Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s announcement last week that the government would stop the forced cremation of people who died with Covid-19 appeared to end a policy that had cruelly denied Muslims their religious rights. The government has contended without any medical basis that burial in accordance with Islamic tradition poses a public health risk.
But despite the pledge, the government has continued to forcibly cremate Muslims and is backtracking by claiming the policy can only be changed following deliberations by an expert committee.
On February 11, the day after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s announcement supposedly ending the ban, Mohamed Kamaldeen Mohamed Sameem was cremated in Anamaduwa. Friends of the 40-year-old social activist say authorities initially claimed he committed suicide, but later changed the cause of death to Covid-19 and hastily cremated the body. In another case, the family of a 26-year-old physiotherapist who reportedly died suddenly in his sleep have asked the Court of Appeal to prevent a cremation after hospital authorities announced he died with Covid-19.
The cremations policy has caused intense distress to Muslims since it was implemented in March 2020. Frequently, the authorities proceed with the cremation even while families question the diagnosis and request further checks. World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines say there is no medical justification for insisting on cremation, and a committee of Sri Lankan medical experts have called for an end to the policy. It has been condemned by UN rights experts, and by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Among those who applauded the initial announcement was Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is due to visit Sri Lanka on February 22. Sri Lanka is anxious to have the support of Pakistan, an OIC member, at the upcoming session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which begins in Geneva the same day. The council is expected to consider a new resolution responding to mounting rights concerns in Sri Lanka, including over the treatment of Muslims. The government’s evident lack of empathy in addressing the heartfelt concerns of Muslims regarding forced cremations is further evidence of the need for Human Rights Council action on Sri Lanka.