Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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.
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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government restricted these rights in some cases.
Freedom of Association
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.
f. Protection of Refugees
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 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
Both local and Indian-origin Tamils maintained that they suffered long-standing, systematic discrimination in university education, government employment, housing, health services, language laws, and procedures for naturalization of noncitizens. Throughout the country, but especially in the north and east, Tamils reported security forces regularly monitored and harassed members of their community, especially activists, journalists, and former or suspected former LTTE members.
The government failed to prosecute individuals and groups involved in vandalizing mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and homes after the May 2019 riots that followed the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. Some extremist Buddhist monks and other extremist groups continued to use hate speech on social media with impunity.
On May 19, Human Rights Watch stated the government used the COVID-19 pandemic to “stoke communal tensions” as well as to limit religious freedom. Human Rights Watch reported that authorities did not intervene or speak out when social media users falsely claimed Muslims were purposefully spreading COVID-19 and others called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses.
Since March the government, contrary to global health guidelines, forced Sri Lankans to cremate their dead during the COVID-19 pandemic, violating Muslim religious tenants and the religious preferences of some Christians and Buddhists. Four UN special rapporteurs wrote to President Rajapaksa condemning the burial ban in April. Government authorities violated patient confidentiality by disclosing the ethnic or religious identity of COVID-19 patients.