(New York) – Authorities in Sri Lanka should ensure that voters have safe and secure access to the polls to vote in presidential elections on January 8, 2015, and that state media is not misused in favor of the incumbent, Human Rights Watch said today. Local monitoring groups have reported numerous acts of election-related violence and intimidation during the month-long campaign that closed on January 5.
The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) documented 237 major incidents and 183 minor incidents during the campaign. Monitors also reported that there may have been as many as 22 attacks involving firearms. The groups also documented inappropriate use of state media by the ruling Sri Lankan Freedom Party.
“Sri Lankan authorities need to take all possible steps to ensure voters, candidates, and monitors are not attacked, threatened, or intimidated,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The attacks and intimidation that marred the campaign can’t be allowed to continue on election day and during the counting process.”
On January 5, unidentified gunmen seriously wounded three members of the opposition United National Party during a rally in Ratnapura district. Since then, the opposition presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, has made public appearances behind bullet-proof glass and with enhanced security. On January 4, two election officers were assaulted in Trincomalee after they shut down an unauthorized office belonging to the ruling party. Although two suspects were arrested in relation to the attacks, they were freed shortly after an intervention by Deputy Minister Susantha Punchinilame. The authorities in some cases have arrested those considered responsible for election-related attacks. Courts issued several orders on January 6 to arrest suspects for criminal offenses.
“Sri Lanka has a long history of attackers getting away with election-related violence, and a few arrests on the eve of election day, while a positive step, do not address these longstanding concerns,” Adams said.
CMEV also reported an “unparalleled misuse of state resources and media” by the ruling party. Monitors reported that state media were openly asking people to vote for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, leading the election commissioner to issue warnings against several state media outlets to desist from broadcasting election propaganda.
There are also serious concerns about violence after the elections, regardless of the outcome. The Election Commission and other relevant authorities need to ensure that police and other security forces act in an impartial manner and respect the human rights of the population. This is especially true in the ethnic-Tamil dominated north and east of the country and other minority areas.
“The role played by the security forces during and after election day could send an important message about the future of human rights in Sri Lanka,” Adams said. “Meeting the basic requirements of a free and fair election is an important first step toward addressing the country’s persistent rights problems, but many challenges will remain for whoever is elected president.”