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Concerns raised over Sri Lanka’s anti-drug operation

UN Human Rights body has called for immediate suspension and review of Operation ‘Yukthiya’
Sri Lankan Navy soldiers stand guard after arresting men transporting a haul of heroin from a fishing vessel off the island’s southern waters, in Colombo on Jan. 25, 2022.

Sri Lankan Navy soldiers stand guard after arresting men transporting a haul of heroin from a fishing vessel off the island’s southern waters, in Colombo on Jan. 25, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: January 24, 2024 12:25 PM GMT
Updated: January 25, 2024 05:27 AM GMT

Civil society groups and international human rights bodies have urged the Sri Lankan government to immediately suspend and review its ongoing anti-drug operation.

Thousands of suspected drug offenders have been arrested or detained over the last month after Operation “Yukthiya” (justice) was initiated by President Ranil Wickremasinghe and Public Security Minister Tiran Alles.

Alles has set June 30 as the deadline for the police top brass to ensure comprehensive changes regarding drugs and underworld activities in the country. The operation is led by acting Inspector General of Police Deshabandu Thennakoon, who was accused of neglecting duty during the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019.

“Drug users have human rights. They deserve to live a life with dignity without facing further discrimination and stigmatization. The current context of severe repression against suspected drug offenders is deeply worrying,” a group of UN experts said in a statement on Jan. 22.

Civil society groups drew attention to cases of arbitrary arrests of thousands of drug offenders from marginalized socio-economic groups and the detention of hundreds in compulsory military-run rehabilitation centers.

The UN Human Rights body criticized the Sri Lanka police’s operation and called on the government to reassess its strategy with a human rights-based approach.

“We are very concerned that authorities in Sri Lanka are adopting a heavily security-based response to the country’s drugs problem, instead of public health policies grounded in human rights,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a statement while referring to allegations of ill-treatment and torture during the operation.

The Sri Lankan government was backed by Buddhist religious leaders who came out in support of Operation Yukthiya.

“We would like to ask whether human rights are meant to protect the drug addicts or to preserve the culture being destroyed by drugs,” Venerable Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera said on Jan. 23.

Venerable Akmeemana Dayarathana Thera said an opinion was being created to paint the anti-drug operation as “a fake show.”

“You have to continue this mission that you have started,” he said referring to Alles and Thennakoon.

However, a Catholic priest from the Colombo Archdiocese expressed concern over the methods adopted by the police and how the operation was being highlighted in the media.

The priest, who did not want to be named, also raised doubts about Thennakoon and his role in the operation.

“Acting IGP Thennakoon was accused of neglecting his duty during the Easter Sunday attacks, but some politicians are trying to promote him permanently to the post,” he said.

The Sri Lanka Bar Association issued a statement saying the operation was “flagrantly violating established legal protocols.”

“Police raids were carried out without valid search warrants… Such actions render them unlawful, undermining not only the bedrock principles of justice but also eroding public confidence in the integrity of law enforcement agencies,” the statement said.

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