The Sri Lankan government is intensifying its crackdown on critics through threats, harassment, imprisonment and violent attacks, Amnesty International said in a report ” Sri Lanka’s Assault on Dissent” released today.
Journalists, the judiciary, human rights activists and opposition politicians are among those targeted in a pattern of threats, harassment, imprisonment and violent attacks, the report said.
“Violent repression of dissent and the consolidation of political power go hand in hand in Sri Lanka,” said Polly Truscott, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director.
There is a real climate of fear in Sri Lanka, with those brave enough to speak out against the government often having to suffer badly for it.”
Almost immediately after the end of the armed conflict in May 2009, when the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) were defeated, the government started consolidating its power.
The September 2010 introduction of the 18th constitutional amendment placed key government institutions directly under the president’s control, while the continued use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) grants sweeping powers to the security forces.
At the same time, official government discourse has become increasingly hostile towards critics, with terms like “traitor” used regularly by state-run media outlets.
Government critics have been subjected to verbal and physical harassment, attacks and in some cases killings. The judiciary has been a key target of repression, with the government undermining its independence by making threats against judges who rule in favour of victims of human rights violations.
Tension culminated in January 2013 when Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached on charges of misconduct, despite a Supreme Court ruling that the impeachment procedure was unconstitutional.
While much of Sri Lankan media is firmly in the hands of the government, the authorities have targeted outlets that remain independent and criticize official policies, or the government’s conduct during the armed conflict.
Amnesty also cited intimidation against journalists. The report said at least 15 have been killed since 2006 and others were forced to flee the country. Journalists continue to suffer intimidation, threats and attacks for reports that are critical of the government and that the 2009 killing of former Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunge, remain unresolved.
Websites with articles critical of the government face frequent cyber attacks, while their offices have been raided by police or burned down by unknown arsonists. “The government’s blatant attempts to restrict and silence the independent media in the face of the press freedom, which is supposed to be guaranteed by both domestic and international law,” said Truscott.
Pressure on critics tends to intensify around key international events. Examples include recent UN Human Rights Council (HRC) sessions in 2012 and 2013, when the HRC passed resolutions highlighting the need to investigate alleged violations of international law by the Sri Lankan government during the armed conflict.
Participants in UN meetings and Sri Lankan journalists covering the events were repeatedly verbally attacked in Sri Lankan government media outlets, and in some cases physically threatened.
Others who have been targeted by the government include human rights activists, trade union leaders, humanitarian aid workers and opposition politicians, in particular those active in the Tamil-majority north.
In November 2013, the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is set to take place in Colombo. “Before November, Commonwealth governments must pressure the Sri Lankan government to address the alarming human rights situation in the country,” said Truscott.
“The CHOGM meeting must not be allowed to go ahead in Colombo unless the government has demonstrated beforehand that it has stopped systematic violations of human rights. “It is abundantly clear that Colombo is unwilling and unable to investigate the credible allegations of crimes under international law, including war crimes, during the conflict.