Torture, abduction and ethnic violence continue in Sri Lanka
The overall situation for civil society organisations has improved since the change of government in 2015. Human rights groups are now able to operate freely, as state-sponsored surveillance, smear campaigns, death threats, disruption of activities, and criminal investigations into their funding and activities have mostly ended. CSOs are now regularly consulted on policy formulation and able to speak freely in international fora.
Despite these improvements, people living in the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka still experience infringements of their rights. These predominantly minority Tamil areas were on the front lines of Sri Lanka's civil war and were previously controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) before their defeat by Government forces in 2009. In a recent report released on 10th June, exiled victims of torture during Sri Lanka's civil war campaigned to give anonymous testimonies to international judges about abuses they suffered at the hands of the state. International pressure is growing on Sri Lankan authorities to conduct a proper investigation into war crimes during the end of the conflict in 2009 and to ensure Tamil minorities are able to give evidence without fear of reprisals.
'White van disappearances', or enforced disappearances, perpetrated by the state became synonymous with post-war Sri Lanka and are still continuing today. In early June, Velauthapillai Renukaruban a British-Sri Lankan visiting his family home in Jaffna, Northern Sri Lanka, was abducted by security forces. Renukaruban was beaten, then arbitrarily detained for several days and his injuries were consistent with torture. Local and international groups were quick to point out that Mr. Renukaruban's case only gained attention because he was a British national.
On 23rd June, security forces dispersed protesting students in using water canon, tear gas and baton charges in Kollupitiya Junction. In a separate incident, Sinhalese and Tamil students clashed at Jaffna University, in Northern Sri Lanka leaving 10 people injured and forcing the campus to close for two weeks. Police, military intelligence services and troops from the military special task force were all reported to have been deployed, sparking fears of further state harassment to Tamil student activists. As ethnic tensions rise, questions continue to be asked about whether the authorities are doing enough to promote reconciliation between communities.
In the past six months, there have been a variety of protests on other issues across Sri Lanka - including opposition to a port city project; the privatisation of universities; justice for displaced and missing persons and the removal of farmers subsidies.
Recent developments show that although some progressive steps have been taken, progress towards full respect for free expression in Sri Lanka is not proceeding on a linear trajectory. In a positive move, on 24th June Parliament passed a Right to Information Bill which enables citizens to request information concerning public institutions. Many local groups welcomed the bill, hoping that the new legislation will help to prevent future cases of government corruption.
However, on 2nd June, journalist Freddy Gamage was attacked by two unidentified assailants after a Municipality Council Meeting; Gamage had previously received death threats for exposing corruption perpetrated by Sri Lankan Members of Parliament. While there has been a significant improvement regarding the protection of journalists under the new government, Gamage's case illustrates the dangers still facing journalists in Sri Lanka.
In another retrograde step for free expression, the government instructed all news websites to register with the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media before 31st March. Local civil society groups decried the move as a step backwards for free expression and conveyed concerns that the registration of news websites could lead to an increase in self-censorship in the media.