This month marks 10 years since the end of Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war. But instead of celebrating peace and seeking justice for crimes committed during that conflict, Sri Lanka faces another terrible challenge, and is again under a state of emergency.
On April 21, Easter Sunday, nine suicide bombers allegedly affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) targeted churches and hotels, killing more than 250 people and injuring over 500.
As the government works to restore security and bring those responsible to justice, military checkpoints have returned to the streets. The Prevention of Terrorism Act and new emergency regulations provide sweeping powers of detention without charge, and the authority to curtail other rights including freedom of expression. For many, this is a painful reminder of the insecurity of the civil war years.
Muslims in Sri Lanka, especially around 1,500 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly persecuted minorities from Pakistan and Afghanistan, have suddenly found themselves in a particularly uncomfortable position. Falsely linked to the bombings by angry local residents, around 1,200 are crowded into three makeshift sites, where they have been living with meager basic necessities for almost two weeks.
All face coverings, including face veils used by some Muslim women, have been banned. While the authorities said keeping faces uncovered is necessary for security reasons, suspicious employers and neighbors have sometimes demanded women even remove their head scarves. Landlords facing local pressure have evicted Muslim refugees from their homes. And in Negombo, where one of the church bombings occurred, a private dispute developed into communal violence in which homes and shops of Muslims were destroyed.
Even as many Sri Lankans, including church leaders, try to prevent the situation from deteriorating, activists worry the enhanced security measures can lead to a repeat of past abuses, which included forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention without charge, and torture, including sexual abuse.
The government now says all the perpetrators of the Easter attacks have been killed or detained. It is important that these appalling bombings do no further harm. Sri Lanka’s fragile progress towards protecting fundamental rights, as pledged in a 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, need to be safeguarded.