Repression of Dissent in Sri Lanka, March 2023


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Executive Summary

Context: Three new draft bills were gazetted in the month of March, to introduce a new anti-terrorism act (ATA), to amend penal code to decriminalise homosexuality, and to amend the Protection of victims of crime and witnesses act 2015. ATA was subjected to strong criticism of human rights activists and organisations. The proposed Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act in 2023 reduces the maximum duration of imprisonment period from 12 years to 5 years, but increases fines against the offenders. Decriminalisation of homosexuality is a long delayed action by many governments, despite decades long advocacy. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) launched the Guidelines for Police officers to protect Transgender Persons. Two custodial deaths were reported, including a suicide case. While the Sri Lankan economy is slowly recovering, the inflation remained higher reporting overall monthly headline inflation as 50% according to official data. 

Case updates: The Election Commission announced 25th April as the new date for holding the postponed local government election. The Supreme Court issued an interim order preventing  the Ministry of Finance from withholding any funds allocated for the Local Government Election 2023 by the government budget. However, Election Commissioner Nimal Punchihewa said that it is unlikely that Finance would release sufficient funds to conduct the local government election as ordered by the Supreme Court. The government printer Gangani Liyanage said that if there is a further delay in processing payments for papers and other material borrowed for printing ballot papers, the supplier may ask to return the stocks. Some websites predicted this as a possible new tactic for postponing elections further. An independent investigative report found that Sri Lanka Police have used expired tear gas that expired two decades ago, causing serious respiratory problems for those who were exposed to them. The Court of Appeal dismissed the writ petition seeking arrest of Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police Deshabandu Tennakoon for his failure to prevent attacks on peaceful protesters in Galle Face on 9th May 2022.  The revision application filed by the Attorney General (AG) against the release of Wasantha Mudalige was taken for hearing at the Colombo High Court. The AG argued that Magistrate’s Court has no jurisdiction to release an individual who had been arrested under the Prevention of Terorism Act. Hearing the case of the death of a protester, who died after being exposed to teargas, the magistrate ordered  the Director of Public Order and Management Division of Sri Lanka Police to submit a report within two weeks on teargas. The Supreme Court lifted the overseas travel ban previously imposed on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and others in relation to accountability on Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. Charges against former Finance Minister Ravi Karunayake in relation to the central bank bond scam were quashed by the Court of Appeal. The case on the citizenship of state minister Diana Gamage and illegally obtaining a Sri Lankan passport by submitting forged documentation was taken for hearing. Lawyer appearing on behalf of the petitioner pointed out that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Poilice is not arresting the Minister despite ample evidence against her.  The Supreme Court issued summons against the Inspector General of Police (IGP) for allegedly neglecting an order to prepare a set of guidelines to prevent the deaths of suspects who are under police custody while being taken out for various investigations.

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Repression of Media and journalists: Parliament passed a resolution to refer the case of alleged infringement of parliamentary privileges by Siyatha Telewakiya, a television programme  to the Attorney General, in order to take further steps which probably could include legal action against the media institution. The CID summoned the web journalist G P Nissanka  Mayadunna, running the news website Ravana Lanka on 27th March and questioned him for over three and half hours, regarding the investigative articles published in the website and demanded to reveal his sources. Lankadeepa regional journalist Nimal Jayarathne in Manampitiya in Polonnaruwa district received a threatening phone call, demanding him to report on a certain incident. 

Repression of Freedom of Assembly: Police arrested Dananjaya Rathnayake an activist of Kandy Gota Go Gama protest site under the charges of violating the curfew and engaging in unlawful assembly last year. Police arrested the head of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared, Kasipillai Jayavanitha, for allegedly illegally obtaining electricity for the shed they used as the base for their six-year-long protest. Lawyers representing the Opposition political party National People’s Power (NPP) alleged that they have received reliable information that the Police have used expired tear gas canisters and contaminated water against protesters, causing three deaths, and other health complications during last week. Submitting an RTI request, they requested a comprehensive report on teargas. Fort magistrate court issued an order preventing a protest march organised by the Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) in Colombo. The Police attacked their protest with teargas and water cannons when it was passing the University of Colombo. Police also forcibly entered the university premises and fired teargas disturbing the academic activities. A security officer named Priyantha Wanninayake employed at the University died after being exposed to tear gas. Military deployed to disperse the protest organised by university students in Colombo on 7th March were seen carrying wooden clubs with iron rings. Army Spokesperson  Brigadier Ravi Herath speaking to media said that an investigation has been launched into the matter, and denied the involvement of the Sri Lankan Army to control the protest. While academics, and university students demanded legal action against the Police for forcibly entering university premises, Police justified their actions. The Colombo university students who organised a protest on the following day to condemn the attack on university premises were also attacked with tear gas and dispersed by the Police. University of Kelaniya students who organised a protest near its university premises were also dispersed, firing tear gas and water, while nine protesters were arrested.  On 31st of March, Police disrupted the first anniversary of the Aragalaya that was planned to be held at the Jubilee Post in Mirihana area in Nugegoda in Colombo suburbs, with a protest calling for abolition of the executive Presidency system. State Minister of tourism Diana Gamage stated that people will attack the protesters soon, as the protesters are trying to sabotage the gradually reviving economy. 

Repressive legal actions and policies: The proposed Anti Terrorism Act (ATA) which expects to replace the existing draconian legislature Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979, was gazetted on 17th March 2023. ATA was subjected to strong criticisms of human rights advocates for its potential of being used to crack down dissent, restrict freedom of expression and other human rights. Aruna newspaper published a news article saying that the government has been recently paying attention to establish a Presidential commission to investigate those who funded, assisted and encouraged Aragalaya, the anti-government protest movement. Same as the previous months,  a gazette notification was issued by the President calling out the Armed forces for the maintenance of public order, a clear indication of continuing militarization.  Two other gazette notifications were issued declaring postal services, supply of electricity and distribution of fuel and petroleum products as essential services.  Declaration as essential services has been historically used by repressive governments in Sri Lanka to prevent trade union actions. This draconian law allows to impose 2 to 5 years of rigorous imprisonment, forfeiture of property, and removal from professional registration against those who engage in trade union actions. Though this law has not been implemented in the recent past in such a scale, United National Party (UNP) Chairman, MP Vajira Abeywardena speaking to the media this month warned the trade unionists not to engage in unreasonable protests, and said that their property would be confiscated. The President speaking at a school event also said that he will introduce a new law declaring school education an essential service, in a bid to control trade union actions by teachers.  

Other incidents: National People’s Power leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake informed the parliament that three retired military officers including retired Air Vice-Marshal Sampath Thuyacontha had been blacklisted by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), allegedly for engaging in politics with his party. Dissanayake pointed out that blacklisting or restricting them of facilities available to other former military officers based on their political opinion is discriminatory, as there are many other former military officers who have been active in politics and still enjoy the facilities available to retired military personnel. 

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