Repression of Dissent, June 2023


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Executive Summary

Cases completed2023 Jan-June20222021Total
Magistrate Court (MC)High Court (HC)MCHCMCHC
Completed cases. The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption

Context: Even though the number of cases withdrawn by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) has been reduced in this year according to their latest mid-year report, 88 cases out of total 198 cases have been withdrawn by the CIABOC, since January 2021. A significant number of these cases withdrawn were against politically exposed persons. New members and chairpersons were appointed to the Human Rights Commission and Election Commission. Sri Lankan LGBTIQ+ community and allies celebrated pride, organising various events around the country.  Pride events were held in Colombo, Jaffna, Nuwara Eliya and other areas, while a private member bill to decriminalise homosexuality had been recently brought to the parliament. However, LGBTIQ+ activists faced several incidents of threats and intimidation while organising the pride events. Tamil estate workers in Hatton organised a protest march advocating on land rights and other issues faced by the Malayaha Community.  Several civil society organisations issued a statement demanding to hurry up the investigations into various mass graves found around Sri Lanka. A few days later, another mass grave was found in Kokkuthoduvai area in Mullaitivu District. More details on two custodial deaths came up. An eyewitness gave a statement before the magistrate saying that he witnessed the female domestic servant who was found dead while in the custody of Welikada Police in May 2023, being assaulted by the Police officers. With regards to another custodial death in January 2023, Maligakanda magistrate ruled that the death of the suspect was due to an assault, and ordered the arrest of the Police officers who were responsible.

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Case updates:  Ministry of labour responded with regards to the removal of the only female member on the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC). They justified their action claiming that the removal was done as her appointment did not meet the selection criteria for the NLAC membership that was recently implemented, which limits nominations of Council membership only for the most representative trade unions that were selected by the Ministry,  and denied any gender based discrimination in the process. Proposed Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Act (BRCA) has been widely criticised by activists and media rights advocates as an attempt to control the media industry, through a politically appointed body.  The Justice Minister responded saying that the draft document they shared with the stakeholders was not a draft bill, but a set of proposals, and stated that the draft bill would be made only after having consultations with the heads of media institutions. However, the Broadcaster’s Guild of Sri Lanka, writing a letter to the Minister of Media, called on the government to immediately withdraw the proposed draft bill. While arrested female standup comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya was further remanded until 5th of July, Bruno Divakara, the Youtube journalist arrested for allegedly aiding and abetting her was granted bail.  The Supreme court held that more than 25 clauses in the  Anti-Corruption Act (ACA) were inconsistent with the constitution. ACA was presented  to the parliament soon after the government signed a loan agreement of 2.9 billion US dollars with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which was required to address corruption vulnerabilities in the country. The Supreme Court granted leave to proceed with a Fundamental Rights petition against Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon and other Police officers in relation to a case of arbitrary arrests of protesters during a peaceful protest held in Colombo in 2020.

“If this purported broadcast bill is implemented, it would undoubtedly restrict the media space and herald dark days for freedom of expression, thought and conscience in our nation… The proposed media regulatory commission, which would be appointed solely by the President and under the government control, enforces a harmful regulatory mechanism and approach on the country’s independent media.”

Editors Guild of Sri Lanka
28th June 2023 

Repression of Freedom of Expression: Freelance Journalists Pradeepan Thambithurai and Dharmalingam who video recorded the events when National People’s Front (TNPF) leader Gajendrakumar Ponnamblam was allegedly threatened by state intelligence officers were summoned and interrogated by the Special Crime Office of the Deputy Inspector General Office in Kilinochchi. They had been repeatedly questioned about how they obtained the video and how they gathered information for news.  Al Jazeera reporter Minelle Fernandez faced a water cannon attack while live reporting on a student protest held in Colombo suburbs. Journalist and media rights activist Tharindu Uduwaragedara was summoned and interrogated by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Police regarding alleged contempt of court charges relating to the press conference they held condemning the arrest of standup comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya. On 26th of June, the CID arrested an active member of Aragalaya and social media activist Piyath Nikeshala, for live streaming the protests in front of then Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe’s house in July 2022, when it was set on fire by the protesters. Social Media Journalist Prasad Welikumbura was summoned to the Computer Crimes Division in relation to a video he had published in February 2023 that allegedly caused disrespect towards the military.         

Piyath Nikeshala during Sri Lanka’s people’s protests in 2022. Photo courtesy: Pathum Kerner

Repression of Freedom of Assembly: The government abandoned their initial plans to conduct an investigation against the organisers of the Freedom Pride Parade held on 4th June in Colombo. A senior Police officer and a politician have allegedly attempted to stop another pride walk that was held on 18th of June. Amidst these challenges, emerging trends of pinkwashing and attempts to exclude anti-government sentiments from certain pride events were also observed. A court order was issued preventing a protest in front of the National Election Commission organised by the members of National People’s Power (NPP). On 7th June, Police fired tear gas and water at protesters who took part at a protest march organised by the Inter University Sudent’s Federation, when they were passing the Nugegoda city in Colombo suburbs.  Member of Parliament, and the leader of Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam was arrested for allegedly obstructing Police officers a few days ago, when he had questioned the state intelligence officers in civil clothes to verify their identities. He was arrested in Colombo after coming to take part in the parliamentary proceedings, and taken to Jaffna to record a statement. In two separate instances, Police  arrested a total of four other members of TNPF, including three women in relation to the same incident.  

Freedom Pride Parade organised by Generation pride advocated on a broad range of socio-economic and political issues including the repeal of laws criminalising homosexuality. Photo Courtesy: Daily Mirror

Repressive Legal and Policy actions: Contempt of a court, tribunal or institution Act was gazetted on 27th of June. The proposed act may have serious implications on the freedom of expression and other rights. Judicial Service Association of Sri Lanka (JSASL) wrote a letter to the President expressing their dissatisfaction regarding two recent judicial appointments that they considered to be contravening with the independence of the judiciary, and public confidence towards judiciary. Monthly gazette calling for the armed forces to maintain public order was issued, indicating the continuing trends of militarization. Another gazette notification was issued declaring supply of electricity, supply and distribution of fuel, and health related work as essential services. Declaring as essential services has been historically used by repressive governments to control and take action against labour strikes and trade union actions.  

Other incidents: Darshana Samarawickrama, the newly appointed chairperson of the Battaramulla Cooperative Insurance Company in Colombo district was shot by two unidentified men, while he was on his way to assume duties.  A lawyer who works in Kebithigollewa magistrate court was assaulted by two men, while returning from his work. Poet Ahnaf Jazeem who was unjustly arrested and detained for more than a year for allegedly promoting extremism through his poetry has been again included in the list of designated persons linked to terrorism, by the Ministry of Defence.

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