Sri Lanka is a constitutional, multiparty democratic republic with a freely elected government. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president on November 16. Accredited domestic and international observers described the election as peaceful and technically well managed but noted that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources, and media bias affected the level playing field. Following the results of the presidential election, the prime minister and cabinet peacefully resigned, and a new cabinet was sworn in on November 22. The timeline for parliamentary elections in 2020 was pending at year’s end.
The Sri Lanka Police are responsible for maintaining internal security and are under the Ministry of Defense. The military, also 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 authorities generally maintained control over the security forces.
On April 21, suicide bombs killed 258 individuals. The attacks were the responsibility of the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), members of which had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. The following day the government declared an emergency under the Public Security Ordinance, deployed the armed forces domestically, and gave them arrest authority. During the emergency the government banned three Islamist organizations: the NTJ, Jamathe Millathe Ibrahim, and Vilayath As Seylani. The three Islamist groups remained banned after the emergency expired on August 22. President Maithripala Sirisena subsequently ordered the military to remain deployed across the country after the expiration of the emergency, although no longer with arrest authority. President Rajapaksa in turn extended the order on November 22.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings by the government; torture by government agents; sexual abuse; arbitrary detention by government entities; restrictions on freedom of expression, including unjustified arrests of journalists and authors, and limited social media blocking; widespread corruption; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, and the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct.
Often police reportedly harassed civilians, often with impunity, although the government took steps to investigate and prosecute some officials who committed human rights abuses. The government did not implement a mechanism to hold accountable military and security personnel accused of atrocities during the 1983 to 2009 civil war as called for in 2015 by UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1.
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, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. According to UN and civil society reports, intelligence operatives conducted domestic surveillance operations and harassed or intimidated members of civil society. During the emergency, following the April 21 attacks, the government banned face coverings such as the burqa, niqab, and full-face helmets, citing national security and public safety concerns. The ban on face coverings was briefly lifted when the emergency regulation lapsed; however, in late August, the cabinet passed legislation permanently banning the burqa, the niqab, and similar face coverings, after consultation with the Muslim community.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities restricted hate speech, including insult 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.
In April Kurunegala police arrested Shakthika Sathkumara, a 33-year-old novelist, under the ICCPR law. His short story, “Ardha,” which reportedly 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 after being remanded for four months. On July 29, Amnesty International declared Sathkumara a prisoner of conscience. At his criminal hearing on December 10, the court granted the government’s request for a continuance in the case until May 2020. His fundamental rights petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest was continued until June 2020.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Journalists in the Tamil-majority North and East, however, reported harassment, intimidation, and interference from the security sector when reporting on sensitive issues related to the civil war or its aftermath. They reported the military contacted them to request copies of photographs, lists of attendees at events, and names of sources from articles. They also reported the military directly requested that journalists refrain from reporting on sensitive events, such as Tamil war memorials or land occupation protests, and that they feared repercussions if they did not cooperate.
In May, after communal violence following the Easter Sunday attacks of April 21, the HRCSL issued guidelines that called for all electronic media institutions to exercise sensitivity when broadcasting news due to concerns over the Muslim community being unreasonably subject to unsubstantiated suspicion and disrespect.
On September 9, then president Sirisena brought the state television Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation under the purview of the Ministry of Defense. The Working Journalists Association of Sri Lanka and the Free Media Movement strongly condemned the decision. Two fundamental rights petitions, one filed by a civil society activist and one filed by a member of parliament, were pending before the Supreme Court.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports of harassment and intimidation of journalists when covering sensitive issues.
On April 20, police arrested and released on bail Shanmugam Thavaseelan, a correspondent of the English-language online newspaper the Tamil Guardian, following a complaint filed by the navy stating the journalist, who was covering a disappearances protest, assaulted and caused injury to a navy officer attached to the ‘Gotabaya’ Camp in Mullaitivu. Charges reportedly were that he had threatened and photographed protesters at an earlier disappearances rally.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a June statement, expressed alarm over a resurgence in police attacks on Tamil journalists and urged authorities to ensure that police cease the harassment of reporters. On May 27, Tamil daily Virakesari journalist Kanapathipillai Kumanan, who was covering a dispute between Hindu and Buddhist temples, was physically assaulted and verbally abused by the officer in charge of the Kokkilai police station. According to RSF, the May 27 violence against the reporter was the third reported attack on a journalist of Tamil origin during the year.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: On several occasions print and electronic media journalists noted they self-censored stories that criticized the president or his family. These 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.
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. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, the government imposed a temporary ban on several social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. The nine-day ban on social media was briefly reimposed May 13 after anti-Muslim riots.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
State university officials allegedly 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.
On November 9, the Jaffna University leadership endorsed the September 27 decision of the University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka (UGC) to debar K. Guruparan, the head of the Department of Law, from legal practice. Leaked letters from the Ministry of Defense to the UGC showed that Guruparan was debarred for pursuing habeas corpus cases filed in 2017 by three families regarding the disappearance of 26 youths in Jaffna allegedly involving the military. Plainclothes military intelligence personnel travelling with Attorney General Department representatives threatened the lawyers and families outside of the court.
In May the UGC removed the university’s vice chancellor, Jaffna Ratnam Wigneswaran, without cause or an inquiry. An affidavit in response to a fundamental rights petition filed by the chairman of the UGC at the Supreme Court showed that the removal was due to a complaint from the Directorate of Military Intelligence of the Army regarding Wigneswaran’s participation in an event called Thamil Amutham, where a reconstructed memorial monument carrying Tamil nationalist proclamations was unveiled within the university premises.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government restricted these rights in a limited number of cases.
At the conclusion of his visit to the country in July, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly Clement Nyaletsossi Voule observed that authorities applied laws in discriminatory ways, with Tamil protests and gatherings in the North and East disproportionately facing crackdowns. Although he noted that the country had a comprehensive legal framework governing the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, it was “scattered in different sets of laws and regulations which seem to be interchangeably enforced.”
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The constitution stipulates that the freedom of assembly may be restricted in the interest of religious harmony, national security, public order, or the protection of public health or morality. It 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 emergency regulations in force from April 22 to August 23, following the Easter Sunday attacks, granted the security services extensive powers to detain and question suspects without court orders for up to 90 days. Under the emergency, the government instituted nighttime curfews and curtailed freedom of movement, and it permitted the president to ban public assembly.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for freedom of association but 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 sometimes justified their actions, stating the groups were not registered with the government, although no law or regulation specifically requires such registration.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
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 civilians. According to the Ministry of National Policies, Economic Affairs, Resettlement and Rehabilitation, Northern Province Development and Youth Affairs, 25,889 citizens remained IDPs as of August 31. The large majority resided 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 work opportunities; inability to access basic public services, including acquiring documents verifying land ownership; and lack of government resolution of competing land ownership claims; and other war-related reasons. The government did not provide protection and assistance to these IDPs in welfare camps.
The government promoted the return and resettlement of IDPs by returning approximately 8,000 acres of military-seized land since 2015 and making additional state land available for landless IDPs. The military and other government agencies supported the resettlement of IDPs by constructing houses, schools, toilets, and providing other social services on newly released lands.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, and asylum seekers.
After the April 21 attacks, more than 1,600 Muslim and Christian refugees were forced to leave their homes in the wake of retaliatory attacks and seek protection in three welfare centers in Negombo and Pasyala. Local community members threatened to destroy the houses of Pakistani, Afghan, and Iranian refugees. The government, police, and security forces assisted UNHCR to ensure the protection of refugees. In the months following the April 21 attacks, most refugees who were not resettled outside of the country had returned to their rented residences.
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 facilitates 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 have access to free health care in state hospitals.