A human rights report published by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on July 16 said the overall human rights situation in Sri Lanka deteriorated in 2019.
The report titled ‘Human Rights and Democracy Report-2019’ said inter-communal tensions, violence against minority groups and intimidation of human rights defenders increased last year in the country.
The report said there were reports that, given the scale of the Easter Sunday attacks, a large number of people were arrested for alleged involvement in extremism.
“Although most were released on bail, a number remained on remand. Sri Lanka has a history of using open-ended periods of detention, largely against minority groups,” he said.
Violence against Muslim community in aftermath of Easter attacks
The aftermath of the attacks saw several incidents of violence against the Muslim community, including riots in which one man was killed and several mosques, homes and businesses were damaged, as well as further reports of intimidation and discrimination against Muslims, refugees, and asylum seekers. In May, the then President, Maithripala Sirisena, ordered the pardon of extremist monk Ven Galagodaaththe Gnanasara, the de facto leader of the extreme Buddhist Nationalist movement Bodu Bala Sena, despite him being found in contempt of court.
Sirisena repeats intention to end moratorium on death penalty
Commenting on the issue of death penalty in Sri Lanka, it said the then President Maithripala Sirisena repeated his intention to end the country’s moratorium on the death penalty in June last year, and signed the warrants for four executions specifically for death row inmates who the state believed had been engaged in continued drug trafficking from within prison.
“On July 5, the Supreme Court issued an interim order halting executions until October 30, following a number of petitions challenging President Sirisena’s decision. The interim order was extended to December 10. The UK urged Sri Lanka to maintain the moratorium in an FCO statement in June, at the HRC, and through direct engagement,” it said.
Proposal made to amend MMDA; no further legislative progress
In August, Sri Lanka’s cabinet approved a proposal to amend the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). The proposal included amendments to the legal age for Muslim marriage, increasing it to 18. But there was no further legislative progress on the issue of child marriage in 2019.
Concerns about appointment of Shavendra Silva as army commander
In August, President Sirisena appointed Major General Shavendra Silva as the new army commander. The UK and other international partners expressed concern about the appointment given the allegations of serious human rights violations made against the division which Major General Silve had commanded at the end of the civil war.
This appointment called into question Sri Lanka’s commitments made to the HRC on justice and accountability. In response to the appointment, the UN Department of Peace Operations announced in September that it would suspend future deployments of Sri Lankan peacekeepers, except where suspension would expose UN operations to serious operational risk.
Unregulated campaign spending & abuse of state resources at presidential poll
In November’s presidential elections, former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, won 52% of the vote on an 83% turnout. An EU observer mission concluded in its interim report that the 2019 presidential elections were free, fair, and largely trouble free. However, unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources, and media bias affected the level playing field. The media and information environment in the lead-up to the elections was characterised by misinformation, partisan media, and online hate-speech. Some journalists were subjected to searches, interrogation, and intimidation after the elections.
Increased surveillance and intimidation of activists at end of 2019
The report said the new government reassigned key police officers who had been investigating alleged human rights violations and abuses, and related crimes in November.
“It announced its intention to establish a Special Presidential Commission to investigate the activities of the police. Towards the end of 2019, there were multiple reports of increased surveillance and intimidation of activists, particularly those working on legal and transitional justice issues,” it said.