(New York) – Clashes broke out in Sri Lanka on May 9, 2022 after government supporters attacked peaceful anti-government protest sites in Colombo, the capital, and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should uphold the right to peaceful protest, ensure that the security force response to public disorder is proportionate and rejects excessive force, and promptly investigate and appropriately prosecute acts of violence.
Several hundred people identifying themselves as supporters of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa arrived by bus in Colombo on May 9 and advanced to the Galle Face Green, where protesters calling for the resignation of the government have been peacefully camped for several weeks. Witness accounts and video footage show government supporters attacking the protesters with clubs and other weapons and setting fire to tents. Hours later, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister.
“The attack on peaceful protesters by Sri Lankan government supporters has sparked a dangerous escalation, increasing the risk of further deadly violence and other abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is vitally important for the security forces to fully respect the right to peaceful assembly, and for those responsible for violence to be held to account.”
Kasumi Ranasinghe Arachchige, a protester who was at Galle Face Green when the attack occurred, said that police forces at the scene, which included a water cannon truck, “retreated” when government supporters attacked protesters with knives and sticks. “They [government supporters] started destroying everything,” she said, describing damage to tents and other facilities, including temporary showers and a small library. “It seemed as if they knew what and who to look for.”
Over 150 people have been reported injured and at least five dead in different incidents, including the attack on Galle Face Green, and the government has imposed a nationwide curfew. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Bar Association, as well as foreign diplomats, condemned the attack on protesters and called for an impartial investigation.
In recent months, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has provoked widespread protests calling for political reform and for the resignation of the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his brother Mahinda, the prime minister. On April 1, President Rajapaksa imposed a state of emergency, lifting it five days later. The government reimposed a state of emergency on May 6 after police fired teargas and arrested students protesting near parliament, which was adjourned until May 17. Although the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, the police fatally shot a protester on April 19, and on several occasions have used teargas and water cannon against protesters. The authorities have made numerous arrests and repeatedly imposed curfews.
Following the attack on the protesters’ camp at the Galle Face Green, there were numerous violent incidents in Colombo and elsewhere in the country, including clashes between government supporters and anti-government protesters, and attacks on the property of ruling party politicians. In Nittambuwa, 50 kilometers from Colombo, police said that Amarakeerthi Athukorala, a government member of parliament, opened fire on protesters blocking his car, wounding one and killing another, then fatally shot himself.
Concerned governments and international institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which are offering assistance to address the country’s economic crisis, should insist that the government respect fundamental freedoms, Human Rights Watch said.
The latest state of emergency was imposed on May 6, but the government did not immediately publish the emergency regulations laying out the special powers assumed. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a party, certain rights may be derogated, or restricted, under a state of emergency, while other rights, including the right to life and prohibition of torture, may not under any circumstances be limited. Any derogations must be limited and proportionate. Foreign governments, including the United States and Canada, as well as the European Union, have questioned President Rajapaksa’s decision to assume emergency powers.
Sri Lanka has a poor record under successive administrations of investigating and prosecuting countless grave violations of human rights. During a previous government between 2005 and 2010, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa, as well as other senior figures in the current administration, were implicated in the killing and enforced disappearance of journalists and political activists, and in numerous war crimes during the civil war that ended in May 2009.
“In recent weeks, thousands of Sri Lankans have peacefully protested against corruption and called for accountable governance and respect for human rights,” Ganguly said. “Pro-government supporters have responded to those calls with violence, which those in authority need to stop.”