Human rights

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka added to human rights watch list

The island nation has seen a rapid decline in civic freedoms as it endures its worst economic crisis in decades

Police fire tear gas to disperse students taking part in an anti-government protest demanding the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa following the crippling economic crisis in Colombo on May 29. (Photo: AFP)

Posted: Jun 21, 2022 02:55 GMT

Updated: June 21, 2022 at 02:59 GMT

Sri Lanka has been added to a watch list of countries that have seen a rapid decline in civil liberties.

In recent months, as the country faces its worst economic crisis in decades, authorities have responded to anti-government protests with restrictive emergency regulations and the use of excessive, even deadly, force against protesters. Journalists have also been targeted, while pro-government mobs have attacked protest sites with impunity.

The new watchlist is published by CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks the latest developments in civil liberties, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, in 197 countries and territories. The other countries on the list are Chad, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mexico and Hungary.

In an effort to quell the protests, state of emergency regulations were enacted twice, on April 1 and again on May 6, allowing authorities to arrest and detain suspects without warrants. and restrict fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and movement. The emergency regulations lacked due process guarantees and gave the president the power to stop public processions and restrict access to public spaces.

In addition, the regulations provided the power to use armed force against anyone who did not comply with orders. Authorities shut down social media services including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp for 3 p.m. on April 1.

Security forces were also mobilized to quell protests and used excessive and unprovoked force against protesters outside the private residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 31. Tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets were deployed, injuring at least 50. Dozens of protesters were arrested and some were mistreated.

“Sri Lankan authorities must refrain from arbitrarily arresting people for simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and ensure that those detained have access to lawyers and are not mistreated. in prison”

On April 19, police opened fire on a large group of demonstrators in Rambukkana who had gathered to protest fuel shortages and rising fuel prices. One person died from gunshot wounds and 12 others were injured. On May 5, police fired tear gas at students who allegedly attempted to storm parliament and arrested 12 people.

“The Sri Lankan authorities must refrain from arbitrarily arresting people for simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and ensure that those detained have access to lawyers and are not mistreated. in prison. It must also immediately and impartially investigate all cases of excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings committed by the security forces, make the findings public and bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Josef Benedict, researcher at Asia for CIVICUS.

There was also a lack of accountability for the attack on protesters peacefully demonstrating outside the presidential secretariat on May 9, CIVICUS said. The mob also attacked a protest site known as “GotaGoGama”. Television stations broadcast live graphic images of the destruction of property and brutal attacks on unarmed people by thugs carrying metal poles. The police were largely bystanders.

Journalists have also felt the brunt of this crackdown. During the protest outside the president’s private residence in March, eight journalists were allegedly assaulted by security forces. Six were charged with violating Article 120 of the Penal Code, which makes it an offense to “excite feelings of disaffection” against the president or the government.

Thisara Anuruddha Bandara, a young activist who actively promoted the #GoHomeGota social media campaign to oust the president – widely used during the protest – was arrested at his home on April 1 in a kidnapping-style arrest, then charged under Section 120 before being released on bail.

“Authorities must investigate attacks by government supporters against protesters on May 9, including politicians who may have incited them. Failure to do so will further exacerbate the culture of impunity. It must also ensure that journalists can work freely and without fear of reprisal for covering the protests and that all charges against them are dropped,” said Basil Fernando, policy director at the Asian Human Rights Commission. ‘man.

The violations against protesters are part of a broader pattern of attacks on civic space under the Rajapaksa administration that civil society has documented in recent years. Authorities have systematically attempted to prevent or disrupt protests and arrest peaceful protesters, particularly in the north and east, against the families of Tamil war victims and civil society organizations.

The infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act has been used continuously to allow arbitrary detention, while journalists and critics have also been targeted. The government has also obstructed and even aggressively attacked efforts to hold those responsible for conflict-era crimes accountable under international law.

Sri Lanka is currently classified as “obstructed” by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are 42 countries with this rating. This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by those in power who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights.

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