Sri Lanka: HRDs, journalists and trade union leaders detained, threatened and intimidated (joint communication)

BACKGROUND

On 17 August 2021, I wrote a joint communication with other UN experts to the Government of Sri Lanka regarding the alleged arbitrary detention, threats and intimidation against human rights defenders, journalists and trade union leaders Mr. Sudesh Nandimal Silva, Mr. Senaka Perera, Mr. Tharindu Jayawardhana and Mr. Joseph Stalin.

The Government have responded to some of the allegations, but have not addressed most of the questions posed to them.

Read the Government's response Read the original communication

ALLEGATIONS

Mr. Sudesh Nandimal Silva

Mr. Sudesh Nandimal Silva is a human rights defender and the General Secretary of the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP), a non-governmental organisation which advocates for the rights of prisoners in Sri Lanka. The organisation, comprised of former prisoners, lawyers and human rights defenders, provides legal aid to prisoners and their families, conducts campaigns for improved prison conditions, and raises cases of alleged torture and deaths of detainees.

On 30 April 2007, Mr. Silva was allegedly abducted and imprisoned in Gampaha, along with other members from the Railways Workers, Labourers & Employees Collective. The trade unionists were allegedly targeted in response to their protest against the abduction of two other members of the Collective in February earlier that year. Mr. Silva and the Collective members were charged with attempting an uprising, revolt and insurrection against the State and with collecting weapons from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Mr. Silva allegedly was held in pre-trial detention in Welikada Prison until 13 September 2013, when, following trial, he and other members of the Collective were found not guilty and released. During his time in Welikada Prison, Mr. Silva allegedly witnessed the Welikada Prison Massacre in 2012 during which 27 prisoners were killed by Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force and army commandos, making him a key eye witness in the case, currently being prosecuted by the Attorney General.

On 5 April 2017, Mr. Silva filed a writ application at the High Court in Colombo, requesting that the investigations and prosecutions in the case of the Welikada Prison Massacre be expedited.

On 20 April 2017, during a mainstream Sinhala radio programme broadcast on Neth FM, the presenter reportedly accused those involved in seeking justice for the Welikada Prison Massacre of being Sinhala Tigers and of being motivated by wanting to please the LTTE diaspora. The presenter also reportedly encouraged listeners to consider those individuals unfavourably, allegedly saying “let the people of the country determine the plight of the people involved in seeking justice”. The following day, Mr. Silva filed a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department of the Police in response to the threats he reportedly received following the radio programme.

On 3 May 2017, the same presenter from the radio programme phoned Mr. Silva and reportedly asked him numerous questions in a harassing manner and demanded comments from him. Following the call, Mr. Silva filed a complaint with the Tissamaharama police station. On 4 May 2017, the radio programme allegedly broadcast an edited version of the recorded phone call with
Mr. Silva, which he subsequently reported to the Police division for the Protection and Assistance of the Victims and Witness.

On 11 July 2017, Mr. Silva and Mr. Senaka Perera both received phone calls from the same number that was used by the radio presenter on 3 May 2017. Mr. Senaka Perera is a human rights defender, lawyer and the President of the CPRP. He is also Mr. Silva’s acting legal counsel.

The caller, not known to either of the human rights defenders, reportedly threatened them against continuing to seek justice for the victims of the Welikada Prison Massacre and levelled death threats against them if they continued to participate in the legal case. Mr. Perera reported the phone call to the Tissamaharama police station later that same day, and the following day. Mr. Silva did the same at Nittabuwa police station.

On 19 July 2017, Mr. Silva received a phone call from Mr. Nilantha Fernando, the Chief Engineer of Operations for Sri Lanka Railways, where he is employed. During the phone call, Mr. Fernando reportedly asked Mr. Silva if he was trying to send President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Secretary of the Ministry of Defence implicated in the Welikada Prison Riot, to prison. Mr. Fernando reportedly said that people like Mr. Silva should not survive in the world.

On the night of 4 September 2017, Mr. Silva was residing at his sister’s apartment in Moratuwa, Colombo, when shots were reportedly fired at the apartment. Police officers from Moratuwa police station took a statement from Mr. Silva after the incident. In the following days, Mr. Perera reportedly wrote to the Prime Minister, the State Minister of Defence, the Minister of Justice, the Inspector General of Police, the Secretary of the Minister of Defence, detailing the threatening phone calls he and Mr. Silva had received and also the shots fired at Mr. Silva’s sister’s apartment whilst he was there. In the letters, Mr. Perera reportedly requested that inquiries into the incidents be initiated, which is still pending.

On 7 July 2021, two unknown men reportedly went to the apartment complex where Mr. Silva lives, owned by Sri Lanka Railways. The men reportedly inquired with his neighbours about his movements and whereabouts, and allegedly made a comment that some harm may come to Mr. Silva in the near future.

On the same day, some unknown individuals reportedly visited the home of one of Mr. Silva’s relatives in Mount Lavinia, where he had lived 15 years ago. The individuals reportedly inquired about Mr. Silva.

Following these two incidents, on 10 July 2021 Mr. Silva filed a complaint with the Dematagoda police station in Colombo.

Mr. Tharindu Jayawardhana

Mr. Tharindu Jayawardhana is a human rights defender and a journalist publishing articles primarily in Sinhalese and covering issues including corruption, the environment and rights violations of ethnic and religious minorities such as Muslims and Tamils. Mr. Jayawardhana published a number of investigative articles on corruption and the environment, in particular whilst working for the Sinhalese daily newspaper “Lankadeepa”.

On 29 June 2021, MediaLK published a report which referred to the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police for the Colombo Crime Division (CCD), Mr. Deshabandu Tennakoon. The report mentioned that Mr. Tennakoon had been one of a number of officers included in an investigation by the Special Police Investigative Division, appointed to look into negligence on the part of the police in relation to the Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo on 21 April 2019. Mr. Tennakoon was reportedly included as one of the officers against whom the Special Police Investigative Division had recommended charges should be brought in reference to their alleged negligence in preventing the 2019 attacks. The investigation noted that Mr. Tennakoon had allegedly failed to fulfil his duties to prevent the attacks, and recommended a disciplinary inquiry be opened against him.

This information was included in the report by MediaLK, as well as the fact that Mr. Tennakoon had reportedly been approved for a salary increase, despite the recommendations of the Special Police Investigative Division, as well as the recommendations by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that he should be subjected to disciplinary action. The report published by MediaLK also referred to a comment reportedly made by the Minister responsible for the police during a press conference at the Department on Government Information on 18 June 2021, stating that the charge sheets against Mr. Tennakoon and the other accused officers had been forwarded by the Public Services Commission.

On 1 July 2021, MediaLK published an investigative report on its website following the retirement of a senior police officer who had recently been reportedly released on bail after 10 months in detention after the appeal court criticised his arrest. The report highlighted that the investigations he had carried out throughout his career, but did not mention his arrest or detention. The senior police officer had been arrested by the Colombo Crime Division (CCD) of the police in relation to various investigations he had undertaken. The senior police officer’s arrest was overseen by Mr. Tennakoonand had reportedly drawn much attention from civil society organisations and the media, and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka publicly expressed concern and fear for his safety in response to the arrest.

Later that evening, at around 9 p.m., Mr. Jayawardhana shared the report on Facebook from his personal account. On the evening of 2 July 2021, Mr. Tennakoon commented on the post, alleging that Mr. Jayawardhana had published false and fabricated information. In his comments, which he continued to leave on the post for a number of days thereafter, Mr. Tennakoon did not specify which elements of the report were factually incorrect.

Mr. Jayawardhana responded to the comments on Facebook, asking Mr. Tennakoon to specify which details were incorrect, to which Mr. Tennakoon responded, allegedly calling him a “liar” and that he had written “lies”, both in this article and previously. Mr. Tennakoon also reportedly threatened Mr. Jayawardhana, commenting that “nature will give proper punishment” and that “nature will win”. In one comment, Mr. Tennakoon also referred to “Prabhakaran and other criminals”, making reference to the former leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was killed in 2009. In response, Mr. Jayawardhana commented that if Mr. Tennakoon contacted MediaLK and asked that factual corrections be made, the website would oblige, commenting that “according to media ethics, we are bound to provide space for that clarification”. Mr. Tennakoon reportedly responded that it was incorrect to say that it was recommended that disciplinary actions be taken against him, and threatened Mr. Jayawardhana: “People like this in society will be blessed by nature”.

On 3 July 2021, following the alleged comments made on Facebook by Mr. Tennakoon, Mr. Jayawardhana wrote a letter to the Inspector General of Police (IGP), allegedly informing of the comments and requesting that his safety and security and that of his family be guaranteed. The letter also contained requests that an inquiry be conducted into the comments made by Mr. Tennakoon, and that he be allowed to freely carry out his professional work as a journalist. The previous day, the Media Organizations Collective, a coalition of media freedom organizations, had also written to the IGP demanding that Mr. Jayawardhana be protected and similarly called for a formal inquiry. At the time of writing this communication, no response was received from the IGP to either of the letters.

On 4 July 2021, the Media Division of the opposition party Samagi Janabalavegaya (SJB) and the Deputy Leader of the United National Party (UNP) allegedly issued statements expressing concern in response to the threatening comments made by Mr. Tennakoon against Mr. Jayawardhana.

Mr. Joseph Stalin

Mr. Joseph Stalin is a human rights defender and trade union leader, who campaigns for education rights in Sri Lanka. Mr. Stalin is a former teacher and is currently the General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers Union.

On 8 July 2021, the Ceylon Teachers Union along with other teachers’ unions organised a demonstration outside of the Ministry of Education in Battaramulla to demand the withdrawal of the Kotelawala Defense University (KDU) Bill, due to be discussed in parliament that day. The Bill has been criticised as an attempt by the Government to bring the national higher education system under military control and hinder access to free education.

During the demonstration, which reportedly adhered to the relevant COVID-19 safety measures, Mr. Stalin and 30 other demonstrators were allegedly arrested by police officers, allegedly for violating restrictions on public gatherings during the pandemic. The police officers reportedly used force to disperse the demonstration and arrest the participants. Later that day, following their arrest, Mr. Stalin and the other demonstrators appeared before the Additional Magistrate Court in Colombo. The Magistrate granted bail to Mr. Stalin and the group of detained demonstrators, and allegedly rejected a specific request by the police that the demonstrators be subjected to mandatory quarantine, on the basis that the Court was not mandated to make such an order.

Shortly after they appeared before the Magistrate and despite the rejection of the request for mandatory quarantine, Mr. Stalin and the other demonstrators were reportedly forced onto a bus by police and taken to the Sri Lanka Air Force Quarantine Centre in the Northern Province. In the centre, Mr. Stalin and the 30 other demonstrators were reportedly deprived of adequate facilities, including access to clean drinking water, and denied a change of clothes. Whilst detained in the quarantine centre for 8 days, Mr. Stalin and the group of demonstrators were allegedly not tested for COVID-19, nor were they visited by a Public Health Inspector (PHI).

Following the debate about the quarantine of the demonstrators in the parliament, the Minister of Public Security responded to criticism from the opposition leader, claiming that the decision to quarantine the demonstrators was taken by PHIs. However, according to media reports quoting the PHI Union Chairman, Mr. Uphul Rohana, no such consultation with PHI had reportedly taken place. Members of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission reportedly attempted to visit Mr. Stalin and the group of demonstrators in the quarantine centre, but were denied access.

On 16 July 2021, Mr. Stalin and the other demonstrators were released from mandatory quarantine.

CONCERNS

In the communication, we expressed serious concern that the intimidation, threats and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders appear to be in direct response to their human rights, journalistic and trade union activities. This concern is compounded by the perceived inaction by the Government of Sri Lanka to respond efficiently and effectively to these threats to mitigate the risks, particularly faced by Mr. Silva and Mr. Perera. This inaction not only has a potentially harmful impact on their physical and psychological integrity, but also extends to a potentially detrimental impact on the creation of an environment in which members of society are encouraged to and feel safe to denounce impunity and seek justice and redress, without fear of reprisal.

We also wish to expressed our utmost concern regarding the information which would indicate that Mr. Stalin and other demonstrators were allegedly arbitrarily arrested and detained in quarantine, without a court order, in direct response to exercising their right to freedom of assembly. This arresst appears to have taken place under the pretext of alleged COVID-19 measures, indicating an alleged misuse of such public health measures to prevent the legitimate exercise of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression and assembly.

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