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Sri Lanka: Muslims Face Threats, Attacks

Sri Lankan security officers inspect vandalized shops owned by Muslims in


Minuwangoda, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
© 2019 AP Photo/Chamila Karunarathne

July 3, 2019
(New York) – Authorities in Sri Lanka should end arbitrary arrests and other
abuses against Muslims and appropriately protect the community from
violence, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 that killed over 250 people,
which was claimed by Islamist militants, Sri Lankan Muslims have faced an
upsurge in violations of their basic rights and assaults and other abuses from
Buddhist nationalists. Sri Lankan officials and politicians should stop
endorsing, ignoring, or exploiting hate speech and mob violence directed at
Muslims by members of the Buddhist clergy and other powerful figures.
“The Sri Lankan government has a duty to protect its citizens and prosecute
those responsible for the terrible Easter Sunday bombings, but it shouldn’t be
punishing the Muslim community for this crime,” said Meenakshi Ganguly,
South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s crucial for the authorities
to act swiftly to stop mob violence, threats, and discrimination against
Muslims.”
In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed Muslim victims of abuses,
activists, lawyers, and officials to document abuses against Muslims, often
with state complicity.
Since the bombings, the authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained
hundreds of people under counterterrorism and emergency laws. According
to lawyers and activists, the vast majority of arrests are under the Prevention
of Terrorism Act (PTA), a long-abused law that the government pledged to
the United Nations Human Rights Council to repeal. Lawyers said their
clients had often been arrested without any credible evidence of terrorist
involvement, for reasons including having the Quran or other Arabic
literature in their possession during searches.
The governmental Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found in May
that the government failed to protect Muslims during communal rioting.
Police have repeatedly failed to act properly or prosecute perpetrators. For
instance, the manager of a Muslim-owned business who was attacked said the
police did not make any arrests “despite plenty of CCTV footage to identify
the perpetrators.”
Officials have made little effort to discourage public campaigns by religious
figures that put the Muslim community at greater risk. On May 15,
Gnanarathana Thero, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior Buddhist monks, called
for the stoning to death of Muslims, and propagated an unfounded allegation
that Muslim-owned restaurants put “sterilization medicine” in their food to
suppress the majority Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate.
Government leaders, instead of fulfilling their duty to protect Muslim citizens,
have at times appeared to associate themselves with Buddhist nationalist
elements. Many stood by when nine Muslim cabinet and junior ministers felt
compelled to resign after the opposition accused them of supporting Islamist
militants. On May 23, President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara
Thero, the leader of the nationalist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) who has long been
associated with instigating deadly anti-Muslim violence, freeing him after he
had served less than a year of a six-year prison term for contempt of court.
Sirisena also ordered a ban on face coverings in public as one of a number of
emergency measures imposed following the Easter Sunday bombings, which
has led to the targeting of Muslim women even for using headscarves. One
activist, explaining that Muslim women face constant harassment, including in
government buildings and public spaces, said: “It is very difficult for them to
bear. Their dignity is challenged continually.”
The criminal law has also been invoked to arrest peaceful critics of Sri
Lankan Buddhism in violation of their rights to free expression.
The situation has caused mounting international alarm for the safety of
Muslims and other minorities. In her opening statement at the UN Human
Rights Council on June 24, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Michelle Bachelet said she was “disturbed by reports of anti-Muslim attacks”
in Sri Lanka, including “recent statements by some religious leaders inciting
violence [that] constitute worrying early warning indicators that should be
addressed.”
European embassies in Colombo issued a joint statement in June that actions
against Muslims are “undermining peace and reconciliation in the country.
Prejudiced and unsubstantiated allegations repeatedly published by media
serve only to fuel intolerance.”
A day after the resignation of Muslim cabinet ministers, the Organisation of
Islamic Cooperation said: “The lives and livelihoods of Muslims, including
their local stores and large business establishments, are threatened by the
prevailing conditions with unforeseen, dangerous consequences.”
The Sri Lankan government should ensure the prompt and impartial
enforcement of the law to protect the fundamental rights of all Sri Lankans.
Crucial for ending abuses over the long term is for the government
to implement its pledges to the Human Rights Council to ensure human rights
reforms, transitional justice, accountability, and reconciliation, Human Rights
Watch said.
“The ethnic violence and human rights violations that many Sri Lankans have
suffered are now being directed against Muslims,” Ganguly said. “The Sri
Lankan government needs to take a stand against discrimination and
intolerance, use the law to punish those responsible for abuses and protect,
rather than target, vulnerable people.”

For more information on how Sri Lanka’s Muslims have been targeted, please
see below.

Arbitrary Arrest and Detention


As of June 4, at least 2,299 people had been arrested since the Easter Sunday
bombings, according to the police. While most were later released on bail,
over 500 remained in custody.
Human Rights Watch spoke to several lawyers who between themselves are
representing hundreds of people. Most of those arrested have been Muslim
and the grounds for their arrest and detention are unclear. A senior lawyer
told Human Rights Watch: “Muslims have been arrested for having a Quran,
or even the picture of a ship’s wheel [similar to a sacred Buddhist symbol] on
their dress. The army picks people up and hands them over to the police. The
police book them without an investigation.

The authorities go slow in releasing people because they don’t want to be seen
as soft by ultra-nationalists.” He said they were being arrested “[o]n a mere
suspicion.” Several lawyers asked Human Rights Watch not to identify
individual cases they described for fear the authorities would penalize their
clients.
Most of the arrests have been under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which
allows long-term detention without charge or trial. The authorities have also
detained people under Sri Lanka’s International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, No. 56 of 2007, which is intended to implement
the ICCPR in domestic law. Section 3(1) of the act states, “No person shall
propagate war or advocate national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes
incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.” This provision has
been misused in several cases to detain to harass activists, journalists, and
others for expressing critical views.
Another law vulnerable to abuse is the Emergency Regulations (ERs),
imposed in the aftermath of the bombings but still in force, despite the
government’s claim that the security situation has returned to normal. The
Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations both provide for
lengthy periods of pretrial detention without needing to bring the detainees
before a court, and bail can only be granted by the high court.
Lawyers said there is inconsistency and confusion over which law is being
applied in any particular case. Often the detention orders that are required to
hold suspects under the PTA have not been provided to their lawyers. Where
these procedures have not been followed, the detention is arbitrary. “The
police themselves are unclear what powers they are using,” said one lawyer.
A partial list of 105 detainees that defense lawyers provided to Human Rights
Watch summarizes justifications given by the authorities for arrests,
including: “Keeping money at home”; “Talking in playground (Breaking
emergency law)”; “A post [he] had shared on social media 5 years back”;
“Having English lecturer docs”; “Arabic song in Laptop”; “Traveling to
Jaffna for job”; and “no reason.”
One lawyer said a Muslim family of 10 from Kiribathgoda was arrested after
a neighbor reported that they had cloth the same color as that used for
Buddhist monastic robes, apparently suspecting their intentions. The entire
family was held for several days, although they explained they sold the fabric.
The police released the family to a court after working hours, allegedly to
avoid scrutiny. “Police never shared any information. There were no court
reports,” said the lawyer.
Abdul Raheem Masaheena, a 47-year-old resident of Kolongoda, was arrested
on May 17, for wearing a kaftan decorated with an image of a ship’s wheel,
which police mistook for a Buddhist sacred symbol, the dharmachakra. In a
fundamental rights petition, Masaheena asserted that her arrest was arbitrary
and malicious, that she suffered degrading treatment in custody, and that she
had been “singled out and subjected to hostile inimical discrimination based
on both grounds of race and religion.”
Mohammed Thufail Mohammed Milhan has been in police detention since
May 5, in connection with material posted on his Facebook page. He filed a
petition in the Supreme Court on June 14, which asserted that: “No unlawful
activity has been disclosed whatsoever.”
Such police abuses have long been prevalent in Sri Lanka but have remained
unaddressed. In 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary
Detentions foundthat, “The right to personal liberty has yet to be respected by
law enforcement, security forces, judicial and other authorities,” that suspects
remained in detention indefinitely, and that rights to the presumption of
innocence and due process were yet to be fully recognized. These abuses have
recently surged, and the victims are overwhelmingly Muslim.
Mob Violence
In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, angry
crowds threatened and assaulted refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom
were Muslims from other South Asian countries. Around 1,400 were forced to
take shelter in unsuitable and crowded temporary accommodation for their
safety.
Several days of mob violence occurred in towns primarily across the North
Western province, in which Muslim-owned homes and businesses were
attacked and at least one man died.

An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that:


“There appeared to be no preventive measures taken although retaliatory
violence against the Muslim communities was a distinct possibility after the
terror attacks of 27 April.” The commission also found that villagers had
called the police “a few hours prior to the incident seeking protection, despite
which no preventive measures were taken.”
A Muslim man from Nikawaratiya in the North Western province, whose
shop was partially destroyed by mobs, told Human Rights Watch that
although the attack was anticipated, security forces did little to prevent it. “It
seems clearly that the police did not do anything to stop the violence,” he said.
“Two police officers were placed two or three shops away, for the protection
of the mosque in the local area. And they were there when they [the mob]
came and attacked the local shops, as shown by the photos and CCTV
footage.” He said he provided CCTV footage that led to the arrest of some of
the attackers, but that they were released after 14 days and have subsequently
made threatening phone calls to him.
A Muslim business owner from Puttalam said:
When we heard that a wave of attacks were happening against the Muslim-
owned businesses and Muslim neighborhoods, we reached out to Koswatta
police. They assured us that nothing would happen and not to worry. The
officer assured that they will send protection as well. But the police only
showed up at 7 p.m. when they finished burning homes and there was no use
of them showing up afterwards.
He said he provided the police with CCTV of those who attacked his property
and that this led to arrests, but that the suspects were released “in a matter of
a week or two.”
Police said they have made a number of arrests for the attacks on Muslims
and for spreading hate on social media. Some of those who were detained,
or who appear in video footage of the violence, are politicians or far-right
activists who have been implicated in instigating anti-Muslim violence in
recent years.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that the police had
inappropriately released suspects detained for mob violence and concluded
that this “clearly prevented equal protection of the law to affected citizens and
also to the public at large.” A lawyer handling cases against Muslims said
there was a discriminatory approach to law enforcement. “The unequal
application of law is thus: monks are above it and the Sinhalese are
indulgently treated. While the book is thrown at Muslims, those arrested over
mob violence are booked under penal code and bailed.”
Discrimination Against Muslims
In April, as part of the Emergency Regulations, Sirisena issued a ban on face
coverings, primarily affecting those Muslim women who wear a niqab, or veil.
While the authorities said this was necessary to protect national security by
allowing ready identification, the edict has contributed to a situation in which
Muslim women, including those not wearing a niqab, but rather a hijab, or
headscarf, have been excluded from public places, including government
offices, as well as harassed and sometimes arrested and detained.
On May 15, 17-year-old Zavahir Rimasha went to have her photograph taken
for her national identity card. She was wearing a hijab, which covered her
hair. Zavahir Rimasha was 8-months pregnant with her first child, and while
she was at the studio she was reportedly overcome by a moment of nausea.

When she covered her face with her handkerchief, another customer
complained that she had covered her face, and then called the police. She was
arrested under the Emergency Regulations and held in custody for over three
weeks until June 7, when she was granted bail.
The Human Rights Commission has said the regulation against face coverings
has led to Muslim women, even those not covering their faces, being denied
access to law courts and to government schools where they work as
teachers. Media reports also show that Muslim parents and children have
been denied access to government schools for wearing items of Islamic dress
such as headscarves.
A May 29 government circular further limited what women are allowed to
wear in public buildings, requiring all women to wear a sari or osariya
(Kandyan sari), although this is not a tradition common to all Sri Lankans.
(Men meanwhile are required to wear shirt and trousers.) These rules apply
to all staff and visitors to government offices. The commission concluded that
the rule is “irrational and arbitrary and is in violation of equal protection of
the law guaranteed by Article 12(1) of the Constitution.”
A woman who wears a headscarf from the North Western province, where
these issues have been particularly acute, told Human Rights Watch: “Why
are Muslim women at the receiving end? Their dress had nothing to do with
the heinous attacks.” She said since the government issued the regulations,
low-level officials and ordinary citizens have taken to discriminate against
Muslim women. “Since the circular got released, there were people from the
majority community at the forefront of implementing it right away,” she said.
“They are demonizing the cultural attire of Muslim women and turning
people against Muslim women.”
There have been numerous reports from several parts of the country,
including Puttalam in the west, and Batticaloa and Trincomalee in the east, of
Muslim women being effectively confined to their homes; harassed; or denied
access to hospitals, universities, public places, such as markets and businesses,
and places of employment.
On June 24, K.V. Susantha Perera, the chairman of the local government of
Wennappuwa, a town in Puttalam district, issued an order to prohibit
Muslims from trading in the local market, claiming that this was necessary to
“maintain a peaceful atmosphere” and that his decision had followed
complaints from non-Muslim traders and marketgoers. The Marawila
Magistrate Court has summoned him to explain his order.
The Human Rights Commission has also found lawyers in some
towns refusing to represent Muslim clients.
Freedom of Expression, Religion
Authorities have taken actions against Muslims and critics of Buddhism, Sri
Lanka’s majority religion, in violation of the rights to freedom of expression
and religion. They have carried out several criminal investigations under the
ICCPR Act, misusing the law to prosecute peaceful expression regarding
Buddhism, without a showing of incitement consistent with international
human rights law.
Shakthika Sathkumara, a 33-year-old novelist, has been detained since April
1. His short story, “Ardha,” which reportedly deals with issues of child sexual
abuse in a Buddhist monastery, angered members of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist
clergy.
A prominent newspaper columnist, Kusal Perera, is under investigation for an
article in the Daily Mirror titled, “From Islamic terrorism to marauding
Sinhala Buddhist violence.” Perera later stated on Twitter that Sirisena had
personally called him to say that he had intervened to prevent his arrest.
Dilshan Mohamed, a researcher and activist campaigning against violent
Islamic militancy, had publicly and repeatedly spoken against ISIS-inspired
ideas on Facebook for several years. Following the Easter Bombings, for
which the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, he was arrested and
accused of supporting ISIS on Facebook. He was charged under the
Prevention of Terrorism Act and section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act. The ICCPR
Act charges were later dropped and he was released from custody on June 7,
but the investigation under the PTA continues.
The government has announced it intends to introduce two new offenses
under the penal code to combat “fake news” and hate speech, with a
maximum penalty of five years in prison. These proposals have not yet been
published. However, Sri Lanka’s existing legislation is adequate to address
speech that incites to violence, discrimination, or unlawful acts. In view of the
current misuse of the ICCPR Act, there are serious concerns that these
proposed laws will be used to further constrain the right to free expression in
Sri Lanka.
Incitement Against Muslims
Sri Lankan authorities have failed to take appropriate action against those
seemingly inciting violence against members of the Muslim community.
On June 16, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior monks, Warakagoda Sri
Gnanarathana Thero, delivered a nationally televised speech in which he
propagated widespread but baseless claims that Muslim restaurants are
seeking to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate by putting “sterilization
medicine” in their food. “Don't eat from those [Muslim] shops. Those who ate
from these shops will not have children in future,” he said. “Some female
devotees said that they [traitors] should be stoned to death. I don't say this,
but what should be done is this.”
Analysts and leaders of the Muslim community describe a vast outpouring of
anti-Muslim hate speech on social media and in parts of the broadcast and
print media, often making similar unfounded claims that the small
Muslim population is plotting to overtake the Buddhist population – 70
percent of the country – in the coming decades. The hate speech includes
social media calls for Sri Lankan Muslims to be “erased,” and praise for
atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
On May 24, police in Kurunegela arrested Dr. Shihabdeen Shafi, a doctor
specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. The initial justification for his
detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was an investigation into
allegedly suspicious assets. However, as described in a fundamental rights
petition filed on his behalf and numerous media reports, a newspaper article
and social media posts then immediately insinuated that he had been
responsible for sterilizing thousands of Sinhalese women during caesarean
operations. The police then invited women to come forward to make
allegations against Shafi, who remains in custody. The police, who have
collected a large number of statements, have sought to give these allegations
credibility, which have been taken up by anti-Muslim preachers such as
Gnanarathana Thero. Shafi’s hospital colleagues and medical experts
have saidthe allegations are highly unlikely. On June 27, the police conceded a
court in Kurunegala that they had found no evidence against Shafi, who
remained in custody.
On May 23, Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara Thero, a prominent monk who is
leader of the Bodu Bala Sena or “Buddhist Power Force” and someone who
has long been implicated in inciting anti-Muslim violence. Gnanasara showed
his support for Athuraliye Rathana, a monk and member of parliament who
went on a hunger strike demanding the resignation of the nine Muslim
ministers in the cabinet and two provincial governors. Amid large
demonstrations in support of the demand,
Gnanasara threatened that there would be “a circus” nationwide if the
ministers did not resign by noon the next day, remarks that were widely
interpreted as a veiled threat of mob violence.
The Muslim community has been “terrified over the past two days,” said
Rauff Hakeem, one of the nine Muslim cabinet ministers and junior ministers
who stepped down on June 3. “Our people fear a bloodbath.”
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