COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — An international human rights group says the Sri Lankan government is using emergency laws to harass and arbitrarily detain protesters demanding political reform and accountability amid the economic crisis of the island country.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday that the Sri Lankan military had sought to limit protests through intimidation, surveillance and arbitrary arrests of protesters, activists, lawyers and journalists since President Ranil Wickremesinghe took office last month.
Sri Lanka’s parliament approved a state of emergency on July 27. The executive order gives the president the power to make regulations in the interest of public safety and order.
Wickremesinghe, who had ordered the arrest of protesters, said that although the protests started peacefully, groups with political interests later took over and turned violent, citing the burning of dozens of homes of politicians in the came to power in May.
Sri Lankans had been protesting for months against the country’s economic crisis which has led to severe shortages of many essential imported items like medicine, fuel and cooking gas. Wickremesinghe’s predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country after protesters stormed his official residence and also occupied many key state buildings, including the president’s office, the prime minister’s office and the official residence of the Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament to complete Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024.
In a speech to parliament on Wednesday, Wickremesinghe promised clemency for those who engaged in violence unknowingly or at the instigation of others. He also promised to punish those who deliberately break the law.
Some of those arrested are accused of clashing with security forces and encouraging people to break into parliament. Authorities also seized the passport of a British woman who posted about the protests on social media.
“The Sri Lankan government’s crackdown on peaceful dissent appears to be a misguided and unlawful attempt to divert attention from the need to respond to the country’s pressing economic crisis,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, director of Human Rights Watch for the ‘South Asia.
Sri Lanka is bankrupt, after announcing that it was suspending the repayment of its foreign loans pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
“Sri Lanka’s international partners must be clear that they must work with a rights-respecting administration to address Sri Lanka’s deep-rooted economic problems,” Ganguly said.
Krishan Francis, Associated Press