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. In 2020 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 in November 2020. The military, under the Ministry of Defense (the president holds the defense portfolio), may be called upon to handle specifically delineated domestic security responsibilities, but generally without arrest authority. The 11,000-member paramilitary Special Task Force, a police entity that reports to the inspector general of police (IGP), coordinates internal security operations with the military. Civilian officials maintained control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces, primarily the police, committed numerous abuses.
Parliament passed the 20th Amendment to the constitution in October 2020. 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 Election Commission, by granting the president sole authority to make appointments to these bodies with parliament afforded only a consultative role.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; politically motivated reprisals against individuals in other countries; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression and media, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and prosecutions of journalists, and censorship; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement; serious government corruption; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including but not limited to domestic and intimate partner violence and sexual violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting members of national, racial, and ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, even if the laws were not enforced; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.
The government took minimal steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption, and there was impunity for both.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
According to a report from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Harm Reduction International, deaths in police custody increased during the year, with many incidents following a similar pattern. Press reported that while they were in custody for their reported involvement in organized crime, Melon Mabula (alias “Uru Jawa”) and Dharmakeethilage Tharaka Wijesekara (alias “Kosgoda Tharaka”), were shot and killed by police in May. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka issued a statement condemning the alleged killings, stating the state and police had a duty to ensure the safety and security of persons in their custody.
Journalists reported seven incidents of police killing. For example, on June 3, Tamil Chandran Vithusan, age 22, died in custody in Batticaloa one night after being arrested by the Intelligence Division. Vithusan’s family alleged he was beaten by officers at the time of his arrest. A local police team was formed to investigate his death. On the order of the Batticaloa Magistrate court, the body of the victim was exhumed for a second autopsy on June 21. The second autopsy report revealed signs of torture, the lawyer for the victim’s family told press in November. S.M. Ramzan, a 29-year-old Muslim arrested for drug possession on October 1, died the following day after police took him to Mannar General Hospital. The victim’s family alleged police assault led to his death, while police claimed he swallowed drugs at the time of the arrest and became unconscious during an interrogation. Another suspect arrested with the victim refuted claims of police abuse. The hospital and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka’s (HRCSL’s) Jaffna division began investigations after the death, with the former working on a postmortem report; investigations continued at the end of the year.
Press reported members of parliament (MPs) of the political alliance Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) protested in parliament on November 17 against the death of one of their supporters, who they claimed was the victim of police brutality when he attempted to travel from Panamure, Ratanapura, to Colombo to take part in a November 16 SJB protest. The SJB alleged that local police stopped the bus and, following an argument, arrested the victim on an earlier unrelated complaint, after which the police assaulted him in custody, leading to his death. The public security minister denied the allegations in parliament, claiming that the individual was not connected with the SJB protest and that he committed suicide inside the cell.
On June 16, the Court of Appeal granted bail to former director of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Sri Lanka Police Shani Abeyesekera, who had been in pretrial detention since July 2020 without charge for allegedly fabricating evidence in a 2013 case. Civil society considered his demotion and arrest in 2020 to be reprisal for Abeysekera’s investigations into several high-profile murder, disappearance, and corruption cases involving members of the sitting government, including members of the Rajapaksa family.
Lack of accountability for conflict-era abuses persisted, particularly regarding government officials, 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 that the government and the courts were reluctant to act against security forces, citing high-level appointments of military officials credibly accused of abuses and pardons of convicted murderers. During the year there was no significant progress on cases against officials accused of arbitrary, unlawful, or politically motivated killings.
On January 11, the Attorney General’s Department (AGD) informed the Batticaloa High Court that it would not continue with murder charges against Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal party leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, aka Pillayan, and five others for the 2005 killing of former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) member of parliament (MP) Joseph Pararajasingham. The court acquitted and released all six suspects in line with the AGD’s decision on January 13. Pillayan, a former Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) paramilitary leader turned politician with numerous allegations of abductions, child conscription, and other human rights abuses, was appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the cochairperson of the Batticaloa District Coordinating Committee in September 2020.
On April 12, the Colombo Magistrate Court released 11 of 15 suspects detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for an alleged 2017 plot to kill TNA Jaffna District MP M. A. Sumanthiran. The Colombo Crimes Division informed the magistrates that the attorney general determined there was insufficient evidence to proceed with cases against 11 suspects but that prosecutions would continue against the remaining four. Of the 11 released, four were Tamils and seven were Sinhalese, while the four held pending prosecution were Tamil, including one Indian national.
On May 5, the Jaffna Magistrate Court ordered the release of six suspects in the October 2000 death of Tamil journalist Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan, after the attorney general advised the court that the government would no longer pursue the case. A regular contributor to the BBC’s Sinhala and Tamil services and a correspondent for Colombo-based outlets, Nimalarajan was allegedly shot and killed by members of the Tamil Eelam People’s Democratic Party in his home in Jaffna.
On June 24, the president issued a special presidential pardon to former Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarian Duminda Silva, sentenced to death in 2016 for the 2011 killing of fellow SLFP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra during local elections. The Silva pardon came in the context of a petition signed by more than 100 government parliamentarians in 2020 requesting his pardon, based on claims that he was wrongfully convicted. On July 16, the president appointed Silva as the chairman of the National Housing Development Authority, which falls under the purview of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also the minister of urban development and housing.
Both Pillayan’s acquittal and Silva’s pardon elicited strong criticism from the legal community, the opposition, and international and domestic activists as arbitrary decisions undermining the independence of the judiciary and obstructing accountability.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. Disappearances during the war and its aftermath remained unresolved.
In February 2020 the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) received authorization to issue Interim Reports (which can be used to obtain a Certificate of Absence) to the relatives of the missing and disappeared. The Interim Reports and Certificates of Absence can be used by family members to legally manage the assets of missing persons and assume custody of children. The OMP opened an additional branch office in Kilinochchi in August and reported the total number of cases to be processed stood at 14,988 as of August 27, with 6,025 files covering cases from 2000 to 2021 prioritized for review for the remainder of the year. In October the OMP sent letters to families of the disappeared requesting them to submit additional documents as the material already submitted by the families was insufficient. The list of items needed included documents such as identity cards, birth certificates, photographs, marriage certificates of the missing persons, and copies of complaints regarding the disappearance submitted to police, the UN Working Group, and other commissions.
President Rajapaksa stated the country’s internal issue of the disappeared should be resolved through a domestic mechanism and invited Tamil diaspora participation, during a September 19 meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, according to the President’s Media Division. During the UN General Assembly, the president also outlined his administration’s intention to take immediate action on missing persons and expedite the issuance of death certificates.
Civil society actors and families of the disappeared suggested that issuing death certificates for the missing and disappeared, without investigation and disclosure of what happened to them, promoted impunity for those who were responsible for the disappearances, and they continued to protest in the north and east throughout the year demanding truth and justice. Those awaiting interim reports from the OMP said the government’s rhetoric did not match its actions, as the truth regarding many missing persons from the civil war remained unknown. According to civil society groups, the OMP did not issue any interim reports for several months after the new chairperson took office in late 2020. On November 23-26, the OMP conducted interviews for more than 100 applications in Mannar, Jaffna, and Kilinochchi Districts to issue Interim Reports. At year’s end the OMP stated it had issued 68 reports.
On August 4, the AGD announced its intent to drop charges against former navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda for alleged involvement in the abduction and disappearance of 11 individuals from Colombo in 2008 and 2009 (otherwise known as the “Navy 11” case), approximately two months after he informed the Colombo High Court Trial-at-Bar that he would no longer pursue charges. In 2019 Karannagoda was named as one of 14 defendants in the case, none of whom had been tried or convicted, for having known regarding the disappearances and failing to prevent them as navy commander at the time. Media reported the attorney general made his final determination on Karannagoda’s writ petition, which accused former CID inspector Nishantha Silva of pursuing the case against Karannagoda, for political reasons and allegedly to embarrass the current government.
Both international and local civil society organizations levelled criticism at the decision and demanded a justification from the attorney general. “This case has already been beset by obstacles in the Sri Lankan courts, and today’s decision pushes justice further out of reach for the families of victims. The attorney general’s department must explain the reasons for its decision, and Sri Lankan authorities must deliver truth, justice and reparations for all victims of enforced disappearance,” Amnesty International said in an August 4 statement. Families of the victims filed a writ petition with the Court of Appeals on October 13 to prevent the withdrawal of the indictment. During the initial hearing on November 11, the appeals court rejected the application. At year’s end the families were working on filing a fundamental rights (FR) petition with the Supreme Court.
On November 2, the High Court ordered the attorney general to inform the court in person or in writing if the AGD was withdrawing the indictment against Karannagoda, after the department informed the court that it would not move forward with the prosecution. When the case was taken up on December 3, the High Court adjourned the hearing for 2022. On December 9, Karannagoda was sworn in as governor of North Western Province, following the death of the previous governor. The president’s appointment of Karannagoda produced accusations from civil society that the government was further entrenching impunity.
As of December 14, there had been no progress on the trial of seven intelligence officers accused of participating in the 2010 disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a journalist and cartoonist for the news website LankaEnews.
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 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 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.
During the year the HRCSL documented 236 complaints of torture, assault, or both in addition to 64 complaints from prisoners. As of year’s end, the HRCSL was still processing complaints and stated these numbers could rise. In response to allegations of torture, the HRCSL carried out routine visits to detention centers. On July 15, parliament approved amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure Act to allow magistrates to visit remand prisons at least once a month, expecting them to check on the welfare of detainees and recommend bail if applicable. Due to the pandemic restrictions, these visits were restricted but resumed on October 15.
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 also 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 February 25, media reported that four police officers from the Peliyagoda police station allegedly beat Migara Gunaratne, a law college student and son of former Central Province governor Maithri Gunaratne, after mistaking him for his brother, a lawyer representing a prisoner in the station. The public security minister told the press he had instructed the IGP to investigate the incident, which lawyers and rights groups condemned, saying it demonstrated impunity for police “torture” and abuses.
On October 21, the Supreme Court ordered the IGP to launch a criminal investigation into allegations that former state minister of prison management Lohan Ratwatte threatened to kill PTA Tamil prisoners during a visit to Anuradhapura prison on September 12. The Supreme Court also ordered the commissioner general of prisons to transfer those affected out of the prison for their safety, in line with requests in the FR petitions filed by eight of the prisoners on September 30, which the Supreme Court agreed to take up in its October 21 decision. According to press reports, Ratwatte provided statements in investigations underway by the HRCSL and a retired high court judge on October 5 and October 19, respectively, but as of October 25, he had yet to cooperate with a separate investigation by the CID. On December 8, press reported that after an opposition parliamentarian claimed the report of the retired high court judge found him guilty, Ratwatte denied the report had been made public or submitted to the cabinet, although he did not confirm or deny whether the parliamentarian’s claim was true.
MP Shankkiyan Rasamanickam tweeted a video of a traffic police officer reportedly assaulting two Tamil youths on October 22. Rasamanickam tagged the public security minister in a social media post stating, “Police brutality continues in Batticaloa and will fall on the deaf ears of [the public security minister].” The minister responded to Rasamanickam, stating the officer involved had been suspended, and on October 24, the police spokesperson said the officer had been arrested, produced before a magistrate, and released on bail. Within 24 hours of the posting of the video, press reported a separate video emerged on social media showing an injured youth lying in an ambulance after a different police officer in Batticaloa reportedly assaulted him.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were poor due to old infrastructure, overcrowding, and a shortage of sanitary facilities.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a problem. According to officials, more than 32,000 persons were imprisoned in 2020 within a system with a capacity for 11,768. The government pardoned prisoners throughout the year and by September reduced the number of inmates to 22,000. According to civil society groups, as of December 3, there were more than 11,500 convicted prisoners in custody and more than 7,200 detainees in remand custody.
Inmates lacked adequate space to sleep and basic hygiene facilities. Authorities often held pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners together. In many prisons inmates reportedly slept on concrete floors, and prisons often lacked natural light or ventilation.
The HRCSL recommended in 2020 that the Department of Prisons address overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic by releasing detainees in pretrial detention due to their inability to pay bail, prisoners who were seriously ill, older than age of 70, and those convicted of minor offenses.
Civil society organizations and prison monitoring groups reported that “high-profile prisoners,” kept separate from the general prison population, included many Muslim detainees who were arrested after the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. Juvenile detainees ages 16 to 22 were processed at different centers (called “training schools”), and their cases were handled separately under the Youthful Offenders’ Act. As of August 26, a total of 30 children younger than age five were in the prison system staying with their imprisoned mothers.
Administration: The HRCSL, on its own initiative or after a complaint is reported, investigates complaints and refers them to the relevant authorities when warranted. The HRCSL reported it received some credible allegations of mistreatment from prisoners.
Independent Monitoring: The Board of Prison Visitors is the primary domestic organization conducting visits to prisoners and accepting complaints; it also has the legal mandate to examine overall conditions of detention. The Board of Prison Visitors functioned as an internal governmental watchdog and was established under the Prisons Ordinance. Its members are representatives of civil society who are otherwise unaffiliated with the government or other state institutions. The HRCSL also had a mandate to monitor prison conditions, and police largely respected their recommendations. Due to pandemic travel restrictions, the International Committee of the Red Cross was not allowed to conduct monitoring visits; visits resumed after restrictions were lifted in October. The HRCSL and Red Cross had access to all prisoners and detainees, regardless of the type of facility.
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 numerous reports that arbitrary arrest and detention occurred.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the government sometimes did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. Civil society organizations reported that passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution, which gave the president sole discretion to appoint all judges of the superior courts, undermined judicial independence.
Political opposition and civil society raised alarm over the government’s Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on Political Victimization report, which alleged the previous government had targeted members of the existing government and their loyalists with politically motivated investigations and prosecutions. The report further determined that most of the complainants against former government members and officials were subject to political victimization, including those accused in emblematic human rights and fraud cases such as those allegedly responsible for the abduction and disappearance of 11 individuals in 2008 and 2009, the killing of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, the killing of Sunday Leader newspaper editor Lasantha Wickremathunga, the abduction and torture of journalist Keith Noyahr, the killing of rugby player Wasim Thajudeen, and the killing of inmates in the 2012 Welikada prison riot.
Arguing that the government could use the report’s findings to pressure the attorney general and courts to end criminal proceedings against the existing government and its allies and take legal action against officials from the previous government, several opposition members and civil society representatives filed legal challenges. On January 29, the president appointed a Special PCoI (SPCoI) to implement some of the report’s conclusions, and in April he expanded the SPCoI’s mandate to encompass a review of all the report’s findings. On October 28, the president issued a government order granting a six-month extension to the SPCoI’s mandate, following an October 7 order granting the SPCoI authority to access telecommunications records of anyone under investigation without a court order. The PCoI generated domestic and international criticism that it was an attempt to interfere with the judicial system and advance impunity. Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on parliament to reject the findings of the PCoI.
The PTA permits government authorities to enter homes and monitor communications without judicial or other authorization. Government authorities reportedly monitored private movements without authorization. During the year civil society and journalists reported allegations of both online and offline surveillance.
On September 6, parliament approved a state of emergency, declared by the president on August 30, to control food prices and prevent hoarding amid shortages of some supplies. The emergency regulations enabled authorities to detain persons without warrants, seize property, enter and search any premises, suspend laws, and issue orders that could not be questioned in court, while allowing officials who issued the order to be immune from lawsuits. Opposition leaders and civil society organizations said the emergency declaration was not needed and that other laws could have been used to maintain essential supplies. The emergency regulations lapsed on September 30. Media and civil society reported that the government used the regulations to raid warehouses and seize food but did not indicate broader use of the emergency powers.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape and domestic violence, but enforcement of the law was inconsistent. The law does not criminalize rape of men but does criminalize “grave sexual abuse.” The prescribed penalties for rape are seven to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of at least 200,000 rupees ($1,000). For domestic violence, a victim can obtain a protection order for one year and request a maintenance allowance. The law prohibits spousal rape only if the spouses are legally separated.
Women’s organizations reported police and judiciary responses to rape and domestic violence incidents and cases were inadequate. The police Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Women and Children conducted awareness programs in schools and at the grassroots level to encourage women to file complaints. Police continued to establish women’s units in police stations. Services to assist survivors of rape and domestic violence, such as crisis centers, legal aid, and counseling, were scarce nationwide due to a lack of support.
According to the local NGO Women’s Development Foundation, cybersex crimes against women and children increased 300 percent following the onset of COVID-19. Local organizations widely said the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic and government lockdowns contributed to the vulnerability of at-risk groups and resulted in an increase in cybersex crimes, including online sex trafficking. Some organizations attributed the steep increase to the return of urban workers to rural areas and the increase in social media and smart phone usage while at home. Reports of gender-based violence rose substantially during the pandemic, with reports of survivors often being trapped indoors with their perpetrators.
In April rural women facing exorbitant interest rates from unregulated lenders held protests calling for the abolition of microfinance loans. Several microfinance institutions were reported to have hired village watchdogs to recover loans, and reports of demands for sexual favors in exchange for repayment were common. According to the Asian Development Bank, the incidence of violence against women remained high in rural and estate sectors.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C for women and girls. Some of the country’s Muslims historically practiced FGM/C, but it was not a part of public discourse until recent years, when media articles drew attention to the practice. There were no recent statistics on the prevalence of FGM/C in the country, although it was not believed to be common. A 2018 Ministry of Health circular banned medical practitioners from carrying out FGM/C, but since the practice was usually carried out by traditional practitioners known as Ostha Maamis, activists said the prohibition had little effect. Several civil society groups led mostly by Muslim women continued to campaign against FGM/C.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is a criminal offense carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Sexual harassment was common and was a particularly widespread problem in public transport.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health. They have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. No significant legal, social, or cultural barriers adversely affected access to skilled health care workers in attendance during pregnancy and childbirth or contraception. According to organizations working on reproductive rights, sexual and reproductive health services, in both the public and private sectors, were heavily curtailed during COVID-19 lockdowns except for deliveries and pregnancy-related services. Most pharmacies remained open during lockdowns and many contraceptives remained accessible.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence; however, NGOs reported police were often unaware of resources available, limiting referrals.
Discrimination: Women have equal rights to men under civil and criminal law, although societal discrimination existed throughout the country. Adjudication of questions related to family law, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, varied according to the customary law of each ethnic or religious group, resulting in discrimination. The National Police Commission increased the contribution of women in the police service by increasing the number of female officers at each post.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
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 NGO staff and former or suspected former LTTE members.
According to an October Amnesty International report, the Muslim community has experienced consistent discrimination, harassment, and violence since 2013. 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. As of October 14, according to civil society groups, more than 300 individuals (almost all Muslim) remained in detention in alleged connection with the Easter Sunday attacks (see section 1.d.).
On February 25, the government reversed the mandatory cremation policy for all COVID-19 victims, which had been in effect since March 2020. The policy violated Muslim religious tenants and the religious preferences of some Christians and Buddhists. International organizations reported the government used the COVID-19 pandemic to “stoke communal tensions” as well as to limit religious freedom. Some extremist Buddhist monks and other extremist groups continued to use hate speech on social media with impunity.
On October 26, President Rajapaksa appointed a 13-member presidential task force to implement his “One Country, One Law” campaign pledge and named general secretary of the Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena and Buddhist monk Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thero as chairman. The presidential task force initially included four Muslims but no Tamils or Christians. On November 6, the president limited the mandate of the task force to presenting proposals for a framework of the “One Country, One Law” concept. He also appointed three Tamil members, replacing two of the original members (one Sinhalese and one Muslim) who had resigned. As of December 7, the task force had held public consultations in the northern and eastern provinces. Civil society, opposition politicians, and representatives of ethnic and religious minority groups criticized the announcement of the task force and the appointment of Gnanasara as chairman, noting fears that the task force would “eventually turn towards targeting minorities.”
See sections 1-5 for incidents affecting racial and ethnic minority groups, and section 2.c. for issues impacting religious minority groups.
The country’s indigenous people, known as Veddas, reportedly numbered fewer than 1,000. Some preferred to maintain their traditional way of life, and the law generally protected them, although some faced land encroachment issues. They freely participated in political and economic life without legal restrictions, but some did not have legal documents.
Birth Registration: Children obtain citizenship from their parents.
Child Abuse: There was growing public concern regarding the high incidence of violence, including sexual violence, against children in the family and community, as well as incidents of online violence and bullying.
Despite successful efforts to reform the penal code, the basic criminal law, and other laws on child abuse, cruelty to children and their exploitation in trafficking and child labor persisted. Penalties vary based on the type and degree of child abuse, but trials tended to drag on for years.
Most child abuse complaints were received by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) via a toll-free 24-hour hotline. Teachers, school principals, and religious instructors reportedly sexually abused children. Civil society organizations working on children’s issues asserted children had insufficient mechanisms to report domestic violence or abuse safely. Although police stations were supposed to have an officer dedicated to handling abuse complaints from women and children, the government did not consistently implement this practice nationwide. The police’s Children and Women Bureau played a major role in investigating abuse cases, but depending on the severity of the case, some fall under the jurisdiction of the magistrates’ courts as outlined in the criminal procedure code. In these instances police file a formal complaint sheet and begin a judicial medical process. The attorney general files indictments for child abuse cases exclusively in high courts.
The NCPA reported no decrease in the number of child abuse cases throughout the pandemic and associated travel restrictions and lockdowns. The NCPA received nearly 4,000 complaints of child abuse and received information from 48,000 telephone calls from January to June 30. The Cabinet of Ministers granted approval to install video-recording units at hospitals throughout the nine provinces. The only evidence reporting unit for children was at the NCPA office in Colombo.
On February 12, the Supreme Court ruled that corporal punishment in schools was unlawful, after considering a petition filed by a 15-year-old who sustained permanent damage to his hearing when a teacher hit him across the ear in 2017. The court included both physical and mental harm in its definition of corporal punishment, which it deemed cruel and degrading, and referenced the country’s international commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the penal code and Education Ministry circulars in its decision, which was hailed as a landmark ruling by civil society.
See section 7.c. for other examples.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Civil law sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 18 for both men and women, although girls may marry at age 16 with parental consent. According to the penal code, sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 16, with or without her consent, amounts to statutory rape. The provision, however, does not apply to married Muslim girls older than 12. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, which applies only to Muslims, permits the marriage of girls as young as 12 with the consent of the bride’s father, other male relatives, or a quazi (a judge who interprets and administers Islamic law).
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, offering or procuring a child for child sex trafficking, and practices related to child pornography, but authorities did not always enforce the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.
On June 7, police arrested a 35-year-old suspect for procuring and trafficking a 15-year-old girl in Mount Lavinia, a suburb south of Colombo. The suspect allegedly “sold” the child online to third parties for a period of three months, utilizing websites linked to a “cyber shack” in Mount Lavinia. By July 23, police had arrested more than 41 individuals, including the victim’s mother, on child sex trafficking, child abuse, statutory rape, and other charges. A few suspects were released on bail. Police arrested the owner of the website and, according to the local office of Save the Children, the NCPA was closely supporting the child victim, who was receiving professional medical care and academic tutoring.
Displaced Children: IDP welfare centers and relocation sites exposed children to the same difficult conditions as adult IDPs and returnees in these areas.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on Parental Child Abduction at .
The Jewish population was very small. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Various laws forbid discrimination against any person with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel, other public transportation, and access to health care. In practice, however, discrimination occurred in employment, education, and provision of state services, including public transportation. Children with disabilities attended school at a lower rate than other persons. There were regulations on accessibility, but accommodation for access to buildings and public transportation for persons with disabilities was rare. Election assistance to persons with disabilities was limited in some instances due to conflicting COVID-19 social distancing regulations. Disability rights groups alleged the government had shown no interest in taking steps to implement further protections for persons with disabilities.
There are legal provisions for assisted voting of persons with disabilities. Anyone with a partial or full visual or physical disability may their ballot with the assistance of a person of their choice or the senior presiding officer if they are unable to be accompanied by an assistant. According to the Asian Network for Free Elections, most polling stations had steps for which wheelchair-bound voters required assistance.
Persons who provided HIV prevention services and groups at high risk of infection reportedly suffered discrimination. In addition, hospital officials reportedly publicized the HIV-positive status of their patients and occasionally refused to provide health care to HIV-positive persons.
The number of HIV-infected male patients between the ages of 19 and 25 appeared on the rise in the country, according to the National Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD)/AIDS Control Program of the Ministry of Health. The ministry reported in March that there were 4,073 HIV-positive patients in the country, but only 2,000 HIV-positive patients were registered with the National STD/AIDS Control Program and were receiving antiretroviral treatment.
According to the National STD/AIDS Control Program, as of August the country vaccinated most of its HIV-positive population older than age 30 against COVID-19. The program reported a decrease in the number of those getting tested for HIV over the past year and that it introduced an online self-assessment process through its website.
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. Those convicted of engaging in same-sex sexual activity in private or public face 10 years’ imprisonment. Although prosecutions were rare, human rights organizations reported police used the threat of arrest to assault, harass, and sexually and monetarily extort lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons. Antidiscrimination laws do not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Transgender persons continued to face societal discrimination, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and discrimination accessing employment, housing, and health care.
On March 1, on United Nations “Zero Discrimination Day,” the president tweeted, “Today is #ZeroDiscriminationDay. As the president of Sri Lanka, I am determined to secure everybody’s right to live life with dignity regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, physical appearance, and beliefs.” The president’s message was welcomed by many on social media, even as some pointed to a section of the penal code that criminalizes same-sex relations. Some human rights activists thanked the president, indicating he became the first head of state in the country to openly acknowledge the rights of LGBTQI+ citizens. Other advocates said in March that the LGBTQI+ community faced discrimination daily due to the country’s legal landscape and social stigmas. Human rights activists noted a pervasive culture of impunity among police heightened the risk of abuse for all marginalized groups including the LGBTQI+ community.
On August 3, cabinet cospokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told press LGBTQI+ rights are not constitutionally recognized but discussions continued, and that he was not aware of police actions against LGBTQI+ persons.
The Colombo chief magistrate dismissed charges against three men for homosexuality after the AGD informed police it would not pursue the case. One of the men, a Swedish national, had filed a complaint with the HRCSL stating that police officers subjected him to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.