UK report says Lanka still short

1319616-map-of-uk-on-british-flag-with-houses-of-parliament-backgroundThere was no overall improvement in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka during the last three months of last year, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in an update on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation, as the island continued to remain as a country of concern.

The update notes that the UN Human Rights Committee examined Sri Lanka’s fifth periodic report from 7-8 October 2014. The committee’s observations covered a wide range of issues, including investigations into abuses during the conflict, counter-terrorism measures, unlawful use of force, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and persecution of journalists and human rights defenders.

The update also noted that there had been reports of violence following the proclamation in November 2014 of presidential elections.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office also noted that freedom of expression continued to be restricted with a number of attacks on civil society, artists and opposition politicians. Sri Lanka dropped two places from 160 (2013) to 162 (2014) in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index and is classified as a “very serious situation”. There were a number of attacks on street drama teams and artists during the last three months. Transparency International Sri Lanka have faced challenges while conducting training courses, with death threats being issued to participating journalists and individuals involved in organising the programmes. The Committee to Protect Journalists, Front Line Defenders, the International Press Institute, and Reporters Without Borders, along with Transparency International, expressed concern about the escalating intimidation, and called on Sri Lankan authorities to take firm action to protect the safety of civil society.

Groups exercising their right of assembly also continue to face challenges. Protesting fishermen were pelted with stones, resulting in three being hospitalised. Two union leaders were allegedly subject to assault by unidentified groups on 25 October. The Free Trade Zone and General Employees Services Union, in a letter to the Inspector General of Police, noted that “it is clear that our trade union leaders are being suppressed systematically”. Posters vilifying leading civil society figures organising an event to commemorate the disappeared were discovered on 25 October, and stones were thrown at the residence of Brito Fernando, the chief organiser of this event. On 22 December, students protesting over education rights were reportedly attacked by police. The students attempted to storm the University Grants Commission gates, and were initially dispersed with water cannons and tear gas, but were allegedly seriously assaulted, with 28 students being hospitalised. Student unions claim that it was “a disproportionate response”.

Evangelical churches continued to face challenges; attacks on churches, prayer meetings, restrictions on their right to assembly, and onerous/unfair administrative burdens. Positively, the number of reported attacks on Muslims and their places of worship have reduced significantly.

Mayuri Inoka, the wife of a disappeared man, was abducted on 1 November, but managed to escape. She told the media that she was threatened with the same fate as her husband if she did not stop her campaign to find him. Mayuri’s husband, Madushka, was allegedly abducted by members of the local police in 2013.

Concerns continued around the situation in northern Sri Lanka. Vauniya (Northern Province) Citizens’ Committee chairman, G. Thavaraja, was assaulted and attacked with iron rods in October. Thavaraja, who was in the forefront of a campaign calling for the release of Balendran Jeyakumari (a human rights defender who has been detained for over 200 days without charges), was allegedly threatened with death if he continued his campaign. Newspapers and journalists in the north continued to face issues. In October, a senior journalist and media activist was allegedly interrogated by law enforcement officials on his journalism training and interactions with international media watchdogs. A number of newspaper agents in Jaffna and Kilinochchi have alleged harassment. Throughout the third week of October, a Tamil monthly newspaper faced harassment, and a distributor of the paper was attacked at Uruththirapuram, Kilinochchi, with his newspapers dumped in a nearby reservoir by an armed gang. Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on 10 October that all foreign passport holders travelling to the north would require prior permission to do so. Conditions were subsequently relaxed enabling foreign passport holders of Sri Lankan origin to travel without prior permission. Two Tamil women from the north and east who were previously detained (relatives of terrorism suspects) were prevented from leaving Sri Lanka by law enforcement officials.

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, had criticised attacks by the Sri Lankan government on the integrity of the UN Human Rights Office’s ongoing investigation into alleged violations and abuses of human rights by both sides during Sri Lanka’s conflict, and condemned the intimidation of human rights defenders and individuals who may wish to cooperate with the investigation. On 27 October, a Tamil man was arrested by members of the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) in Kilinochchi on allegations of attempting to provide fabricated evidence to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights investigation on Sri Lanka. Several human rights defenders were also labelled as Tamil Tiger supporters by a pro-government Sinhala language newspaper. (Colombo Gazette)