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Sri Lanka

Executive Summary

Sri Lanka is a constitutional, multiparty democratic republic with a freely elected government. Presidential elections were held in 2019, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency. He appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother, as prime minister. In 2020 Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa led the Sri Lankan People’s Freedom Alliance and small allied parties to secure a two-thirds supermajority, winning 150 of 225 seats in parliamentary elections. COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented international observers and limited domestic election observation. Domestic observers described the election as peaceful, technically well managed, and safe considering the COVID-19 pandemic but noted that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources, and media bias affected the level playing field.

The Sri Lanka Police are responsible for maintaining internal security and are under the Ministry of Public Security, formed in November 2020. The military, under the Ministry of Defense (the president holds the defense portfolio), may be called upon to handle specifically delineated domestic security responsibilities, but generally without arrest authority. The 11,000-member paramilitary Special Task Force, a police entity that reports to the inspector general of police (IGP), coordinates internal security operations with the military. Civilian officials maintained control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces, primarily the police, committed numerous abuses.

Parliament passed the 20th Amendment to the constitution in October 2020. Opposition political leaders and civil society groups widely criticized the amendment for its broad expansion of executive authority that activists said would undermine the independence of the judiciary and independent state institutions, such as the Human Rights Commission and the Election Commission, by granting the president sole authority to make appointments to these bodies with parliament afforded only a consultative role.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; politically motivated reprisals against individuals in other countries; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression and media, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and prosecutions of journalists, and censorship; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement; serious government corruption; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including but not limited to domestic and intimate partner violence and sexual violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting members of national, racial, and ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, even if the laws were not enforced; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

The government took minimal steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption, and there was impunity for both.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

According to a report from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Harm Reduction International, deaths in police custody increased during the year, with many incidents following a similar pattern. Press reported that while they were in custody for their reported involvement in organized crime, Melon Mabula (alias “Uru Jawa”) and Dharmakeethilage Tharaka Wijesekara (alias “Kosgoda Tharaka”), were shot and killed by police in May. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka issued a statement condemning the alleged killings, stating the state and police had a duty to ensure the safety and security of persons in their custody.

Journalists reported seven incidents of police killing. For example, on June 3, Tamil Chandran Vithusan, age 22, died in custody in Batticaloa one night after being arrested by the Intelligence Division. Vithusan’s family alleged he was beaten by officers at the time of his arrest. A local police team was formed to investigate his death. On the order of the Batticaloa Magistrate court, the body of the victim was exhumed for a second autopsy on June 21. The second autopsy report revealed signs of torture, the lawyer for the victim’s family told press in November. S.M. Ramzan, a 29-year-old Muslim arrested for drug possession on October 1, died the following day after police took him to Mannar General Hospital. The victim’s family alleged police assault led to his death, while police claimed he swallowed drugs at the time of the arrest and became unconscious during an interrogation. Another suspect arrested with the victim refuted claims of police abuse. The hospital and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka’s (HRCSL’s) Jaffna division began investigations after the death, with the former working on a postmortem report; investigations continued at the end of the year.

Press reported members of parliament (MPs) of the political alliance Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) protested in parliament on November 17 against the death of one of their supporters, who they claimed was the victim of police brutality when he attempted to travel from Panamure, Ratanapura, to Colombo to take part in a November 16 SJB protest. The SJB alleged that local police stopped the bus and, following an argument, arrested the victim on an earlier unrelated complaint, after which the police assaulted him in custody, leading to his death. The public security minister denied the allegations in parliament, claiming that the individual was not connected with the SJB protest and that he committed suicide inside the cell.

On June 16, the Court of Appeal granted bail to former director of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Sri Lanka Police Shani Abeyesekera, who had been in pretrial detention since July 2020 without charge for allegedly fabricating evidence in a 2013 case. Civil society considered his demotion and arrest in 2020 to be reprisal for Abeysekera’s investigations into several high-profile murder, disappearance, and corruption cases involving members of the sitting government, including members of the Rajapaksa family.

Lack of accountability for conflict-era abuses persisted, particularly regarding government officials, military, paramilitary, police, and other security-sector officials implicated and, in some cases, convicted of killing political opponents, journalists, and private citizens. Civil society organizations asserted that the government and the courts were reluctant to act against security forces, citing high-level appointments of military officials credibly accused of abuses and pardons of convicted murderers. During the year there was no significant progress on cases against officials accused of arbitrary, unlawful, or politically motivated killings.

On January 11, the Attorney General’s Department (AGD) informed the Batticaloa High Court that it would not continue with murder charges against Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal party leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, aka Pillayan, and five others for the 2005 killing of former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) member of parliament (MP) Joseph Pararajasingham. The court acquitted and released all six suspects in line with the AGD’s decision on January 13. Pillayan, a former Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) paramilitary leader turned politician with numerous allegations of abductions, child conscription, and other human rights abuses, was appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the cochairperson of the Batticaloa District Coordinating Committee in September 2020.

On April 12, the Colombo Magistrate Court released 11 of 15 suspects detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for an alleged 2017 plot to kill TNA Jaffna District MP M. A. Sumanthiran. The Colombo Crimes Division informed the magistrates that the attorney general determined there was insufficient evidence to proceed with cases against 11 suspects but that prosecutions would continue against the remaining four. Of the 11 released, four were Tamils and seven were Sinhalese, while the four held pending prosecution were Tamil, including one Indian national.

On May 5, the Jaffna Magistrate Court ordered the release of six suspects in the October 2000 death of Tamil journalist Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan, after the attorney general advised the court that the government would no longer pursue the case. A regular contributor to the BBC’s Sinhala and Tamil services and a correspondent for Colombo-based outlets, Nimalarajan was allegedly shot and killed by members of the Tamil Eelam People’s Democratic Party in his home in Jaffna.

On June 24, the president issued a special presidential pardon to former Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarian Duminda Silva, sentenced to death in 2016 for the 2011 killing of fellow SLFP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra during local elections. The Silva pardon came in the context of a petition signed by more than 100 government parliamentarians in 2020 requesting his pardon, based on claims that he was wrongfully convicted. On July 16, the president appointed Silva as the chairman of the National Housing Development Authority, which falls under the purview of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also the minister of urban development and housing.

Both Pillayan’s acquittal and Silva’s pardon elicited strong criticism from the legal community, the opposition, and international and domestic activists as arbitrary decisions undermining the independence of the judiciary and obstructing accountability.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but authorities reportedly employed them. The law makes torture a punishable offense and mandates a sentence of not less than seven years’ and not more than 10 years’ imprisonment. The government maintained a Committee on the Prevention of Torture to visit sites of allegations, examine evidence, and take preventive measures on allegations of torture. The PTA allows courts to admit as evidence any statements made by the accused at any time and provides no exception for confessions extracted by torture.

Interviews by human rights organizations found that torture and excessive use of force by police, particularly to extract confessions, remained endemic. The HRCSL, for example, noted that many reports of torture referred to police officers allegedly “roughing up” suspects to extract a confession or otherwise elicit evidence to use against the accused. As in previous years, arrestees reported torture and mistreatment, forced confessions, and denial of basic rights, such as access to lawyers or family members.

During the year the HRCSL documented 236 complaints of torture, assault, or both in addition to 64 complaints from prisoners. As of year’s end, the HRCSL was still processing complaints and stated these numbers could rise. In response to allegations of torture, the HRCSL carried out routine visits to detention centers. On July 15, parliament approved amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure Act to allow magistrates to visit remand prisons at least once a month, expecting them to check on the welfare of detainees and recommend bail if applicable. Due to the pandemic restrictions, these visits were restricted but resumed on October 15.

Impunity remained a significant problem characterized by a lack of accountability for conflict-era abuses, particularly by military, paramilitary, police, and other security-sector officials implicated and, in some cases, convicted of killing political opponents, journalists, and private citizens. Civil society organizations asserted the government, including the courts, were reluctant to act against security forces alleged to be responsible for past abuses, citing high-level appointments of military officials also alleged to have been involved in such abuses. During the year there was no progress on cases against officials accused of arbitrary, unlawful, or politically motivated killings.

On February 25, media reported that four police officers from the Peliyagoda police station allegedly beat Migara Gunaratne, a law college student and son of former Central Province governor Maithri Gunaratne, after mistaking him for his brother, a lawyer representing a prisoner in the station. The public security minister told the press he had instructed the IGP to investigate the incident, which lawyers and rights groups condemned, saying it demonstrated impunity for police “torture” and abuses.

On October 21, the Supreme Court ordered the IGP to launch a criminal investigation into allegations that former state minister of prison management Lohan Ratwatte threatened to kill PTA Tamil prisoners during a visit to Anuradhapura prison on September 12. The Supreme Court also ordered the commissioner general of prisons to transfer those affected out of the prison for their safety, in line with requests in the FR petitions filed by eight of the prisoners on September 30, which the Supreme Court agreed to take up in its October 21 decision. According to press reports, Ratwatte provided statements in investigations underway by the HRCSL and a retired high court judge on October 5 and October 19, respectively, but as of October 25, he had yet to cooperate with a separate investigation by the CID. On December 8, press reported that after an opposition parliamentarian claimed the report of the retired high court judge found him guilty, Ratwatte denied the report had been made public or submitted to the cabinet, although he did not confirm or deny whether the parliamentarian’s claim was true.

MP Shankkiyan Rasamanickam tweeted a video of a traffic police officer reportedly assaulting two Tamil youths on October 22. Rasamanickam tagged the public security minister in a social media post stating, “Police brutality continues in Batticaloa and will fall on the deaf ears of [the public security minister].” The minister responded to Rasamanickam, stating the officer involved had been suspended, and on October 24, the police spokesperson said the officer had been arrested, produced before a magistrate, and released on bail. Within 24 hours of the posting of the video, press reported a separate video emerged on social media showing an injured youth lying in an ambulance after a different police officer in Batticaloa reportedly assaulted him.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were poor due to old infrastructure, overcrowding, and a shortage of sanitary facilities.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem. According to officials, more than 32,000 persons were imprisoned in 2020 within a system with a capacity for 11,768. The government pardoned prisoners throughout the year and by September reduced the number of inmates to 22,000. According to civil society groups, as of December 3, there were more than 11,500 convicted prisoners in custody and more than 7,200 detainees in remand custody.

Inmates lacked adequate space to sleep and basic hygiene facilities. Authorities often held pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners together. In many prisons inmates reportedly slept on concrete floors, and prisons often lacked natural light or ventilation.

The HRCSL recommended in 2020 that the Department of Prisons address overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic by releasing detainees in pretrial detention due to their inability to pay bail, prisoners who were seriously ill, older than age of 70, and those convicted of minor offenses.

Civil society organizations and prison monitoring groups reported that “high-profile prisoners,” kept separate from the general prison population, included many Muslim detainees who were arrested after the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. Juvenile detainees ages 16 to 22 were processed at different centers (called “training schools”), and their cases were handled separately under the Youthful Offenders’ Act. As of August 26, a total of 30 children younger than age five were in the prison system staying with their imprisoned mothers.

Administration: The HRCSL, on its own initiative or after a complaint is reported, investigates complaints and refers them to the relevant authorities when warranted. The HRCSL reported it received some credible allegations of mistreatment from prisoners.

Independent Monitoring: The Board of Prison Visitors is the primary domestic organization conducting visits to prisoners and accepting complaints; it also has the legal mandate to examine overall conditions of detention. The Board of Prison Visitors functioned as an internal governmental watchdog and was established under the Prisons Ordinance. Its members are representatives of civil society who are otherwise unaffiliated with the government or other state institutions. The HRCSL also had a mandate to monitor prison conditions, and police largely respected their recommendations. Due to pandemic travel restrictions, the International Committee of the Red Cross was not allowed to conduct monitoring visits; visits resumed after restrictions were lifted in October. The HRCSL and Red Cross had access to all prisoners and detainees, regardless of the type of facility.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination

Both local and Indian-origin Tamils maintained that they suffered long-standing, systematic discrimination in university education, government employment, housing, health services, language laws, and procedures for naturalization of noncitizens. Throughout the country, but especially in the north and east, Tamils reported security forces regularly monitored and harassed members of their community, especially activists, journalists, and NGO staff and former or suspected former LTTE members.

According to an October Amnesty International report, the Muslim community has experienced consistent discrimination, harassment, and violence since 2013. The government failed to prosecute individuals and groups involved in vandalizing mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and homes after the May 2019 riots that followed the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. As of October 14, according to civil society groups, more than 300 individuals (almost all Muslim) remained in detention in alleged connection with the Easter Sunday attacks (see section 1.d.).

On February 25, the government reversed the mandatory cremation policy for all COVID-19 victims, which had been in effect since March 2020. The policy violated Muslim religious tenants and the religious preferences of some Christians and Buddhists. International organizations reported the government used the COVID-19 pandemic to “stoke communal tensions” as well as to limit religious freedom. Some extremist Buddhist monks and other extremist groups continued to use hate speech on social media with impunity.

On October 26, President Rajapaksa appointed a 13-member presidential task force to implement his “One Country, One Law” campaign pledge and named general secretary of the Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena and Buddhist monk Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thero as chairman. The presidential task force initially included four Muslims but no Tamils or Christians. On November 6, the president limited the mandate of the task force to presenting proposals for a framework of the “One Country, One Law” concept. He also appointed three Tamil members, replacing two of the original members (one Sinhalese and one Muslim) who had resigned. As of December 7, the task force had held public consultations in the northern and eastern provinces. Civil society, opposition politicians, and representatives of ethnic and religious minority groups criticized the announcement of the task force and the appointment of Gnanasara as chairman, noting fears that the task force would “eventually turn towards targeting minorities.”

See sections 1-5 for incidents affecting racial and ethnic minority groups, and section 2.c. for issues impacting religious minority groups.

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