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Law enforcement discriminates against Tamil protesters says UN Special Rapporteur

Sri Lankan authorities apply laws in discriminatory ways, with Tamil protests and gatherings in the North-East disproportionately facing crackdowns, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association said last week.

The special rapporteur Clément Nyaletsossi Voulé said in his closing statement of his official trip to the island that although Sri Lanka had a comprehensive legal framework governing the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, this was “scattered in different sets of laws and regulations which seem to be interchangeably enforced”.

“Some of these laws and regulations have, however, been used to unduly restrict this right. These restrictions seem more frequent in the North and East of the country. In addition, I heard numerous accounts that enforcement of this legislation can be biased according to who the organisers of the protest are, or who those who object are, for example,” he said.

Commenting on the way Sri Lankan police tackled protests and gatherings, Voulé said, “the approach of the police in managing assemblies seems to rest on the negative perception that protests and demonstrations are generally a nuisance and should be prevented, instead of being treated as a fundamental right inherent to every person.”

Court injunctions were used too routinely to prevent protests, he said:

“I heard on several occasions that the police resort to court injunctions to stop or prevent protests from taking place because of public nuisance and disturbance; it seems that the police can seek a court injunction on its own initiative or after receiving a complaint. However, it appears that public nuisance and disturbance are not equivalent to unlawful assemblies as per the criteria outlined in the penal code. In addition, these court orders are often issued without hearing both sides in relation to the protest. While court orders are a legitimate judicial act, I am concerned that they may be used too routinely in this way and in a biased manner, without thorough review of all elements that may make the protest violent and therefore unlawful.”

Having held talks with land release protestors at Keppapulavu, the special rapporteur said that “it is of utmost importance that land restitution happens promptly, and that peaceful protests of those still waiting be allowed to take place with no restrictions. Oftentimes, this land has constituted the only source of livelihood for affected families, and its loss places these women and men in a vulnerable position, frequently having to work as daily labourers, while keeping up their protest so that their demands are not neglected or forgotten.”

The special rapporteur made specific mention to several Tamil protests and gatherings which had been disrupted or been subject to crackdowns and surveillance by state and military bodies:

“During my meetings, I heard disturbing accounts of peaceful assemblies of groups mobilising around common concerns which were prevented from taking place, or which were met with physical and verbal violence at the hands of individuals, without public intervention. For example, individuals were prevented from taking part in a special prayer event at Vinayagar Temple, located in the premises of Kanniya hot water springs in Trincomalee, when their bus was repeatedly stopped for excessive periods of time at checkpoints. When they reached the fourth and final checkpoint on their journey, they were stopped and forbidden from travelling any further. Meanwhile, police obtained an injunction order from the court for public nuisance, which prevented individuals from accessing the site.”

“In another instance, representatives of 100 families which I met with in Keppapilavu stated that a court order had removed them from their protest site beside an army barracks (where they had been peacefully gathering for 792 days). They were forced to relocate to another location, while the court order instructed them to assemble only in groups of a limited size and to refrain from chanting slogans, citing army security concerns. The families had been gathering to demand the return of their land, which the army had occupied. While the families did not complain of any physical intimidation, they are psychologically affected by efforts to demoralise them and discourage them in their struggle.”

“During my mission, I heard stories that mothers of disappeared persons and activists supporting families of the disappeared have been intimidated against organising and participating in memorial ceremonies and memorial days for those who disappeared. For example, I learnt that on 18 May 2019, families of the disappeared from Ampara were at a remembrance ceremony at Thirukkovil Manikka Pillayar Temple, when army soldiers arrived and destroyed and removed banners and decorations, threatening to arrest and detain the participants.”