U.S. human rights report on Lanka is unsparing in its criticism

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While acknowledging that Sri Lanka is a constitutional, multiparty, democratic republic with a freely elected government, the US State Department’s human rights report on the island nation for 2021 has few compliments to pay on the way it handled human rights issues. Abuses of various kinds were ‘significant’ the report released on 12 April said.

The report kicks off with the controversial 20th constitutional Amendment (20A) of October 2020. It says that the 20A is marked by a “broad expansion of executive authority that activists said would undermine the independence of the judiciary and independent state institutions.” 

Also, the 20A subverts institutions such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Election Commission by granting the President sole authority to make appointments to these bodies with parliament given only a consultative role.

Rights Violations

On the Government’s response to rights violations, the report said that the authorities took “minimal steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption.”  It quotes the ‘Harm Reduction International’ to say that deaths in police custody increased during 2021. 

Among the many cases of custodial death mentioned are  those of Melon Mabula (alias ‘Uru Jawa’) and Dharmakeethilage Tharaka Wijesekara (alias ‘Kosgoda Tharaka’), who were shot dead by police in May. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka condemned the killings. 

On 16 June, the Court of Appeal granted bail to former Director of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) Shani Abeyesekera, who had been in pre-trial detention since July 2020 without charge for allegedly fabricating evidence in a 2013 case. Civil society considered Abeyesekera’s arrest in 2020 to be reprisal for his investigations into several high-profile murder, disappearance, and corruption cases involving members of the sitting government, including members of the Rajapaksa family, the report said.

War-time abuses

Lack of accountability for war-time abuses persisted, particularly regarding government officials, military, paramilitary and the police. The report mentioned the acquittal of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, aka Pillaiyan, and five others for the 2005 killing of former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Joseph Pararajasingham. Pillaiyan is an ally of the Rajapaksas. On 5 May, the Jaffna Magistrate Court ordered the release of six suspects in the October 2000 killing of BBC Jaffna stringer Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan, after the Attorney General told the Court that the Government would no longer pursue the case. Nimalarajan was allegedly killed by the pro-government EPDP. 

On 24 June, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued a special Presidential pardon to former Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MP Duminda Silva, sentenced to death in 2016 for the 2011 killing of fellow SLFP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. Silva was subsequently appointed as chairman of the National Housing Development Authority. 

Disappearances during the war and its aftermath remained unresolved. In February 2020 the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) wanted to issue Certificates of Absence to the relatives of the missing. The Certificates of Absence could be used by family members to legally manage the assets of missing persons and assume custody of children. But the families insisted on getting the whereabouts of the missing and not death certificates. 

Drop charges

On 4 August, the Attorney General’s Department announced its decision to drop charges against former Navy Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda for alleged involvement in the abduction and disappearance of 11 persons from Colombo in 2008 and 2009. The complaint against him was said to have been politically motivated. On 9 December, Karannagoda was sworn in as Governor of North Western Province.

On 21 October 2021, the Supreme Court ordered the IGP to launch a criminal investigation into allegations that the former State Minister of Prisons, Lohan Ratwatte, threatened to kill PTA Tamil prisoners during a visit to Anuradhapura prison on 12 September. As of 25 October, Ratwatte had not cooperated with the CID. 

On August 25, the inspector general of police said that 723 individuals had been arrested for alleged involvement in the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and that 311 remained in detention. According to civil society, almost all these individuals were being held without charge under various combinations of the PTA, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, and the penal code.

The government arrested five prominent Muslims in 2020 and 2021 for alleged involvement in the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and indicted three of them on speech-related offences under the PTA. Poet Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested under the PTA in May 2020 for a collection of Tamil poems he published that allegedly contained “extremist” messages. But Amnesty International asserted that the writings spoke out against extremism, violence, and war. On 7 September, the international NGO ‘Freedom Now’ filed a petition on his behalf with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, noting that “Ahnaf’s poetry should be celebrated, not condemned.” He was released on 16 December.

Acquitted

On 16 March, the authorities arrested former Western Province governor Azath Salley under the PTA after he criticised the Cabinet’s decision to ban polygamy at a 10 March press conference. He was also linked to the 2019 blasts case. But On 2 December, the Colombo High Court acquitted Salley of all charges.

The Attorney General filed indictments against human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah for speech-related offences under the PTA, ICCPR Act, and penal code on 12 March. Hizbullah remained in detention at   year’s end, more than 20 months since his April 2020 arrest. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in her 13 September update at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) raised concerns regarding the application of the PTA, citing Hizbullah and Jazeem by name. 

A Muslim businessman, Fazl Muhammed Nizar, was detained by Police under the PTA for a 9 January Facebook post accusing the Government of using heavy-handed tactics to govern. There were reports of harassment and intimidation of journalists when covering sensitive issues. Media reporters alleged that the authorities surveilled journalists, especially those covering protest movements.

By P.K. Balachandran