(New York) – In the early hours of July 22, 2022, Sri Lankan security forces forcibly dispersed people at a peaceful protest site and assaulted protesters in central Colombo, injuring more than 50 people and arresting at least 9 others, Human Rights Watch said today.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office on July 21, should immediately order the security forces to cease all unlawful use of force against protesters, release everyone arbitrarily detained, and investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for abuses. Foreign governments and multilateral agencies that have sought to address Sri Lanka’s economic crisis should emphasize to the new government that respect for human rights is critical for economic recovery.
“Just one day after taking office, President Wickremesinghe oversaw a brutal assault by security forces on peaceful protesters in the heart of Colombo,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This action sends a dangerous message to the Sri Lankan people that the new government intends to act through brute force rather than the rule of law.”
Several hundred police, army, navy, and air force personnel carried out the July 22 raid. Hours earlier, protest organizers had announced that they would leave the protest site the following day. Using batons, the security forces attacked demonstrators who had remained at the protest site, along with several journalists and two lawyers who were there. Protesters told Human Rights Watch that air force personnel detained a small group of people for several hours and severely beat them before they were released.
A person who was there at around 1 a.m., when the security forces attacked the protest site, said: “Some people were badly injured. Since we were surrounded by security forces, we couldn’t get the ambulance inside [the site].” He said the first ambulance arrived at about 7 a.m. “There was one person who got beaten very badly, he couldn’t even stand. He got to hospital after five hours.” He said that the security forces appeared to be targeting perceived leaders of the protest movement: “They pointed out some specific people and they took them in.” Others were beaten but not arrested.
Nine people who were arrested were produced in court on July 22 and released on bail. A Bar Association of Sri Lanka statement said that they included “at least one lawyer and several journalists. . . The use of the Armed Forces to supress civilian protesters on the very first day in office of the new President is despicable and will have serious consequences on our country’s social, economic, and political stability.”
Since the beginning of 2022, Sri Lanka has experienced an escalating economic crisis and the government has defaulted on its foreign loans. The United Nations warned that 5.7 million people “require immediate humanitarian assistance.” With many Sri Lankans experiencing extreme shortages of essentials including food and fuel, peaceful protests began in March. The protests led then-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign on May 9, and his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to flee the country on July 13 and resign the following day.
Wickremasinghe became acting president, and parliament elected him as the new president on July 20 with the support of the Rajapaksas’ political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. He had previously described some protesters as “fascists” and declared a state of emergency on July 18.
On July 21, Wickremesinghe issued an order to “call out with effect from July 22, 2022 all the members of the Armed Forces . . . for the maintenance of public order.” Under emergency powers the president can override, amend, or suspend a provision of any law, except the constitution. Emergency powers can be used to detain people while bypassing the ordinary process of the courts and have repeatedly been used in the past to enable human rights violations.
While international law permits the suspension of certain rights during an emergency, protections against torture, excessive use of force, and other fundamental rights must never be violated. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka said the state of emergency was “inappropriate” and called for it to be withdrawn. It called the military attack on peaceful protesters “brutal and despicable.” Diplomats from countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland and Canada, as well as the UN and European Union, also condemned the assault on the protest site.
Following the raid, fresh protests were staged in Colombo against the security force crackdown. Law enforcement for public assemblies should normally be carried out by civilian police, not military personnel, as military personnel typically have little training in crowd control. All security forces should abide by the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said.
“Urgently needed measures to address the economic needs of Sri Lankans demand a government that respects fundamental rights,” Ganguly said. “Sri Lanka’s international partners should send the message loud and clear that they can’t support an administration that tramples on the rights of its people.”