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Sri Lanka needs to end unlawful crackdown on peaceful dissent - Human Rights Watch

In a recent statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW), condemned the Sri Lankan government for its use of emergency regulations to “harass and arbitrarily detain activists seeking political reform and accountability for the country’s economic crisis.”

South Asia director at HRW, Meenakshi Ganguly, stated that “the Sri Lankan government’s crackdown on peaceful dissent appears to be a misguided and unlawful attempt to divert attention from the need to address the country’s urgent economic crisis.”

Sri Lankan security forces have utilized numerous tactics including excessive force, intimidation, detainment, and surveillance to curtail anti-government protests on the island.

Use of excessive force

On 22 July security forces injured over 50 people during a raid in Colombo. A number of journalists were also assualted by security forces during this raid.

Foreign diplomats criticized President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the use of excessive force against demonstrators. Wickremesinghe berated the foreign diplomats who voiced their concerns asking them if their governments would “allow such protesters to illegally occupy the office of the President.”

Arbitrary detainment

In their statement, HRW also highlights several instances of arbitrary detainment on the island. On 27 July police visited Catholic priest, Father Jeewantha Peiris, and claimed they had orders to detain him. Peiris had been prominent in the protests.

On 26 July, authorities detained Dhaniz Ali. Ali has also been active in the protests.

Intimidation Tactics

Lawyers and media organizations told HRW about their experiences of intimidation, threats of violence, and surveillance.

On 31 July a student activist stated on Facebook that he had been detained by security forces and interrogated for three hours. Security personnel also threatened the student, claiming they could plant drugs on him and have him arrested.

On 2 August, Sri Lankan authorities seized the passport of Kayleigh Fraser, a British national. Fraser had been posting about the demonstrations on social media

The homes of several protesters have also been raided by police, some of these raids taking place without a warrant.

Violation of rights under state of emergency

In their statement, HRW has condemned the use of emergency regulations which are “disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.”

Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency on 18 July. Under this declaration, authorities are granted sweeping powers of search and arrest. The military is also able to detain individuals for up to a day without disclosing their detention. HRW has emphasized that such provisions “increase the risk of torture and enforced disappearance.”

Additionally, new sentencing rules are effective under these emergency regulations. Offenses such as damage to property and trespassing can now result in a life sentence.

Sri Lankan authorities have the power to ban public gatherings under the state of emergency. Security forces can order anyone to leave public spaces and arrest them if they do not comply.

The use of these tactics as a means to disrupt civil disobedience has long been a tool for the Sri Lankan government. Tamils and Muslims on the island have repeatedly been subject to surveillance, intimidation, and harassment by security forces. Previously, numerous human rights organizations and international actors have called on the Sri Lankan government to cease the use of such tactics, citing that they violate international human rights laws and norms.

Ganguly urged Sri Lanka’s international partners to be “clear that they need to be working with a rights-respecting administration to address Sri Lanka’s deeply rooted economic problems.”

Ganguly continued, “The government needs to end its repressive policies and practices and act urgently to address people’s basic needs, win public trust, and uphold the rule of law by holding those responsible to account.”

Read full HRW statement here 

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