Civic rights in Sri Lanka were “obstructed” from 2018 to 2022, says CIVICUS Monitor, which rates and tracks the state of civic freedoms in various countries and territories. (see:

CIVICUS Monitor classifies countries as ‘closed’, ‘repressed’, ‘obstructed’, ‘narrowed’ and ‘open’ to indicate the status between closed and open societies. It is an international alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.

Interestingly, in 2022, Sri Lanka and the Maldives performed better than India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which came under the category of “repressed”.

In regard to the year 2022, 27 countries were rated as ‘closed’; 50 as ‘repressed’; 40 as ‘obstructed’, 42 as ‘narrowed’; and 38 as ‘open’.

Conditions in Lanka

Here are CIVICUS Monitor’s key observations on civic rights in Sri Lanka pertaining to 2022 and 2023:

“In 2022, civil society documented a range of issues related to fundamental freedoms in Sri Lanka, especially around the crackdown on mass anti-government protests linked to the worst economic crisis in decades. They include the targeting of civil society groups, human rights defenders and the families of victims of past violations. There were also restrictions and excessive use of force around the protests, arrests of protesters and the use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. Journalists have also been targeted.”

On 28th October 2022, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) recommended that the Minister of Public Security direct the Inspector General of Police (IGP) that regulations made in terms of the Police Ordinance would not be permissible if they reasonably impact the exercise of fundamental rights and freedom enshrined in the Constitution. HRCSL chairperson Justice Rohini Marasinghe stated this in a letter addressed to the Public Security Minister on the application of the Police Ordinance, No. 16 of 1865.”

“In December 2022, the United States imposed sanctions on a military officer for human rights abuses. In a statement, the US State Department named Prabath Bulathwatte, the former head of a clandestine Sri Lankan Army platoon known as the Tripoli Platoon, for ‘‘gross violation’’ of human rights and ‘‘degrading treatment’’ of a Sri Lankan journalist, Keith Noyahr, in May 2008.”

“In January 2023, Canada imposed sanctions on four top Sri Lankan officials, including former presidents Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, over “gross and systematic violations of human rights” during the armed conflict in the island nation from 1983 to 2009 between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then defence secretary, oversaw the forces that were accused of targeting Tamil civilians.”

“Calls by the UN Human Rights Council for accountability for rights abuses in Sri Lanka have long gone unheeded. According to Canada, the Sri Lankan government has taken “limited meaningful and concrete action” to uphold its human rights obligations. Two military officials – Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake and Lieutenant Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi – are also on the sanctions list.”

“On 1st February 2023, Sri Lanka’s human rights record was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council. Among the recommendations made by states were to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and ensure any replacement legislation conforms to international human rights standards; ensure that any amendment to the Voluntary Social Service Organizations Act does not impede the ability of civil society organizations to operate freely, independently and safely and guarantee freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

“Other recommendations include to cease surveillance of journalists or human rights defenders; ensuring law enforcement authorities’ use of force in response to protests is used as a last resort, proportionately, and only when necessary, and that any officials suspected of using unlawful force are brought to justice.”

“In recent months, the crackdown on protests has persisted, including protests by students and ethnic Tamil protesters in Jaffna. The police have continued to arrest activists and protesters. The police disrupted a number of protests by students calling for the release of student leaders Wasantha Mudalige and Galewela Siridhamma. As previously documented, they were detained during the student protests on 18th August 2022. On 22nd August 2022, President Ranil Wickremesinghe approved their detention under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).”

“On 18th October 2022, police arrested at least seven students who were part of a protest march organised by the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) demanding the release of two students.”

“On 18th November 2022, police in Colombo used water cannons and tear gas to disperse a large group of students protesting the detention of the two student leaders. At least 1,000 student protesters took to the streets in several parts of the capital, including in front of the United Nations Compound. They displayed placards such as “Withdraw the Prevention of Terrorism Act!” “Release all political prisoners!” and “Ninety days to November 18.”

“On 23rd November 2022, Galwewa Siridhamma Thero – detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) – was released on bail by the Colombo Magistrate’s Court. According to Front Line Defenders, despite this, he was brought before the Kaduwela Magistrate’s court on the same day, and remanded in a separate case. On 6th December he was granted bail by the Kaduwela Magistrate’s Court.”

“As for Wasantha Mudalige, human rights groups reported that during the first three months of his detention, he was shuttled between two detention centres run by the police Terrorism Investigation Department. One is a dilapidated and abandoned prison unfit to hold prisoners. He and the other detainees were held in solitary confinement, in cramped cells without access to basic facilities including sanitation and sunlight.”

“On 4th October 2022, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka issued a notice calling for the police to protect Mudalige’s safety in custody. In December 2022, Mudalige required hospital treatment for breathing difficulties. On 14th December 2022, Mudalige was taken before a magistrate for the first time since he was detained. The magistrate ordered the attorney general to submit any evidence against Mudalige at the next hearing on 17th January 2023 or to agree to bail. On 5th January, the police took Mudalige before a magistrate and introduced new cases against him under ordinary criminal laws, related to other protests in which he purportedly participated in 2022. On 17th January, he was remanded again to 31st January 2023.”

“On 31st January 2023, the Colombo Chief Magistrate discharged Mudalige from all charges filed under the PTA, stating that it had been proven that the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) had misused the PTA to file charges against him. The following day, he was also granted bail in the three remaining cases against him and then released.”

“On 15th January, police used water cannons on ethnic Tamil protesters in Jaffna as they rallied against President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to the district. Despite the excessive use of force and the heavy presence of the military and its notorious Special Task Force (STF), Tamils continued to protest, calling for the release of occupied Tamil lands, the fate of the forcibly disappeared and the release of Tamil political prisoners. Protesters were seen throwing water mixed with cow dung at the security forces while others shampooed their hair with the water from the cannon in brave acts of defiance.”

“Earlier in the day, buses from Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya carrying Tamil families of the disappeared were stopped and questioned by the Sri Lankan police. They also took down the personal details of all the bus drivers and those on the buses.”

“On 3rd November 2022, the civil society group Lawyers for Lawyers sent a letter to the Sri Lankan authorities to express concerns about the trial of Hejaaz Hizbullah, urging them to drop the charges against him and end his trial. Hejaaz Hizbullah was arrested on 14th April 2020 under the PTA. He was accused by the police of aiding and abetting Inshaf Ahamed (who was involved in the 21st April 2019 bombings), an accusation that has since been withdrawn. While in detention the allegations against him changed several times. On 9th February 2022, he was released on bail by the Puttalam High Court. Hejaaz had been in prison for 22 months.”



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