COLOMBO: An international human rights group says Sri Lanka’s government is using emergency laws to harass and arbitrarily detain protesters who are seeking political reform and accountability amid the island country’s economic crisis.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Sri Lanka’s military sought to curtail protests through intimidation, surveillance, and arbitrary arrests of demonstrators, activists, lawyers and journalists since President Ranil Wickremesinghe took office last month.
“The Sri Lankan government’s crackdown on peaceful dissent appears to be a misguided and unlawful attempt to divert attention from the need to address the country’s urgent economic crisis,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director.
Sri Lanka is bankrupt, having announced that it is suspending repayment of its foreign loans pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package.
“Sri Lanka’s international partners should be clear that they need to be working with a rights-respecting administration to address Sri Lanka’s deeply rooted economic problems,” Ganguly said.
Sri Lanka’s Parliament approved a state of emergency on July 27.
The decree gives the president the power to make regulations in the interest of public security and order.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sri Lanka is in a moment of challenge and crisis but has an opportunity to create a more democratic and inclusive government.
Blinken made the remarks on Thursday in Cambodia at the start of a meeting with his Sri Lankan counterpart Ali Sabry.
Sabry said his country appreciates the US role in securing support from the International Monetary Fund.
The two were meeting on the sidelines of a regional gathering in Cambodia. In a speech to Parliament on Wednesday, Wickremesinghe promised leniency for those who took to violence unknowingly or at the instigation of others.
He also promised to punish those who broke laws willfully.
Some of those arrested are accused of clashing with security forces and encouraging people to break into Parliament.
Wickremesinghe’s predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country after protesters stormed his official residence and also occupied many key state buildings including the president’s office, prime minister’s office and the prime minister’s official residence.
Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament to complete Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024.
Officials have also seized the passport of a British woman who posted about the protests on social media.