The Sri Lankan Government is using Emergency Regulations to harass and arbitrarily detain activists seeking political reform and accountability for the country’s economic crisis, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on 3 August.

They said since Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as President on 21 July, the Police and military have sought to curtail protests through the intimidation, surveillance, and arbitrary arrests of demonstrators, civil society activists, lawyers, and journalists.

Anti-government protests in Colombo and elsewhere in the country led then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country before resigning on 15 July. On 22 July, President Wickremesinghe ordered Security Forces to disperse protesters and break up their main site in Central Colombo. The Police have subsequently targeted perceived protest leaders for arrest and detention.

“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,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lanka’s international partners should be clear that they need to be working with a rights-respecting administration to address Sri Lanka’s deeply-rooted economic problems.”

Security Forces injured more than 50 people in the 22 July early morning raid on the main janatha aragalaya (people’s struggle) site in Colombo. Security Forces assaulted and beat three journalists from Xposure News – Chaturanga Pradeep Kumara, Rasika Gunawardana, and Shabeer Mohammed – and at least one other journalist, Jareen Samuel of the BBC, during the raid. Wickremesinghe berated foreign diplomats for criticising the Security Forces’ use of excessive force and took no action to hold those responsible to account.

A number of Buddhist monks and Christian clergy had joined the protest. The media reported that the Colombo Magistrate’s Court on 25 July had issued a travel ban on a Catholic priest who had been prominent in the protests, and several others. Police later visited Father Jeewantha Peiris’ church and said they had orders to arrest him. In a July 31 statement, 1,640 members of the Catholic clergy condemned targeting the priest, saying that they had all backed the protests.

On 26 July, the authorities arrested another prominent protester, Dhaniz Ali, on board an international flight about to depart from Colombo. On 27 July, unidentified men in civilian attire abducted Veranga Pushpika, a former student activist and journalist who had also been active in the protests, on a bus in Colombo. Police did not disclose his whereabouts to lawyers or the Human Rights Commission for several hours before acknowledging his arrest.

Human rights defenders said the Police sought to obstruct defence lawyers from meeting four protesters who had been arrested after they handed over to the Police a large sum of money taken from the President’s official residence after protesters had occupied it.