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. On August 5, 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 on November 20. The military, under the Ministry of Defense, may be called upon to handle specifically delineated domestic security responsibilities, but generally without arrest authority. The nearly 11,000-member paramilitary Special Task Force, a police entity that reports to the inspector general of police, coordinates internal security operations with the military. Civilian officials maintained control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
The Sri Lanka parliament passed the 20th Amendment to the constitution on October 22. 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 Elections Commission, by granting the president sole authority to make appointments to these bodies with parliament afforded only a consultative role.
Following the April 2019 suicide bomb attacks that killed more than 250 persons, the government declared a state of emergency under the Public Security Ordinance, deployed the armed forces domestically, and granted them arrest authority. The state of emergency expired in August 2019, ending the temporary arrest authorities granted to the armed forces. The government, however, gazetted an order deploying the armed forces to ensure public security each month since the expiration of the state of emergency, keeping the military continuously deployed. Despite dozens of arrests for alleged material support to the deceased suicide bombers and continuing investigations, no suspects had been prosecuted for involvement in the attacks.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings by the government; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government agents; arbitrary arrest and detention by government entities; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression and the press, including unjustified arrests of journalists and authors; widespread corruption; overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting members of ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and existence or use of laws criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct.
Police reportedly harassed civilians with impunity. The government took steps to investigate and prosecute some officials who committed human rights abuses.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted these freedoms. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities restricted hate speech, including insults to religion or religious beliefs, through the police ordinance and penal code. The government requested media stations and outlets to refrain from featuring hate speech in their news items and segments.
On September 28, the president’s Media Division announced the government would take stern legal action against parties or individuals who intentionally shared misinformation and misled the public. Civil society expressed concern that this legal action would suppress freedom of expression.
On July 29, Amnesty International declared Shakthika Sathkumara a prisoner of conscience. In 2019 Kurunegala police arrested Sathkumara, a 33-year-old novelist, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights law, which restricts insulting any person’s religion. His short story, “Ardha,” which dealt with homosexuality and child sexual abuse in a Buddhist monastery, angered members of the country’s Buddhist clergy. He was released on bail in August 2019 after being remanded for four months. At his criminal hearing on September 22, the court postponed the case to February 2021, pending the attorney general’s instructions on whether to file indictments.
On April 9, police arrested a 50-year-old retired government Agriculture Department official, Ramzy Razeek, for an April 2 Facebook post condemning anti-Muslim racism during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the post, Razeek recommended that an “ideological jihad” should be waged with “pen and keyboard” to combat racism. He was not charged nor was he initially provided access to a lawyer. Razeek also suffered health conditions that family members feared were exacerbated by unsanitary prison conditions. On September 17, the Colombo High Court granted Razeek bail on medical grounds. As of year’s end, his case remained outstanding with no charges filed.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Some journalists, however, reported harassment, threats, intimidation, and interference from members of state security services, especially when reporting on issues related to the civil war or its aftermath, including missing persons. Tamil journalists reported military officers requested copies of photographs, lists of attendees at events, and names of sources for articles. They also reported that the military directly requested that journalists refrain from reporting on sensitive events, such as Tamil war commemorations or land occupation protests, and that they feared repercussions if they did not cooperate.
In a July 13 letter, a group of five UN special rapporteurs expressed serious concerns to the government regarding the continued harassment of journalist Dharisha Bastians, the former editor of the newspaper Sunday Observer and reporter for the New York Times newspaper in Colombo, as well as her family. The special rapporteurs stated Bastians was being targeted for her writing and her work defending human rights in the country. The rapporteurs were concerned that the continued harassment of Bastians and the seizure of her computer and exposure of her telephone records could endanger and compromise her sources and deter other journalists from reporting on issues of public interest and human rights.
On April 1, the acting inspector general of police, C. D. Wickramaratne, issued instructions for police to arrest persons who “criticize” officials involved in the COVID-19 response or share “fake” or “malicious” messages about the pandemic. The HRCSL criticized Wickramaratne’s letter, stating that the “right to comment on, and indeed criticize, the performance of public officials or of anyone else or any policy is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society.”
On March 29, online journalist Nuwan Nirodha Alwis was arrested for allegedly publishing unverified information about a suspected COVID-19 patient. When he revealed his source, a medical doctor in a private hospital, the source was also arrested. Each was detained for two weeks before being released on bail.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports of harassment and intimidation of journalists when covering sensitive issues. Reporters alleged that authorities, sometimes in government vehicles, surveilled journalists, especially those covering protests.
In a July 15 statement, Reporters without Borders (RSF) expressed concern that police inspector Neomal Rangajeewa shoved and threatened Ceylon Today newspaper photographer Akila Jayawardane outside a Colombo courthouse on July 10. Jayawardane had photographed Rangajeewa at the courthouse where he was being tried in connection with a prison massacre. Jayawardane reported that Rangajeewa then forcibly took him to a police post within the court building where he deleted all Jayawardane’s photographs.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: On several occasions print and electronic media journalists noted they self-censored stories that criticized the president or his family. The journalists said they had received direct calls from supporters of the government asking them to refrain from reporting anything that reflected negatively on the ruling party or opposition politicians.
Some journalists reportedly self-censored because of increased harassment, threats, and intimidation. Human rights groups also reported that two journalists had fled the country since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
There were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The government placed limited restrictions on websites it deemed pornographic.
State university officials reportedly attempted to prevent professors and university students from criticizing government officials. The government interfered with university appointments and credentialing of individuals based on legal activities and political expression.
Jaffna University professor and head of the Law Department, Kumaravadivel Guruparan (also founder and former director of a Tamil advocacy group), resigned from the university on July 16 in protest of the university’s 2019 decision to bar him from private legal practice. A leaked August 2019 letter from Army headquarters to the University Grants Commission, the governing body of state universities, suggested Guruparan should be restricted from practicing law while retaining his university post. The letter specifically referenced his work on the 1996 Navatkuli habeas corpus case, representing the families of 24 Tamil youths who disappeared while in military custody. In his resignation letter, Guruparan wrote, “The decision of the council in my view constitutes an abject surrender of the autonomy that this University holds in trust for the benefit of its academic staff and their academic freedom.”
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government restricted these rights in some cases.
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but these freedoms were subject to some restrictions. The constitution restricts the freedom of assembly in the interest of religious harmony, national security, public order, or the protection of public health or morality. Freedom of peaceful assembly also may be restricted in the interest of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others or in the interest of meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society. Under Police Ordinance Article 77(1), protesters must seek permission from the local police before holding a protest.
The government-imposed islandwide curfews restricting free movement of persons citing COVID-19 concerns. According to civil society and political leaders, authorities used COVID-19 health guidelines in some instances to prevent opposition political rallies, while progovernment rallies proceeded unhindered. Similarly, police, often acting on interim orders from magistrates, repeatedly tried to obstruct protests organized by the families of the disappeared, political parties and civil society actors, citing COVID-19 regulations.
Adhering to public health social distancing guidelines, Tamils in Mullaitivu gathered peacefully to commemorate war victims on May 18, the day the war ended in 2009. The government allowed commemoration of civilians but warned of consequences for those who would commemorate the LTTE. According to press reports, the chief of defense staff and Army commander, Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, stated that all persons had the right to commemorate war victims but noted that commemoration events would be surveilled. Local political leaders reported the largest event was held at the Mullivaikal memorial site in Mullaitivu, with the participation of approximately 150 families of war victims. Organizers said that while the presence of security forces was notable, they did not disturb the commemoration.
On May 17, the Jaffna Magistrate Court rejected a police request to ban commemorative events, allowing them so long as they abided by health guidelines. At the request of police, however, the court prohibited two specific public commemoration events: one planned by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA)-affiliated Uthayan newspaper and another planned by the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF). Additionally, the former chief minister of Northern Province, C. V. Wigneswaran, and former TNA MPs Charles Nirmalanathan, S. Shrithran, and D. Sithadthan were prevented from attending the Mullaitivu commemoration event by military officials, who cited islandwide public health measures prohibiting persons from crossing district boundaries.
Although many events proceeded peacefully, there were reports that in some cases, Tamils were barred from commemorating war victims on May 18. According to media sources, some would-be attendees of a commemoration in Keerimalai said military officials used “abusive language” and prevented them from entering Hindu temples to honor their lost relatives. During the year a UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur reported that “family members of victims do not have access to memorials and monuments, some of which have been deliberately destroyed; and the prohibition on the memorialization of fallen Tamil Tigers persists.”
On September 14, Jaffna and Batticaloa magistrate courts banned planned commemorations of former Jaffna LTTE political leader R. Parthipan, alias Thileepan. The order also prohibited 20 named members of Tamil political parties as well as the mayor of Jaffna and members of the activist group Families of the Disappeared from participating in the commemoration. The police complaint to the court cited COVID-19 risks, laws prohibiting the commemoration of a banned organization, and the possibility of the revival of LTTE as reasons for the ban.
On November 27, Maaveerar Naal (Great Heroes Day) commemorations were banned through a series of court orders requested by police citing COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings and the PTA. Observers in Northern Province reported increased security forces presence, with military personnel on motorbikes looking over walls into compounds and making unannounced visits to homes in search of evidence of private commemorations on November 26 (birthday of deceased LTTE leader Prabakaran) and November 27 (Maaveerar Naal). According to civil society contacts, police arrested at least 23 persons, including a Batticaloa-based freelance journalist, for sharing content that glorified the LTTE on social media platforms. According to a police spokesman, a Jaffna-based Catholic priest was also arrested on November 27 for violating a court order banning commemorations and for inciting racial tensions. The Jaffna Magistrate Court released him on bail on November 28.
On June 9, police arrested more than 50 protesters in Colombo who were protesting police brutality in foreign countries and in Sri Lanka. Police were criticized in traditional and social media for their rough handling of the protesters; one video appeared to show police forcing a woman headfirst into a police vehicle. On June 10, officials also arrested lawyer Swastika Arulingam when she inquired into the protesters’ arrest. She was charged with violating a court order banning protests and violating COVID-19 quarantine orders and released on bail the same day. The case was pending at year’s end.
The law provides for freedom of association but imposes restrictions on NGOs and criminalizes association with or membership in banned organizations. Christian groups and churches reported that some authorities classified worship activities as “unauthorized gatherings” and pressured them to end these activities. According to the groups, authorities claimed the groups were not registered with the government, although no law or regulation requires such registration.
During the year civil society reported allegations of surveillance and harassment of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and families of victims of rights violations, including repeated visits by state security services, who questioned organizations about their staff, finances, and activities. Human rights activists alleged unknown actors believed to be state security officials would call them, issuing threats, alleging staffers had supported terrorism, or suggesting the activists were being surveilled.
The Ministry of Defense handled government oversight of NGO operations, including inspections of NGO finances. In July, President Rajapaksa announced “NGOs will be taken into special attention under the new government formed after the General Election, specifically, how foreign monies and grants are received to the NGOs from foreign countries and further, activities of the international organizations will be observed.” In February the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security announced plans to regulate finances of NGOs and investigate NGOs registered under the previous government. NGOs reported they were subject to new, excessively burdensome, and redundant reporting requirements, including monthly reports at the district and national level on all project activities, finances, and beneficiaries. Additionally, NGOs receiving foreign funding reported that officers from the police Counterterrorism Investigation Division (CTID) visited their offices or called them in for lengthy and sometimes repeated interrogations related to their project funding. Government NGO Secretariat officials explained that the CTID investigations stemmed from Central Bank of Sri Lanka counterterrorist financing and anti-money laundering regulations and that the CTID was the correct statutory body to conduct such investigations. Some private individuals and businesses reported being subjected to similar investigations. Some NGOs reported their banks refused to release funds from their accounts unless the organizations provided information on NGO programs and staff to local authorities. Some expatriate staff of human rights NGOs had their visa renewals denied while their organizations remained under investigation.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Human rights organizations described an increase in military presence, including numerous military checkpoints, in the Tamil north, as a measure of the government’s COVID-19 response.
The country’s civil war, which ended in 2009, caused widespread, prolonged displacement, including forced displacement by the government and the LTTE, particularly of Tamil and Muslim civilians. The Rajapaksa government consolidated the IDP remit of the former Ministry of National Policies, Economic Affairs, Resettlement Rehabilitation, Northern Province Development and Youth Affairs under the State Minister of Rural Housing and Construction & Building Material Industries, but did not report any change in the number of IDPs or any new efforts to resettle them. The majority of IDPs continued to reside in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, and Batticaloa Districts in the north and east. While all IDPs had full freedom of movement, most were unable to return home due to: land mines; restrictions designating their home areas as part of HSZs; lack of economic opportunities; inability to access basic public services, including acquiring documents verifying land ownership; lack of government resolution of competing land ownership claims; and other war-related reasons.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights activists claimed refugees and asylum seekers were under scrutiny in their communities stemming from COVID-19 fears. As a result of airport closures due to COVID-19, no new refugees or asylum seekers arrived after March 18.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status. A 2005 memorandum of understanding allows UNHCR to operate in the country to conduct refugee registration and status determinations. UNHCR also facilitated durable solutions for refugees in the form of resettlement to third countries. The government relied on UNHCR to provide food, housing, and education for refugees in the country and to pursue third-country resettlement for them. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, had to rely on the support of NGOs for basic needs.
Access to Basic Services: The law does not permit refugees and asylum seekers to work or enroll in the government school system, but many worked informally. Refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR had access to free health care in state hospitals.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. Those cases that were pursued, however, focused on low-level officials and police officers accused of accepting bribes.
Corruption: Corruption remained a significant and continuing problem, including at the highest levels of government. International companies frequently reported requests for bribes on matters ranging from customs clearances to government procurement.
In September authorities arrested 18 Police Narcotic Bureau officers who, according to media reports, had assisted drug dealers in the transportation and distribution of drugs while earning large commissions. Following the arrests, the National Police Commission (NPC) requested the acting inspector general of police to submit a proposal to set up a new unit to monitor police officers attached to sensitive areas of the Department of Police. The NPC instructed that the unit supervise the asset declarations and bank accounts of officers in sensitive positions.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires all candidates for parliamentary, local government, provincial, and presidential elections to declare their assets and liabilities to the speaker of parliament. Some but not all candidates in parliamentary elections submitted their financial reports to the speaker, but authorities did not enforce compliance. By law, members of the public may access records relating to the assets and liabilities of elected officials by paying a fee.