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Sri Lanka

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

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

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

Journalists reported at least five separate incidents of police killing suspected drug dealers during arrests or raids. For example, on October 20, Samarasinghe Arachchige Madush Lakshitha, alias “Makandure Madush,” was shot and killed during a police raid in Colombo. Police reportedly took Madush, who was in police custody, along on the raid to help locate a stash of heroin, but during the raid he was allegedly killed in the crossfire. Politicians, rights activists, and press accused the government of staging Madush’s death to prevent names of politicians involved in the drug trade from being disclosed in court. National People’s Power (NPP) Member of Parliament (MP) Vijitha Herath told parliament, “This is not the first killing of this nature. There have been several other similar killings. The issue is not Madush’s killing but the manner in which he was killed.” Herath noted that in January 2019 Madush had called into a radio program and accused unnamed politicians of involvement in drug trafficking.

On November 29, prison guards at the Mahara prison in Gampaha District opened fire on prisoners, killing 11 and injuring more than 100, according to human rights activists and press reports. Prison guards fired on prisoners reportedly attempting to escape during a riot sparked by panic related to a COVID-19 outbreak in the prison. Human rights activists noted that Mahara prison was severely overcrowded, holding more than 2,000 inmates, despite its official capacity of 1,000, and said that nearly half of the prisoners were COVID-19 positive. Autopsies conducted on eight of the victims by a panel appointed by a court at the attorney general’s request indicated they all died of gunshot wounds; autopsies on the remaining three were pending. A committee appointed by the Justice Ministry to investigate the incident issued a report that was not made public. The Mahara unrest followed a November 17 incident at Bogambara prison in Kandy where one prisoner was killed, and a March 21 incident at Anuradhapura prison in which guards opened fire on prisoners protesting COVID-19 conditions and killed two prisoners and injured several others. Police announced investigations into all three incidents, but no public disciplinary action or arrests were made in connection with the shootings.

On September 7, the Court of Appeal issued an interim order directing the commissioner general of prisons to make arrangements for Premalal Jayasekara, a member of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), who was imprisoned on death row for the 2015 murder of a rival political party supporter, to attend the parliament. Despite the attorney general’s legal recommendation against seating Jayasekara and protests from opposition lawmakers, Jayasekara was sworn into parliament on September 8, becoming the first MP to concurrently serve a murder sentence and serve as a member of parliament. Jayasekara appealed his conviction and requested bail while he awaited his appeal hearing. As of years end, he had not been granted bail.

On January 7, authorities transferred Shani Abeysekera, then director of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Sri Lanka Police, from his post, demoting him to an administrative role. On July 31, the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD) of the police arrested Abeysekera on charges of fabricating evidence in a 2013 case. Civil society considered the demotion and arrest to be reprisal for Abeysekera’s investigations into several high-profile murder, disappearance, and corruption cases involving members of the current government, including members of the Rajapaksa family.

On July 15, the Colombo High Court trial at bar acquitted Prisons Officer Indika Sampath of murder and related charges for the killing of eight inmates, allegedly at then defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s request, during the 2012 Welikada Prison Riots. The trial-at-bar court maintained that sufficient evidence had not been presented to prove the charges against Sampath.

Lack of accountability for conflict-era abuses persisted, particularly regarding 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 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, including Army staff sergeant Sunil Ratnayake and the seating in parliament of convicted murderer Premalal Jayasekara. During the year there was no progress on cases against officials accused of arbitrary, unlawful, or politically motivated killings.

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 Prevention of Terrorism Act (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 Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (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.

The HRCSL documented 260 complaints of physical and mental torture from January to August in addition to 37 complaints from prisoners. In response to allegations of torture, the HRCSL carried out routine visits of detention centers.

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 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 January 9, President Rajapaksa appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimization from 2015-2019. The PCoI conducted 10 months of closed-door hearings, interrogating opposition politicians, as well as police, lawyers and judges who had led investigations into corruption and alleged human rights abuses and presented its findings to the government in December in a confidential 2,000-page report. The PCoI faced particular criticism when its chair, Upali Abeyratne, a retired Supreme Court judge ordered the Attorney General (AG) to cease investigations into the Trinco 11 disappearance case allegedly perpetrated by naval officers and summoned and interrogated a key witness in the ongoing 2010 disappearance case of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, resulting in the witness recanting prior testimony. In both instances, the Attorney General publicly denounced the PCoI’s efforts, saying that the Commission had no power to investigate the AG or his officials or interfere in ongoing investigations. Civil society activists said the PCoI “has spent the past year treating perpetrators as victims and attempting to interfere in ongoing [criminal] investigations.” In December, President Rajapaksa appointed Abeyratne chair of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the state body charged with investigating disappearances.

On March 26, President Rajapaksa pardoned a death row prisoner, former staff sergeant Sunil Ratnayake. After a 13-year-long trial, Ratnayake had been sentenced to death in 2015 for the 2000 killings of eight Tamil internally displaced persons (IDPs), including a five-year-old child and two teenagers. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction on appeal in 2019. The pardon, for which no formal justification was issued, was condemned by opposition political leaders, civil society groups, and international NGOs for overturning what had been a rare, emblematic example of official accountability in the country. On September 24, the Supreme Court took up a petition filed by civil society activists challenging the president’s decision. The hearing was rescheduled to February 8, 2021, after a justice recused himself due to his involvement in Rathnayake’s death sentence appeal.

Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP H. L. Premalal Jayasekara and SLPP-aligned Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) MP Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (aka Pillayan) were elected to parliament while incarcerated. Jayasekara was convicted of murder in 2019 and sentenced to death for an election-related shooting in 2015. His appeal was pending at the end of the reporting period. Chandrakanthan (aka Pillayan) has been in pretrial remand custody since 2015 for the 2005 murder of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Joseph Pararajasingham and faces allegations of human rights violations including child soldier recruitment. Both MPs were granted permission to attend the August 20 swearing in of parliament despite the Attorney General’s objection to the seating of Jayasekara on the grounds that his murder conviction precluded him from serving in parliament. On September 22, President Rajapaksa appointed Pillayan as Co-Chairperson of the Batticaloa District Coordinating Committee (DDC) charged with coordinating, implementing, and monitoring all development activities of state institutions and NGOs in the district.

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. On December 3, the press reported that Prisons Commissioner General Thushara Upuldeniya stated prisons in Sri Lanka were overcrowded by 173 percent, with the Colombo Welikada Prison overcrowded by 300 percent. He noted that many were imprisoned due to inability to pay fines or bail charges. Upuldeniya stated that due to overcrowding, inmates lacked adequate space to sleep and basic hygiene facilities. Authorities often held pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners together as well. In many prisons inmates reportedly slept on concrete floors, and prisons often lacked natural light or ventilation. Ministry of Justice officials stated that expanding and modernizing prisons physical infrastructure was a government priority.

Upon the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisoners protested the overcrowded conditions in prisons. Since March security forces killed 14 prisoners during three separate incidents related to prisoner protests against COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons. On November 29, prison guards at the Mahara prison in Gampaha District opened fire on prisoners, killing at least 11 and injuring more than 100, according to human rights activists and press reports. Human rights activists noted that Mahara Prison was severely overcrowded, holding 2,750 inmates, despite its official capacity of 1,000, and claimed that at least half of Mahara prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 as of late November. The Mahara unrest followed a November 17 incident at Bogambara prison in Kandy where one prisoner was killed, and a March 21 incident at Anuradhapura prison in which two prisoners were killed and several others injured when guards opened fire on prisoners protesting COVID-19 conditions.

The HRCSL recommended 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 are seriously ill, older than age of 70, and those convicted of minor offenses. In February the government pardoned 512 prisoners and by September had released 3,405 prisoners on bail in accordance with the recommendations.

Administration: The HRCSL investigates complaints it receives and refers them to the relevant authorities when warranted. The HRCSL reported it received some credible allegations of mistreatment from prisoners, but the Department of Prisons reported it did not receive any complaints.

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 functions 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 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the HRCSL also have a mandate to monitor prison conditions, and police largely respected their recommendations.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but there were reports that arbitrary arrest and detention occurred.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The criminal procedure code allows police to make an arrest without a warrant for offenses such as homicide, theft, robbery, and rape. Alternatively, police may make arrests pursuant to arrest warrants that judges and magistrates issue based on evidence. The law requires authorities to inform an arrested person of the reason for the arrest and arraign that person before a magistrate within 24 hours for minor crimes, 48 hours for some grave crimes, and 72 hours for crimes covered by the PTA. Ministry of Justice officials noted that due to the limited infrastructure as well as human resources and legal constraints, in many cases more time elapsed before detainees appeared before a magistrate, particularly in PTA cases. For offenses that are bailable under the Bail Act, instead of arraignment in court, police may release suspects within 24 hours of detention on a written undertaking and require them to report to court on a specified date for pretrial hearings. Suspects accused of committing bailable offenses are entitled to bail, administered by police before seeing a magistrate. For suspects accused of nonbailable offenses, bail is granted only after appearing before a magistrate and at the magistrate’s discretion.

The Bail Act states no person should be held in custody for more than 12 months prior to conviction and sentencing without a special exemption. Under the PTA, detainees may be held for up to 18 months without charge, but in practice authorities often held PTA detainees for longer periods, some for more than 10 years.

Judges require approval from the Attorney General’s Department to authorize bail for persons detained under the PTA, which the office normally did not grant. In homicide cases, regulations require the magistrate to remand the suspect, and only the High Court may grant bail. In all cases, suspects have the right to legal representation, although no provision specifically provides the right of a suspect to legal representation during interrogations in police stations and detention centers. The government provided counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases before the High Court and Court of Appeal but not in other cases; the law requires the provision of counsel only for cases heard at the High Court and Court of Appeal.

According to police, authorities arrested 2,299 individuals, primarily under the PTA, in the aftermath of the April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. As of December, 135 suspects remained in custody, but no charges were filed against them. International NGOs continued to have access to the remaining attack suspects.

Arbitrary Arrest: As of October the National Police Commission reported 17 complaints of unlawful arrest or detention. The HRCSL received numerous complaints of arbitrary arrest and detention. Police sometimes held detainees incommunicado, and lawyers had to apply for permission to meet clients, with police frequently present at such meetings. In some cases, unlawful detentions reportedly included interrogations involving mistreatment or torture. While the government did not report the number of persons held under the PTA, human rights groups in the north reported at least 22 PTA arrests unrelated to the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks during the year. On April 1, the inspector general of police ordered the arrest of critics of the government’s COVID-19 response. Media outlets reported at least 20 arrests for publishing or sharing misinformation as of December.

On April 14, police arrested six men under the PTA, including Hijaz Hizbullah, a prominent constitutional lawyer, and Riyaj Bathiudeen, brother of MP Rishad Bathiudeen. Authorities searched Hizbullah’s office and seized his telephone, computer, and some legal files. Hizbullah, an outspoken critic of the Rajapaksas, had led the Supreme Court challenge that ultimately ended the 2018 constitutional crisis when then president Maithripala Sirisena attempted to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa prime minister. Hizbullah was ordered to be detained until January 2021, although he was not charged with a crime. Hizbullah’s family reported his lawyers were only able to visit him twice since his arrest and police prohibited them from discussing details of the case with their client. On December 15, the attorney general agreed to allow counsel to meet Hizbullah after his lawyers filed a writ application at the Court of Appeal seeking access to their client. Authorities allegedly arrested Hizbullah and others for their connections to the 2019 Easter Sunday attack, but human rights lawyers claimed no credible evidence had been presented to link Hizbullah to the attack.

Families of three Muslim children alleged that, at the end of April, police abducted and interrogated the children, ages 11, 13, and 16, for two days on suspicion they received weapons training as a part of their schooling at al-Zuhriya Arabic College, an Islamic boarding school. The children’s families claimed police investigators threatened the children and coerced them to sign documents they could not understand implicating Hizbullah in promoting extremist ideology.

Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detainees composed approximately one-half of the detainee population. The average length of time in pretrial detention was 24 hours, but inability to post bail, lengthy legal procedures, judicial inefficiency, and corruption often caused delays. Legal advocacy groups asserted that for those cases in which pretrial detention exceeded 24 hours, it was common for the length of pretrial detention to equal or exceed the sentence for the alleged crime.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: A person may legally challenge an arrest or detention and obtain release through the courts. The legal process takes years, however, and the Center for Human Rights Development reported that the perceived lack of judicial independence and minimal compensation discouraged individuals from seeking legal remedies. Under the PTA, the ability to challenge detentions is particularly limited.

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