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Sri Lanka: New report exposes 'climate of fear' for critics

Amnesty says the upcoming CHOGM meeting should not be allowed to take place in Sri Lanka in November unless systematic violations of human rights are stopped.

The Sri Lankan government is intensifying its crackdown on critics through threats, harassment, imprisonment and violent attacks, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.
The 78 page report, Assault on Dissent  (PDF) reveals how the government, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is promoting an official attitude that equates criticism with ‘treason’ in a bid to tighten its grip on power.
Journalists, the judiciary, human rights activists and opposition politicians are among those who have been targeted in a disturbing pattern of government-sanctioned abuse, often involving the security forces or their proxies.
In November the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is set to take place in Colombo. Following that meeting, Sri Lanka would represent the Commonwealth as its Chair for the next two years. Amnesty said that under current circumstances that should not be allowed.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director Polly Truscott said:
“Violent repression of dissent and the consolidation of political power go hand in hand in Sri Lanka.
“There is a real climate of fear, with those brave enough to speak out against the government often having to suffer badly for it.
“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. All attacks on individuals must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated and those responsible held to account.” 
The report identifies a pattern of sustained and escalating assault on dissent dating back to the end of the conflict in the country. Almost immediately after the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) were defeated in May 2009, the government started consolidating its power. The introduction of the 18th constitutional amendment in September 2010, placed key government institutions directly under the president’s control, while the use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to grant sweeping powers to the security forces.
At the same time, official government discourse has become increasingly hostile towards critics, with terms like ‘traitor’ now used regularly by state-run media outlets.
Government critics have been subjected to verbal and physical harassment, attacks and in some cases killings. The report details dozens of such cases.
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. In January Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached on charges of misconduct, despite a Supreme Court ruling that the impeachment procedure was unconstitutional.
While much of the Sri Lankan media is firmly in the hands of the government, the authorities have targeted the few outlets that remain independent and criticise official policies, or have questioned the government’s conduct during the armed conflict. 
Journalists continue to suffer intimidation, threats and attacks for reports that are critical of the government. At least 15 have been killed since 2006 and many others have been forced to flee the country. In a recent example, Faraz Shauketaly, a journalist with the Sunday Leader was left badly injured after unknown gunmen shot him in the neck in February.
Websites with articles critical of the government face frequent cyber-attack, while their offices have been raided by police or burned down by arsonists. The government has also used amendments to legislation – such as the imposition of exorbitant ‘registration’ fees – to shut down critical online outlets.
Pressure on critics tends to intensify around key international events including at the recent UN Human Rights Council (HRC) sessions, where resolutions highlighting the need to investigate alleged violations of international law by the Sri Lankan government during the armed conflict were passed.
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, were physically threatened. 
Polly Truscott added:
“The government’s blatant attempts to restrict and silence the independent media fly in the face of the press freedom, which is supposed to be guaranteed by both domestic and international law.
“Before November, Commonwealth governments must pressure the Sri Lankan government to address the alarming human rights situation in the country.”
In addition to these on-going violations, the Sri Lankan government has failed – despite repeated promises to do so – to effectively investigate allegations of crimes under international law committed by the LTTE and the army during the armed conflict.
Polly Truscott concluded:
“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. What is needed is an independent, impartial and internationally led investigation.”
  • Download the report Assault on Dissent (PDF)

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