COLOMBO: The South Asia Status of Minorities Report 2020, just released by the Europe-based “South Asia Collective” has lambasted governments in the region for trampling on the rights of the ethnic and religious minorities.

Writing on Sri Lanka, Ambika Satkunanathan, a former member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, points out that during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime from 2005 to 2014, there was a crackdown on dissent. As a result, the ethno-religious minorities faced numerous threats and obstacles to exercising their rights.

This changed in 2015 when the “Yahapalanaya” or “Good Governance” regime, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was ushered in. But civic space began shrinking again during the latter part of the regime due to the April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday multiple bomb blasts carried out by Islamic extremists.

Civic space shrank further when the Rajapaksa family returned to power in November 2019 with the election of the hardline Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President. The regime consolidated itself in August 2020, when the Rajapaksas-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was swept to parliament with a two-thirds majority.

Writer Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested on April 1 2019 and remanded for violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act (2007) by publishing a short story in which he alluded to sexual abuse in Buddhist temples, which was deemed to be inciting religious hatred.

The ICCPR Act has been used selectively as a tool to curb freedom of expression and silence critics and not to curb activities which are patently inflammatory, Satkunananthan points out.

The declaration of a State of Emergency on April 22 2019 after the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, disproportionately impinged on civic rights. The Executive overreached. Curbs on civic rights were normalized. After the State of Emergency was allowed to lapse on 23 August 2019, the President used Section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) to ‘call out’ the armed forces to maintain law and order.

“Unlike the declaration of the State of Emergency, which has to be ratified by the parliament within fourteen days at first instance and thereafter every month, the President has to merely issue a gazette notification each month to exercise his power under Section 12 of the PSO. Hence, the gazette is not subject to scrutiny or debate by the parliament,” Satkunanathan points out.

Further, the continued existence of the informal intelligence apparatus, which is not held accountable to any democratic oversight entity or process, also meant that civil society organizations, particularly in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, continued to receive ‘visits’ from officers from the different intelligence as well as law enforcement entities.

There were campaigns against the Muslim community fuelled by social as well as mainstream media and the Buddhist clergy that received either overt or tacit support of the State. “This indicates the existence of deep-seated communalism and prejudice, within the state structure and society that have to be addressed,” Satkunananthan says. She has points out that violence often takes place in curfew-bound areas, showing the connivance of the police.

After the Easter attacks, a large number of Muslim men were arrested “seemingly without reasonable cause”. For example, there were cases of men being arrested for possessing items such as chlorine, which was suspected to be explosive materials, the Quran and documents in Arabic, having a song (Qaseeda) on the hundred names of Allah on their phone, and a dagger.

The CID arrested Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer. As of 1 July 2020, Hejaaz Hizbullah was in detention without being charged. While the CID was said to be ‘looking for sufficient information against’ him, there were reports of CID officers engaging in malpractice and coercing minors to make false statements against him, Satkunanathan alleges.

Lawyers had shown reluctance to represent those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) because the judiciary adopts a conservative approach in dealing with these cases. The rest of the legal community also discourages members from taking up PTA cases. No lawyer wants to be dubbed as being “pro-terror”. Many suspects languish in jail for want of legal assistance.

“The notion that the Muslim community behaves and dresses differently and follows a different set of rules and legal regulations under the Sharia Law instead of conforming to the beliefs and behavioral practices that are deemed to be Sri Lankan by the Sinhalese community has been used to question their patriotism,” Satkunanathan notes.

She further says: “The harassment and fear of being arrested for wearing a hijab resulted in Muslim women refraining from leaving their homes, which violated their freedom of movement, made them prisoners in their homes, and made them dependent on their male relatives for all their needs. Although the ban was in place for four months following the attacks until the state of emergency was lifted, scrutiny and harassment of Muslim women who resumed wearing the niqab continued, indicating deeply ingrained societal prejudices that were openly expressed when people felt the law validated their prejudicial actions.”

Satkunanathan points out that, to date, a political solution that addresses the root causes of the ethnic conflict, remains elusive. The Office on Missing Persons was set up in February 2018 but its mandate is limited to searching and tracing missing persons. If the OMP finds that an offence warranting investigation has been committed, it can only report it to the law enforcement or the prosecuting authority.

The Office of Reparations is yet to announce any comprehensive reparation program. Justice and truth-seeking mechanisms promised to the UN Human Rights Council, have not been established.

The public rhetoric of key figures in government, such as President Sirisena, had given away the government’s insincerity. Sirisena derided the need for accountability. In 2017, he announced that war heroes would not be prosecuted, thereby clearly indicating that the likelihood of a justice mechanism being established was slim.

Furthermore, in January 2016, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe stated that those who disappeared were probably dead, ‘illustrating callous disregard for the pain and trauma of the families of the disappeared,” Satkunanathan says.

On coming to power, the Rajapaksas stated that Sri Lanka would withdraw from UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 and 40/1. The withdrawal was done on 27 February 2020.

Online hate campaigns against evangelical Christian communities increased in 2017 and 2018, leading to sporadic incidents of off-line violence. In 2019, 94 incidents of violations against Christian minorities by both State and Non-State actors were recorded compared to eighty-right in 2018. Fifty-six of the eighty-eight incidents recorded included incidents of threats, intimidation, or coercion, and nineteen incidents of violence, Satkunanathan points out.