by Human Rights Watch, New York, January 2020
On April 21, Easter Sunday, Islamist suicide bombers attacked churches and hotels in Colombo and two other cities, killing over 250 women, men, and children and injuring hundreds more. For the following four months, the government imposed a state of emergency. Hundreds were detained without charge under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Anti-Muslim mobs, sometimes linked to nationalist politicians, and incited by extremist Buddhist monks, attacked Muslim property. Mainstream and social media vilified Sri Lankan Muslims and asylum-seekers, putting them at risk of assault.
In November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president. As defence secretary in the administration of his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005-2015, he was accused of numerous crimes, including attacks on journalists and activists, and implicated in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In May, ethnic Tamil victims’ groups marked 10 years since the end of the war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, with protests and vigils against the government’s failure to address conflict-related violations and provide redress.
In August, President Maithripala Sirisena appointed Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva as army chief, a move described by United Nations experts as an “affront to victims.” During the last months of fighting in 2009, he led a military division implicated in numerous war crimes.
President Sirisena announced in June he would end a 43-year unofficial moratorium on the death penalty and resume executions.
Despite agreeing to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination, the government did not revoke sections 365 and 365A of the penal code, which criminalize same-sex conduct.
Commissioners were appointed to the Office for Reparations in April. The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) began work in 2018, recording over 14,000 cases, but made little progress in discovering their whereabouts. Relatives of the forcibly disappeared protested against the OMP, questioning its authority and independence.
In July, a court acquitted, due to “lack of evidence,” all 13 policemen accused in the 2006 shooting of five Tamil students in Trincomalee in a case known as the “Trinco Five.” The execution-style killing of 17 aid workers in 2006 in Muttur, and the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge in Colombo in 2009, both of which implicated government security forces, have not resulted in any arrests.
Police identified 14 suspects in the abduction and murder of at least 11 young Tamil men between 2008 and 2009. All of the suspects were naval officers, including the former navy commander, Adm. Wasantha Karannagoda.
Other commitments not met by the government include security sector reform and repealing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). A Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) to replace the PTA was drafted, but it also contains provisions that would facilitate abuse.
In May, President Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara Thero, a prominent monk and leader of a militant anti-Muslim organization, who was serving a jail sentence for contempt of court.
Voulé reported concerns that, particularly in the north and the east, associations proposing to work on subjects including LGBTI rights, disappearances, land rights, and post-conflict reconciliation, were denied registration, and were subject to surveillance and intimidation. Activists said that these problems increased after the Easter Sunday attacks.
Sri Lanka has military and security cooperation with the United States, India, and European governments, although the US warned this would be curtailed following Gen. Silva’s appointment. Sri Lankan trade with the EU under the GSP+ scheme, links better market access to human rights and labor standards. However, the EU, like other foreign partners, has been muted in its response to Sri Lankan rights abuses.
Sri Lanka is a participant in China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative, although there are concerns about the debt burden this is creating, for instance in relation to southern Hambantota Port, control of which has been granted to China for 99 years.