By P.K. Balachandran
KUALA LUMPUR, April 20 (THE CITIZEN-WE) 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 April 12 said.
According to the report, the government took “minimal steps” to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption. There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
The report refers to the ‘Harm Reduction International’ to say that deaths in police custody increased during 2021. The press reported that Melon Mabula (alias “Uru Jawa”) and Dharmakeethilage Tharaka Wijesekara (alias “Kosgoda Tharaka”), were shot dead by police in May while they were in detention. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka condemned the killings.
On June 16, 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 his 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.
Lack of accountability for conflict-era abuses persisted, the report stated. On January 11, the Attorney General’s Department (AGD) informed the Batticaloa High Court that it would not continue with the murder charges against the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal party leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, aka Pillayan and five others for the 2005 killing of former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) member of parliament (MP) Joseph Pararajasingham. Pillayan, a former Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) cadre, had a plethora of allegations against him, but he became an ally of the Rajapaksas after the war.
On May 5, the Jaffna Magistrate Court ordered the release of six suspects in the October 2000 death of BBC Tamil reporter Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan, after the Attorney General advised the court that the government would no longer pursue the case. Nimalarajan was allegedly shot and killed by members of the pro-government Eelam People’s Democratic Party in his home in Jaffna.
On June 24, the President issued a special presidential pardon to former Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarian Duminda Silva, sentenced to death in 2016 for the 2011 killing of fellow SLFP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra during local elections. On July 16, the President appointed Silva as the 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) received authorization to issue Interim Reports to the relatives of the missing and disappeared. The Interim Reports and 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 of the disappeared said that issuing death certificates for the missing and disappeared, without investigation and disclosure of what happened to them, only promoted impunity.
On August 4, the Attorney General’s Department announced its intent to drop charges against former Navy Commander Adm. Wasantha Karannagoda for alleged involvement in the abduction and disappearance of 11 persons from Colombo in 2008 and 2009 as the complaint against him was allegedly politically motivated. On December 9, Karannagoda was sworn in as Governor of North Western Province.
As of December 14, 2021, there had been no progress on the trial of seven intelligence officers accused of participating in the 2010 disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a journalist and cartoonist.
Civil society organisations asserted that the government, including the courts, were reluctant to act against security forces alleged to be responsible for past abuses.
On October 21, the Supreme Court ordered the IGP to launch a criminal investigation into the allegation that former State Minister of Prisons Lohan Ratwatte threatened to kill Tamil terrorist suspects in the Anuradhapura jail on September 12. But as of October 25, Ratwatte had not cooperated with the CID.
Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), detainees may be held for up to 18 months without charge, but in practice authorities often held PTA detainees for longer periods, some for more than 10 years. Judges require approval from the AGD to authorise bail for persons detained under the PTA. The AGD provided such approval in some cases. However, the law requires the provision of counsel for those without counsel only in cases before the High Court and Court of Appeal.
On August 25, the Inspector General of Police told the press that the government had arrested 723 individuals for alleged involvement in the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, and that 311 individuals 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.
On August 28, the President appointed a three-member advisory board to make recommendations on holding or releasing individuals held under PTA detention orders. According to civil society, at year’s end the government had released 16 PTA detainees on the recommendation of the board.
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 offenses 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 actually spoke out against extremism, violence, and war.
On September 7, 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 December 16.
On March 16, authorities arrested former Western Province governor Azath Salley under the PTA after he criticized the cabinet’s decision to ban polygamy at a March 10 press conference. The arrest came after a ruling government MP filed a complaint alleging Salley had “direct or indirect” links to the Easter Sunday attacks. On December 2, the Colombo High Court acquitted Salley of all charges.
Political opposition and civil society raised alarm over the government’s Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on Political Victimisation report, which alleged the previous government had targeted members of the existing government and their loyalists with politically motivated investigations and prosecutions. It was feared that the report would be used to get many guilty ruling party men off the hook.
The attorney general filed indictments against human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah for speech-related offences under the PTA, ICCPR Act, and penal code on March 12. He remained in detention at year’s end, more than 20 months after his April 2020 arrest. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in her September 13 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 January 9 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. Reporters alleged that the authorities, sometimes in government vehicles, surveilled journalists, especially those covering protests.
The US report further said that the 20th constitutional Amendment (20A) of 2020 is marked by a “broad expansion of executive authority that activists said would undermine the independence of the judiciary and independent state institutions.” Institutions such as the Human Rights Commission and the Election Commission are subverted by granting the President sole authority to make appointments to these bodies with Parliament afforded only a consultative role.