People’s Rights Group (PRG), a rights based advocacy and lobbying group based in the UK particularly dealing with human rights violations in Sri Lanka, notes with extreme concern the gradual shrinking of civic space, particularly for the exercise of the right to free expression in Sri Lanka. In the broader context, in recent times, censorship, imposition of restrictive laws, criminal defamation, harassment and detention of activists appears to be prime means adopted specially by South Asian States to deal with dissent and opposition.
In Sri Lanka, journalists, human rights defenders and political opponents are being intimidated, attacked, detained, criminalised, deprived of right to dissent and communication facilities. Peaceful expression is basically being made a criminal offence. Human right defenders are increasingly being vilified as “traitors” in both mainstream and social media. The civic space is increasingly under threat due to deepening risks of reprisals against civil society actors who speak out against these undemocratic developments. Worryingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has also been exploited by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to impose restrictions, with growing militarization of the government machinery. This dangerous trend goes against the values that underlies democracy and is already opening the floodgates for authoritarianism.
PRG notes with alarming concern that there is also a systemic witch hunt and victimization of political opponents and activists belonging to the minority communities, specially the Muslims, who have been subjected to a well-orchestrated demonisation campaign in the post- Easter tragedy period. Many Muslim organizations have been banned purportedly on arbitrary grounds in the recent past, while a well-known Muslim scholar in the calibre of Rasheed Hajjul Akbar, a senior lawyer and minority and human rights activist, Hejaaz Hizbullah , and minority community politicians such as Azad Salley, V. Manivannan, and Rishad Bathiudeen were arrested and detained on suspicion of offences under draconian laws which suppresses democratic and human rights enshrined in the country’s Constitution. A social media activist Ramzy Razeek, was also arrested and later released, who was decrying religious discrimination in a social media post.
25-year-old Muslim poet/writer Ahnaf Jazeeem was also arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). in 2020 for allegedly publishing a book of poetry in Tamil titled ‘Navarasam’, allegedly based on the charges that it inter-alia was inciting violence and hatred in some of the poems”. However, many literary experts have debunked these charges as baseless, nonsensical and ludicrous, and say that his poems grapple with a range of themes that are of sociocultural and political significance” and ‘mostly concerned religious morality, humanism, love and a peaceful life.’ . The fundamental rights petition filed recently in the Supreme Courts also alarmingly refers to a reported attempt by the investigators to force him to confess that Jamiah Naleemiah, a leading seat of Islamic leaning where he graduates from, preaches extremism.
PRG is of the considered view that Ahnaf’s writings have less to do with his detention, which is largely the consequence of a broken and incompetent system and delays and inefficiencies in the judicial process. The process that is largely based on the majority Sinhala language, quite literally does not speak his language, and it is a deficiency for which Ahnaf paid a heavy price. PRG also believes that his arrest was yet another serious manifestation of the violent and repressive policy of ethno-religious hegemony facing minority communities, and yet another attempt to use the draconian anti-terrorism laws against minorities and free expression.
PRG firmly reiterates that durable peace needs to be built in a political climate in which every Sri Lankan feels, and is treated as equal, and has the ability to realize his or her potential in an open and free manner. As a long-standing democracy, Sri Lanka should be able to tolerate diverse and dissenting views in the society ,which ultimately safeguards both security and freedom. PRG therefore calls upon the GoSL to duly protect the people’s rights particularly specified in Articles 10, 12(1) to 12(4), 14, and 27(6) entrenched in the Constitution and forthwith stop the victimization of activists and writers under cover of draconian laws and the Covid pandemic.
PRG Statement on shrinking civil space 24-04-21