(New York) – Authorities in Sri Lanka should end arbitrary arrests and other abuses against Muslims and appropriately protect the community from violence, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 that killed over 250 people, which was claimed by Islamist militants, Sri Lankan Muslims have faced an upsurge in violations of their basic rights and assaults and other abuses from Buddhist nationalists. Sri Lankan officials and politicians should stop endorsing, ignoring, or exploiting hate speech and mob violence directed at Muslims by members of the Buddhist clergy and other powerful figures.
“The Sri Lankan government has a duty to protect its citizens and prosecute those responsible for the terrible Easter Sunday bombings, but it shouldn’t be punishing the Muslim community for this crime,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s crucial for the authorities to act swiftly to stop mob violence, threats, and discrimination against Muslims.”
In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed Muslim victims of abuses, activists, lawyers, and officials to document abuses against Muslims, often with state complicity.
Since the bombings, the authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained hundreds of people under counterterrorism and emergency laws. According to lawyers and activists, the vast majority of arrests are under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a long-abused law that the government pledged to the United Nations Human Rights Council to repeal. Lawyers said their clients had often been arrested without any credible evidence of terrorist involvement, for reasons including having the Quran or other Arabic literature in their possession during searches.
The governmental Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found in May that the government failed to protect Muslims during communal rioting. Police have repeatedly failed to act properly or prosecute perpetrators. For instance, the manager of a Muslim-owned business who was attacked said the police did not make any arrests “despite plenty of CCTV footage to identify the perpetrators.”
Officials have made little effort to discourage public campaigns by religious figures that put the Muslim community at greater risk. On May 15, Gnanarathana Thero, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior Buddhist monks, called for the stoning to death of Muslims, and propagated an unfounded allegation that Muslim-owned restaurants put “sterilization medicine” in their food to suppress the majority Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate.
Government leaders, instead of fulfilling their duty to protect Muslim citizens, have at times appeared to associate themselves with Buddhist nationalist elements. Many stood by when nine Muslim cabinet and junior ministers felt compelled to resign after the opposition accused them of supporting Islamist militants. On May 23, President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara Thero, the leader of the nationalist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) who has long been associated with instigating deadly anti-Muslim violence, freeing him after he had served less than a year of a six-year prison term for contempt of court.
Sirisena also ordered a ban on face coverings in public as one of a number of emergency measures imposed following the Easter Sunday bombings, which has led to the targeting of Muslim women even for using headscarves. One activist, explaining that Muslim women face constant harassment, including in government buildings and public spaces, said: “It is very difficult for them to bear. Their dignity is challenged continually.”
The criminal law has also been invoked to arrest peaceful critics of Sri Lankan Buddhism in violation of their rights to free expression.
The situation has caused mounting international alarm for the safety of Muslims and other minorities. In her opening statement at the UN Human Rights Council on June 24, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was “disturbed by reports of anti-Muslim attacks” in Sri Lanka, including “recent statements by some religious leaders inciting violence [that] constitute worrying early warning indicators that should be addressed.”
European embassies in Colombo issued a joint statement in June that actions against Muslims are “undermining peace and reconciliation in the country. Prejudiced and unsubstantiated allegations repeatedly published by media serve only to fuel intolerance.”
A day after the resignation of Muslim cabinet ministers, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation said: “The lives and livelihoods of Muslims, including their local stores and large business establishments, are threatened by the prevailing conditions with unforeseen, dangerous consequences.”
The Sri Lankan government should ensure the prompt and impartial enforcement of the law to protect the fundamental rights of all Sri Lankans. Crucial for ending abuses over the long term is for the government to implement its pledges to the Human Rights Council to ensure human rights reforms, transitional justice, accountability, and reconciliation, Human Rights Watch said.
“The ethnic violence and human rights violations that many Sri Lankans have suffered are now being directed against Muslims,” Ganguly said. “The Sri Lankan government needs to take a stand against discrimination and intolerance, use the law to punish those responsible for abuses and protect, rather than target, vulnerable people.”
For more information on how Sri Lanka’s Muslims have been targeted, please see below.
Arbitrary Arrest and Detention
As of June 4, at least 2,299 people had been arrested since the Easter Sunday bombings, according to the police. While most were later released on bail, over 500 remained in custody.
Human Rights Watch spoke to several lawyers who between themselves are representing hundreds of people. Most of those arrested have been Muslim and the grounds for their arrest and detention are unclear. A senior lawyer told Human Rights Watch: “Muslims have been arrested for having a Quran, or even the picture of a ship’s wheel [similar to a sacred Buddhist symbol] on their dress. The army picks people up and hands them over to the police. The police book them without an investigation. The authorities go slow in releasing people because they don’t want to be seen as soft by ultra-nationalists.” He said they were being arrested “[o]n a mere suspicion.” Several lawyers asked Human Rights Watch not to identify individual cases they described for fear the authorities would penalize their clients.
Most of the arrests have been under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows long-term detention without charge or trial. The authorities have also detained people under Sri Lanka’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, No. 56 of 2007, which is intended to implement the ICCPR in domestic law. Section 3(1) of the act states, “No person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.” This provision has been misused in several cases to detain to harass activists, journalists, and others for expressing critical views.
Another law vulnerable to abuse is the Emergency Regulations (ERs), imposed in the aftermath of the bombings but still in force, despite the government’s claim that the security situation has returned to normal. The Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations both provide for lengthy periods of pretrial detention without needing to bring the detainees before a court, and bail can only be granted by the high court.
Lawyers said there is inconsistency and confusion over which law is being applied in any particular case. Often the detention orders that are required to hold suspects under the PTA have not been provided to their lawyers. Where these procedures have not been followed, the detention is arbitrary. “The police themselves are unclear what powers they are using,” said one lawyer.
A partial list of 105 detainees that defense lawyers provided to Human Rights Watch summarizes justifications given by the authorities for arrests, including: “Keeping money at home”; “Talking in playground (Breaking emergency law)”; “A post [he] had shared on social media 5 years back”; “Having English lecturer docs”; “Arabic song in Laptop”; “Traveling to Jaffna for job”; and “no reason.”
One lawyer said a Muslim family of 10 from Kiribathgoda was arrested after a neighbor reported that they had cloth the same color as that used for Buddhist monastic robes, apparently suspecting their intentions. The entire family was held for several days, although they explained they sold the fabric. The police released the family to a court after working hours, allegedly to avoid scrutiny. “Police never shared any information. There were no court reports,” said the lawyer.
Abdul Raheem Masaheena, a 47-year-old resident of Kolongoda, was arrested on May 17, for wearing a kaftan decorated with an image of a ship’s wheel, which police mistook for a Buddhist sacred symbol, the dharmachakra. In a fundamental rights petition, Masaheena asserted that her arrest was arbitrary and malicious, that she suffered degrading treatment in custody, and that she had been “singled out and subjected to hostile inimical discrimination based on both grounds of race and religion.”
Mohammed Thufail Mohammed Milhan has been in police detention since May 5, in connection with material posted on his Facebook page. He filed a petition in the Supreme Court on June 14, which asserted that: “No unlawful activity has been disclosed whatsoever.”
Such police abuses have long been prevalent in Sri Lanka but have remained unaddressed. In 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions found that, “The right to personal liberty has yet to be respected by law enforcement, security forces, judicial and other authorities,” that suspects remained in detention indefinitely, and that rights to the presumption of innocence and due process were yet to be fully recognized. These abuses have recently surged, and the victims are overwhelmingly Muslim.
In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, angry crowds threatened and assaulted refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom were Muslims from other South Asian countries. Around 1,400 were forced to take shelter in unsuitable and crowded temporary accommodation for their safety.
Several days of mob violence occurred in towns primarily across the North Western province, in which Muslim-owned homes and businesses were attacked and at least one man died. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that: “There appeared to be no preventive measures taken although retaliatory violence against the Muslim communities was a distinct possibility after the terror attacks of 27 April.” The commission also found that villagers had called the police “a few hours prior to the incident seeking protection, despite which no preventive measures were taken.”
A Muslim man from Nikawaratiya in the North Western province, whose shop was partially destroyed by mobs, told Human Rights Watch that although the attack was anticipated, security forces did little to prevent it. “It seems clearly that the police did not do anything to stop the violence,” he said. “Two police officers were placed two or three shops away, for the protection of the mosque in the local area. And they were there when they [the mob] came and attacked the local shops, as shown by the photos and CCTV footage.” He said he provided CCTV footage that led to the arrest of some of the attackers, but that they were released after 14 days and have subsequently made threatening phone calls to him.
A Muslim business owner from Puttalam said:
When we heard that a wave of attacks were happening against the Muslim-owned businesses and Muslim neighborhoods, we reached out to Koswatta police. They assured us that nothing would happen and not to worry. The officer assured that they will send protection as well. But the police only showed up at 7 p.m. when they finished burning homes and there was no use of them showing up afterwards.
He said he provided the police with CCTV of those who attacked his property and that this led to arrests, but that the suspects were released “in a matter of a week or two.”
Police said they have made a number of arrests for the attacks on Muslims and for spreading hate on social media. Some of those who were detained, or who appear in video footage of the violence, are politicians or far-right activists who have been implicated in instigating anti-Muslim violence in recent years.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that the police had inappropriately released suspects detained for mob violence and concluded that this “clearly prevented equal protection of the law to affected citizens and also to the public at large.” A lawyer handling cases against Muslims said there was a discriminatory approach to law enforcement. “The unequal application of law is thus: monks are above it and the Sinhalese are indulgently treated. While the book is thrown at Muslims, those arrested over mob violence are booked under penal code and bailed.”
Discrimination Against Muslims
In April, as part of the Emergency Regulations, Sirisena issued a ban on face coverings, primarily affecting those Muslim women who wear a niqab, or veil. While the authorities said this was necessary to protect national security by allowing ready identification, the edict has contributed to a situation in which Muslim women, including those not wearing a niqab, but rather a hijab, or headscarf, have been excluded from public places, including government offices, as well as harassed and sometimes arrested and detained.
On May 15, 17-year-old Zavahir Rimasha went to have her photograph taken for her national identity card. She was wearing a hijab, which covered her hair. Zavahir Rimasha was 8-months pregnant with her first child, and while she was at the studio she was reportedly overcome by a moment of nausea. When she covered her face with her handkerchief, another customer complained that she had covered her face, and then called the police. She was arrested under the Emergency Regulations and held in custody for over three weeks until June 7, when she was granted bail.
The Human Rights Commission has said the regulation against face coverings has led to Muslim women, even those not covering their faces, being denied access to law courts and to government schools where they work as teachers. Media reports also show that Muslim parents and children have been denied access to government schools for wearing items of Islamic dress such as headscarves.
A May 29 government circular further limited what women are allowed to wear in public buildings, requiring all women to wear a sari or osariya (Kandyan sari), although this is not a tradition common to all Sri Lankans. (Men meanwhile are required to wear shirt and trousers.) These rules apply to all staff and visitors to government offices. The commission concluded that the rule is “irrational and arbitrary and is in violation of equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12(1) of the Constitution.”
A woman who wears a headscarf from the North Western province, where these issues have been particularly acute, told Human Rights Watch: “Why are Muslim women at the receiving end? Their dress had nothing to do with the heinous attacks.” She said since the government issued the regulations, low-level officials and ordinary citizens have taken to discriminate against Muslim women. “Since the circular got released, there were people from the majority community at the forefront of implementing it right away,” she said. “They are demonizing the cultural attire of Muslim women and turning people against Muslim women.”
There have been numerous reports from several parts of the country, including Puttalam in the west, and Batticaloa and Trincomalee in the east, of Muslim women being effectively confined to their homes; harassed; or denied access to hospitals, universities, public places, such as markets and businesses, and places of employment.
On June 24, K.V. Susantha Perera, the chairman of the local government of Wennappuwa, a town in Puttalam district, issued an order to prohibit Muslims from trading in the local market, claiming that this was necessary to “maintain a peaceful atmosphere” and that his decision had followed complaints from non-Muslim traders and marketgoers. The Marawila Magistrate Court has summoned him to explain his order.
The Human Rights Commission has also found lawyers in some towns refusing to represent Muslim clients.
Freedom of Expression, Religion
Authorities have taken actions against Muslims and critics of Buddhism, Sri Lanka’s majority religion, in violation of the rights to freedom of expression and religion. They have carried out several criminal investigations under the ICCPR Act, misusing the law to prosecute peaceful expression regarding Buddhism, without a showing of incitement consistent with international human rights law.
Shakthika Sathkumara, a 33-year-old novelist, has been detained since April 1. His short story, “Ardha,” which reportedly deals with issues of child sexual abuse in a Buddhist monastery, angered members of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy.
A prominent newspaper columnist, Kusal Perera, is under investigation for an article in the Daily Mirror titled, “From Islamic terrorism to marauding Sinhala Buddhist violence.” Perera later stated on Twitter that Sirisena had personally called him to say that he had intervened to prevent his arrest.
Dilshan Mohamed, a researcher and activist campaigning against violent Islamic militancy, had publicly and repeatedly spoken against ISIS-inspired ideas on Facebook for several years. Following the Easter Bombings, for which the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, he was arrested and accused of supporting ISIS on Facebook. He was charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act. The ICCPR Act charges were later dropped and he was released from custody on June 7, but the investigation under the PTA continues.
The government has announced it intends to introduce two new offenses under the penal code to combat “fake news” and hate speech, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison. These proposals have not yet been published. However, Sri Lanka’s existing legislation is adequate to address speech that incites to violence, discrimination, or unlawful acts. In view of the current misuse of the ICCPR Act, there are serious concerns that these proposed laws will be used to further constrain the right to free expression in Sri Lanka.
Incitement Against Muslims
Sri Lankan authorities have failed to take appropriate action against those seemingly inciting violence against members of the Muslim community.
On June 16, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior monks, Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero, delivered a nationally televised speech in which he propagated widespread but baseless claims that Muslim restaurants are seeking to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate by putting “sterilization medicine” in their food. “Don't eat from those [Muslim] shops. Those who ate from these shops will not have children in future,” he said. “Some female devotees said that they [traitors] should be stoned to death. I don't say this, but what should be done is this.”
Analysts and leaders of the Muslim community describe a vast outpouring of anti-Muslim hate speech on social media and in parts of the broadcast and print media, often making similar unfounded claims that the small Muslim population is plotting to overtake the Buddhist population – 70 percent of the country – in the coming decades. The hate speech includes social media calls for Sri Lankan Muslims to be “erased,” and praise for atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
On May 24, police in Kurunegela arrested Dr. Shihabdeen Shafi, a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. The initial justification for his detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was an investigation into allegedly suspicious assets. However, as described in a fundamental rights petition filed on his behalf and numerous media reports, a newspaper article and social media posts then immediately insinuated that he had been responsible for sterilizing thousands of Sinhalese women during caesarean operations. The police then invited women to come forward to make allegations against Shafi, who remains in custody. The police, who have collected a large number of statements, have sought to give these allegations credibility, which have been taken up by anti-Muslim preachers such as Gnanarathana Thero. Shafi’s hospital colleagues and medical experts have said the allegations are highly unlikely. On June 27, the police conceded a court in Kurunegala that they had found no evidence against Shafi, who remained in custody.
On May 23, Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara Thero, a prominent monk who is leader of the Bodu Bala Sena or “Buddhist Power Force” and someone who has long been implicated in inciting anti-Muslim violence. Gnanasara showed his support for Athuraliye Rathana, a monk and member of parliament who went on a hunger strike demanding the resignation of the nine Muslim ministers in the cabinet and two provincial governors. Amid large demonstrations in support of the demand, Gnanasara threatened that there would be “a circus” nationwide if the ministers did not resign by noon the next day, remarks that were widely interpreted as a veiled threat of mob violence.
The Muslim community has been “terrified over the past two days,” said Rauff Hakeem, one of the nine Muslim cabinet ministers and junior ministers who stepped down on June 3. “Our people fear a bloodbath.”
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The July 3, 2019 report, "Sri Lanka: Muslims Face Threats, Attacks," has been corrected to rectify that the police conceded that there was no evidence against Dr. Shihabdeen Shafi in a court in Kurunegala, not in Colombo.