when the state of emergency is declared, it provides a wide range of powers to the President with only limited checks and balances. Emergency regulations have been abused in the past, has led to the shrinking space of dissent, and crimes in the hand of the state and non-state actors.

Monthly gazettes calling on the armed forces to maintain public order were reissued in July, August and September, 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.

In early July, a lawyer complained to the Bar Association that he had been threatened and faced with an attempted assault inside the Kocchikade Police premises. Attorney-at-law M.N.M. Fazeer has written a letter to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka to look into the incident as the Police have failed take a legal action against the suspect. When Fazeer represented a client arrested by the Police, another person verbally abused Fazeer in the presence of Officer-In-Charge (OIC) of the Police station.

In mid-August, Prof. Vickramabahu Karunaratne, General Secretary of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) was summoned to the Slave Island Police Station on 16th August 2021. On the previous day, he had been questioned by police why Muslims are allowed to get membership of the NSSP. After the matter drew media attention, Police cancelled the summon claiming that they are too busy without giving another date. In September, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Member of Parliament (MP) Manusha Nanayakkara was summoned to CID regarding a media statement he made over the data deletion in the National Medicine Regulatory Authority (NMRA).

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