Following the landslide victory by the Rajapaksa’s in the country’s parliamentary election, which they effectively secured a two-thirds majority, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns that the country’s leadership is “waging a campaign of fear and intimidation against human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and others challenging government policy”.
“Turning the clock back to repression”
With a secure majority in parliament, Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director, warns that the government will “exacerbate policies that are hostile to ethnic and religious minorities and further repress those seeking justice” for the atrocities committed during the armed conflict.
Since coming into power in 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed to his cabinet senior military officials who face credible accusations of war crimes and atrocities committed between 2005-2015. Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself faces serious accusations of human rights abuses and involvement in white van abduction. His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who now the Prime Minister, also faces serious allegation as does Kamal Gunaratne, who is now Defence Secretary, and the army chief Shavendra Silva.
The Rajapaksa administration has openly condemned the co-sponsorship of UN resolution 30/1 which committed the country to justice, accountability, and protection of civil society victim groups. However, HRW maintains that the country should still comply with the consensus resolution and respect international standards protecting the rights to freedom of speech and association.
“President Rajapaksa is rapidly turning the clock back to the repression that prevailed during the previous Rajapaksa administration,” reported Ganguly.
She further called upon the UN and countries which had previously called for accountability to demand that the Sri Lankan government “stop targeting those pursuing justice”.
She further notes that;
“There is a real concern that fresh off parliamentary elections, the Rajapaksa government will feel emboldened to further disregard its international human rights obligations”.
“The Sri Lankan government needs to hear that other countries are watching and will respond to renewed abuses”, she added.
A crackdown on NGOs
HRW highlights that activists working on human rights and accountability issues relating to the previous Rajapaksa government have been particularly targeted.
According to one activist;
“They are desperate to find out what [nongovernmental organizations] are doing on the accountability front”.
HRW further reports that authorities are cracking that on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive financial contributions from abroad. In the run-up to the election, Mahinda Rajapaksa announced the establishment of a special inquiry which would examine NGOs who are “spreading slander against the government”.
Some activists have reported that their banks have prevented their organizations from making or receiving transfers.
Attacks on journalists
Activists and journalists in Sri Lanka have also been warned that they are on government “watch lists,” although some prefer not to publicize their cases for fear of retribution.
The Sri Lankan human rights group INFORM detailed in their reporting that incidents of “repression of dissent” averaging over one a day since the beginning of the year and running at over two every day on average in May. These include “include beatings, arbitrary arrests, surveillance, death threats, and hacking of electronic devices”.
“It’s a very scary environment to be a dissenter,” reported one activist from INFORM.
According to an activist operating in the North, the government’s crackdown on activists and victim families has meant “a lot of people have gone absolutely silent”. Another activist stated that “many of us are very scared if we do our work and challenge the authorities”.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists at least two journalists have fled the country in recent months. Journalists have described an environment of “rampant self-censorship.”
This statement follows an earlier joint statement by eleven international human rights organisations who called on Sri Lanka to end the targeted detention and the intimidations of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders, and journalists in Sri Lanka.
Read more here: 'Human rights under attack' in Sri Lanka warn multiple NGOs
Attacks on investigators
HRW also raises concerns over the arrest of the former director of the Criminal Investigations Department, Shani Abeysekara. Abeysekara who had led investigations into high-profile crimes implicating members of the current government was arrested and charged with concealing evidence.
A police officer has subsequently alleged that he was pressured into providing a false statement against Abeysekara.
Another senior officer, Nishantha Silva, who also investigated crimes committed under the previous Rajapaksa administration, fled the country following the presidential election in November 2019.
A militarised response to the pandemic
UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has also criticised Sri Lanka for exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to curtail freedom of expression by arresting critics.
On 1 April, the police stated that anyone “criticizing” the official response would be subject to arrest. HRW highlights the case of Ramzy Razeek, a social media user who reported online death threats to the police but was himself arrested. He remains in custody four months later.
HRW warns that the heavily militarised response to the pandemic has “included intimidation, death threats, physical assaults, and arbitrary arrests”.
This militarisation of Sri Lanka has been furthered by the creation of several special task forces. HRW notes that the “Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous, and Lawful Society” is composed entirely of military and police officers and has the power to issue instructions to any government official.
They further note that over 30 state agencies, including the police and the nongovernmental organization secretariat (NGO Secretariat), which regulates civil society groups, have been placed under the Defense Ministry.
Discrimination during the pandemic
Commenting on the response to the pandemic, HRW warns that authorities arrested over 66,000 people for allegedly violating curfew in just over two months.
They further highlight the severe presence of security forces at checkpoints in the predominantly Tamil Northern Province.
One activist in Jaffna, who described intense checking by armed personnel in Jaffna, asked;
“How’s that going to stop a virus?”
He maintains that these measures have created further pressure on civic groups because “the contact tracing is run by the intelligence [agencies], not the health services, so there is no confidentiality.”
HRW maintains that authorities are obliged to ensure that patient confidentiality is protected even as they take steps to identify those who may have been exposed to the virus.
HRW further reports that an organisation that supports families affected by the war and helps to distribute relief has recorded seven incidents of harassment by men identifying themselves as intelligence officers in the second half of May.
They further note other organizations describing intelligence agents visiting their homes and offices and making inquiries or threats by telephone.
The international community
HRW ends its statement by calling upon the international community to reaffirm its commitment to human rights given the deteriorating situation.
“Sri Lanka’s international partners, including donor agencies and the UN, need to rapidly adjust their policies to respond to this disturbing situation and ensure that their assistance does not benefit government agencies that are committing rights violations”, Ganguly stated.
Read HRW's full statement here.