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Sri Lanka

Social media activists under pressure in Sri Lanka clampdown

Rights groups claim that Muslims are being harassed amid a general attack on freedom of speech

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Updated: April 30, 2020 12:51 AM GMT
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Social media activists under pressure in Sri Lanka clampdown

Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard during search operations in Colombo on May 25, 2019, after the Easter suicide bombings. Rights groups are concerned that recent arrests over the atrocity were not lawful. (Photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

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Concerns are growing that social media activists in Sri Lanka are being subjected to arbitrary arrest amid a general crackdown on freedom of speech.

The recent arrests of two well-known Muslim figures, soon after the government adopted a Covid-19 funeral policy biased against Muslims, have increased fears about the safety of the Muslim minority in the Buddhist-majority nation.

Ramzy Razeek was arrested on April 9 under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act after writing on his Facebook page about the need for ideological jihad or ideological struggle.

Razeek, who regularly writes posts advocating harmony between Muslim and Buddhist communities, criticized a new government policy that requires cremating all victims of Covid-19, contrary to Islamic traditions.

On April 2, Razeek wrote a Facebook post in Sinhala that stated: “Muslims have been surrounded on all sides by racist groups operating in the country ... It is time to prepare for an ideological jihad for the country and all its citizens, using the pen and keyboard as weapons.”

Prominent rights activist Sampath Samarakoon said Razeek had not made any statement that violated any of the provisions of the ICCPR and strongly condemned the misuse of the act.

On April 14, police arrested prominent lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He was one of six people, including the brother of a former minister and a customs official, whom police recently detained for their alleged involvement in the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks.

Police have also arrested several university students on allegations of publishing “false” information on their Facebook accounts and “maliciously” criticizing public officials involved in Covid-19 prevention programs. 

Police raided the home of a university student in Maharagama, near Colombo, following allegations that he criticized the appointment of Basil Rajapakse, the Sri Lankan president’s younger brother, to head the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19.

“Sri Lankan authorities have a responsibility to prosecute those responsible for the horrific Easter Sunday attacks last year, but the arrests should be lawful and not used to vilify an entire community,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW). “The recent arrests of well-known Muslims, combined with biased government actions and rising anti-Muslim hate speech, raise concerns for the broader safety of the Muslim community.” 

HRW said Sri Lankan authorities should uphold due process rights and ensure that recently detained Muslim figures have proper access to lawyers.

The group said concerns for the safety of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community after the Easter bombings have increased since the outbreak of Covid-19.

"On April 12, Sri Lankan Muslim organizations wrote to the inspector general of police reporting an upsurge in hate speech, including calls to boycott Muslim businesses and accusations that Muslims are deliberately spreading Covid-19. Senior government figures have made public remarks associating the Muslim community with Covid-19 infection," said HRW.

Critical voices should be heard

The National Peace Council (NPC), which works for peace and inter-ethnic exchanges, said that at a time when both the social and mainstream media are full of hate speech against targeted communities, the singling out of Ramzy Razeek is unfair. It appealed to the government to mitigate the charge against him.

"Free expression and criticism are essential in a crisis such as the present one to ensure that critical voices and grievances of people are heard," said the NPC.

"We also note that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that his government is ready to accept constructive criticism. It is important to protect the right to free expression while fighting the Covid-19 virus and its spillover into the economic, social, political and cultural arenas.”

The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief urged the government to respect Islamic burial rights and stop hate speech against Muslims after a surge following the Easter attacks.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has urged any action taken to limit freedom of expression and other democratic rights, even during a period of emergency, must be within the framework of the law.

HRCSL has written to the acting inspector general of police regarding the spate of recent arrests made on the basis of statements on social media, especially in the context of the spread of Covid-19, pointing out that any action taken to limit freedom of expression must be within the legal framework.

The commission has observed an increasing number of such arrests since the issuing of a letter by the media division of the police department to media chiefs warning of strict legal action against those who publish false and malicious statements on the internet against public authorities who are engaged in containing the spread of the virus.

"The letter clearly conveys the message that criticism of officials will not be tolerated," said Prof. D. Udagama, chairman of HRCSL.

"In this instance, the applicable law is the constitution and also Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations. Those laws require that limitations on rights should comply with the tests of legality, proportionality (limitation must be proportionate to the threat) and non-discrimination. The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has developed a rich body of authoritative jurisprudence in that regard.

"We, therefore, recommend that you review the legal bases of recent arrests for misinformation accordingly so that due process requirements are complied with and also ensure that any future arrests are strictly within the law." 

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