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 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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.
Detainee’s 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.