Call for protection and prevention of abusive use of legal process for political revenge

Sri Lanka –

After the presidential election of the 16th January there are continuous reports on several matters that raise concern about the security of persons from attacks and incidents of violence. The Asian Human Rights Commission has received several urgent calls of concern regarding a serious situation that has developed within the country which requires the attention of all concerned persons, both within the country and the international community.

An extremely provocative media campaign is being conducted through the state media with the participation of senior politicians and some well known personalities. This campaign attempts to create the impression that a seriously dangerous situation arose during the election and has been successfully prevented. If the opposition had won the election there could have been assassinations and serious violence in the country. This propaganda campaign is being carried out over many programmes and is directed towards retaliatory actions against those who have participated in the election campaign against the government.

Constant reference to assassination conspiracies is generating a hostile atmosphere regarding those who have actively participated in the political campaign on behalf of the opposition and this suggests the preparation of possible arrests and other attacks against some opposition leaders, including the common candidate of the opposition, retired general, Sarath Fonseka.

The possibility that a pretext is being created for the arrest and detention of persons with the use of prevention of terrorism laws has been noted by many who fear that a similar kind of action taken under the notorious Naxalite plot following the 1982 presidential elections may be reenacted. The Naxalite plot, which was a total fabrication, was used to arrest a prominent opposition activist/politician, Vijeya Kumaranatunge in retaliation for his strong support for the then opposition candidate. The abuse of legal process in this manner is quite possible within the present context of the use of prevention of terrorism laws for political purposes as has been demonstrated by several cases such as the famous Tissainayagam case.

Retired general Sarath Fonseka, repeatedly complained of threats to his life and was kept under virtual house arrest, initially at a hotel and later even after he had left the hotel and gone to a different location. His movements are restricted and the possibility of his arrest has been raised. When questioned about this the spokesman for the government, including the president himself, indicated the possibility of arrest on some undisclosed charges which are said to be under investigation. Several government spokesmen spoke to the media about the plot by the retired general to assassinate the president and his family. Meanwhile the leader of the JVP, Mr. Somawansa Amerasinghe, publicly complained of a threat by the Secretary of Defense on his life and a threat to burn the newspaper that is being published by the JVP.

There was a two hour raid at the premises of the LankaeNews yesterday (28th January) and several popular websites have been blocked through Sri Lanka Telecom. These include www.lankaenews.com,www.srilankaguardian.org, www.infolanka.com, and www.nidahasa.com.

A journalist of the LankaeNews Website, Prageeth Ekanaligoda, who disappeared shortly before the election remains missing and the family and international journalist’s organisations demanded inquiries into his whereabouts. He remains missing as we write this. A programme producer of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, complained of being assaulted by the Chairman of the Corporation and threatened with death. The situation within the SLRC was reported as tense by several journalists working for the corporation. The website of the trade union of the SLRC quoted the names of three journalists as being under immediate threat. A Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation journalist who is a resident of Kurunagala, Gunarathna Liyanachchi, complained of an attack by an unknown group which caused damage to his house and property. Another journalist, Sri Lal Priyantha also complained of being questioned while he was following the campaign at the hotel where the common opposition campaign was located and of being followed by a group in plain clothes which he identified as being from the army.

Sirasa TV, which is one of the prominent stations which supported the opposition candidate, was kept under surveillance as the election results were announced. The TV station was surrounded by security personnel. The staff of the TV station has also been questioned about the coverage given to the scenes of the opposition candidate being stopped by security forces while leaving the hotel after the election. The station is also reported to have been threatened with the possible revocation of its broadcasting license which would virtually close down the main news channel outside the state media available to the public.

Several media organisations (SLWJ, FMETU, FMM, SLTMA and SLMMF) issuing a press release stated:

These incidents show clearly that media suppression is on the increase in post election period. These developments will hamper any informed discussion on the aftermaths of presidential election and the malpractices reported. The result will be the violation of people’s right to information. This in turn will seriously limit people’s ability to make informed judgments on political developments. We would like to reiterate that in the light of the parliamentary election due in few months time, it is all the more necessary to re establish our peoples right to information without delay by making the media environment free.

In this context, considering that the press freedom as the expression of people’s right to information and freedom of speech, we, the five media organizations in Sri Lanka earnestly urge all democratic forces in the country, diplomatic corps in Sri Lanka, United Nations, International human rights, press freedom and journalists safety organizations to use their good offices to ensure that government of Sri Lanka stop the media suppression and create a free and democratic post election environment.

In Kandy district at Gampola there was a bomb blast which killed an aged Buddhist monk, one other person and injured several others; a grenade was thrown at the residence of the opposition leader of the Ibbagamuwa local government body, causing serious damage to the premises; there was also an attack on a house at Mawattagama damaging two motor vehicles which were parked nearby; at the depot of the central Transport Board of Ampara, there was a public announcement at the gate stating that those who had voted for the symbol of the opposition candidate should not return to their jobs and there were reports of harassment of employees in many working places.

Several persons from NGOs and human rights organisations who have taken an active role during the elections in making demands relating to democratic rights and holding free and fair elections also expressed fears of retaliation and of being targeted for attack. Many activists complained that they have been receiving threatening calls and SMS messages from some local callers and others from some stationed in Italy, threatening them with retaliation. Several civil society organisations told the Asian Human Rights Commission that the overall situation developing in the country is ‘very scary’. One activist said that, “the government receiving 6 million votes did not mean that it had acquired a mandate to harass the other 4 million people who voted against them.” Several persons have left their homes and gone to seek safety.

Participation in public life is a basic right of all persons. A free and fair election is a recognised right in Sri Lanka and it is the right of all, whether they are members of political parties or persons who have a common interest in public affairs, to participate in the elections and support whomever they chose. It is the duty of the government to protect all persons who participate in public affairs. This also involves the prevention of an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states as follows:

Every citizen shall have the right and opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

The Asian Human Rights Commission calls upon the Sri Lankan government to respect the rights of all persons to participate in public affairs and also urges that it takes appropriate action to ensure the protection of all persons by the prevention of any possibility of violence under the present circumstances. The AHRC also urges that the government should not manipulate the legal process for taking revenge on political opponents.

Given the past record of politicisation of all public institutions including the police and the increasing suspicions of the manipulation of the armed forces for political purposes all steps should be taken to prevent the abuse of legal process for taking political revenge.

We urge the human rights organisations locally and internationally to monitor the present situation so as to ensure the protection for all.

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