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Stop military tribunals – respect due process

"Stop military tribunals – respect due process – stop IGP from undermining the rule of law – ensure credible inquiries into all allegations of human rights abuse"
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A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

(February 11, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) In recent weeks the government of Sri Lanka has engaged in alarming attempts to repress the avenues of the political participation of the opposition and the entire population in general.

One of the most popular politicians to emerge in recent times, the former military commander General Sarath Fonseka, was arrested by the military and is currently detained in the custody of the navy. The case is being pursued in military courts, thus avoiding the country’s ordinary courts and depriving him of due process. This is also depriving the public of information on his case. There are alarming developments taking place:

The government uses goon squads assisted by the police to attack the protestors against this arrest, who demand restoration of democracy and the release of the detained political leader;

New regulations are published in gazettes about expanding the detention facilities in military camps and other places with the view to hold large numbers of detainees. This is perceived as a preparation for the large-scale arrest of opposition leaders and supporters during the period of the parliamentary elections;

A large number of opposition supporters during the last presidential election are being detained under emergency and public security laws and are deprived of the protection available under the normal legal procedures in Sri Lanka;

A heavy media campaign is being carried out to create the impression that the opposition planned violence and killings if they won the last elections. This is perceived as an attempt to create justification for the government’s own repression of the media and the opposition; and

One journalist has disappeared, another editor is detained under national security laws, the media is threatened and the police fail to conduct inquiries into allegations of these harassments.

The overall situation created under these circumstances is one of intimidation and political tension. The Secretary General of the United Nations has made a request to avoid further tensions in the country. However, there does not seem to be any positive response on the part of the government to this request.

What is most disturbing is the failure of the Inspector General of Police and the Police Department to carry out their duty in receiving complaints and investigating into all allegations. Throughout the country, the police turn a blind eye to the harassment of the opposition by government supporters.

As has been seen in the demonstrations in Colombo, Galle, Umpara and Kandy, the police gave cover to goon squads and used the presence of the goon squads as a pretext to attack the peaceful protestors and use tear gas to disperse them.

The combination of the police and the goon squads is not a new factor in recent times. On this occasion, the police even went to the Magistrate Courts in Colombo, requesting an order from the court to ban the protest under the pretext that another group of persons will demonstrate against the protestors and that there may be clashes. The magistrate in Colombo rightly rejected this application. This clearly showed that the police were acting under political instructions and engaging in the misuse of their powers in order to disrupt legitimate protests by the opposition. The emergence of the police and the goon squad combination is a disturbing sign and could easily lead to encouragement of criminal elements to engage in criminal activities against peaceful protest.

The failure of the policing system was also demonstrated in a report issued by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) which revealed findings by a committee that despite many interventions by courts and other attempts to stop the use of torture by the police, there has been no decrease.

The specter of the military tribunals being used, the detention centers being increased and the police and the goon squads acting openly against peaceful protestors all point to a serious attack on democracy, rule of law and human rights in Sri Lanka. A parliamentary election is set to take place in the midst of such abuse of power. When this is combined with the suppression of the free media and the unscrupulous use of the state media for political purposes, there is hardly any protection for people to participate in public life. The denial of the people’s right to participate in public life is the most alarming direction in which the situation in Sri Lanka is developing now.

It is in these circumstances that the civil society and the international community must make their interventions on an urgent basis before the situation deteriorates even further. The release of the opposition politician, Sarath Fonseka, from military custody and stopping all attempts to use military tribunals should take priority in the actions of civil society and in the international community. The due process of law should prevail and the authority of the country’s ordinary courts should be preserved. The degeneration of the policing system should be addressed and the police capacity for acting within the rule of law and maintaining law and order within the framework of law should be restored.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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