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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. 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.

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.

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