Fishermens right to freedom of expression violated

 Distribution of a pamphlet relating to environmental damage to Negombo lagoon leads to criminal charges under incitement to riot

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

(November 30, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) About 50,000 members of the fisher folk community in the Negombo lagoon area have been protesting against a move by the government to initiate a tourism project which will require the reclamation of part of the lagoon to build a landing strip. The Negombo lagoon is rich with marine resources and has provided livelihoods for large sections of the Negombo fishing population for centuries. The inhabitants of the area have a thorough knowledge of the ecology of the lagoon and it is the fisher folk themselves who have protected this precious environment which, beside their livelihoods, also contributes to one of the most beautiful sites in Sri Lanka.

The fisher folk of Negombo are known to be peaceful people who almost entirely live through skills in the use of the marine resources for their survival. Their living habits, religious rituals and culture and their folklore are all related to the sea and particularly to the lagoon which the people consider as a great gift from God and nature.

Naturally any news of interference in the lagoon creates anxiety among the people. This is particularly so because in the recent decades attempts to promote tourism in the area has created environmental damage to the lagoon. Non-degradable and other waste items discarded in the lagoon is responsible for ongoing damage. The fisher folk have complained that such waste has created serious problems relating to their trade.

The recent move by the Rajapakse government to promote a tourism project naturally has resulted in serious protests in the area. Already thousands of villagers, as well as religious leader including Catholic priests in the area have aired their protests to the government.

As a part of such protests a group of around 60 persons distributed a pamphlet explaining the environmental problems that would be created by the proposed tourism project last Saturday (November 27). The pamphlet written in the most polite and lucid language merely explained the adverse consequences of this project. Many thousands of people received the pamphlet.

On the morning of the following day two trade union leaders of the Sri Lanka All Island Fishermen's Trade Union were summoned by the Officer-in-Charge of the Police Headquarters in Negombo, Inspector Somasiri Liyanage. The two trade union leaders, Marcus Fernando and Aruna Roshan Fernando visited the police station in answer to the summons. At around 12:30 Inspector Liyanage met the two men and told them that everyone in the police, including the higher ranking officers is disturbed by the distribution of the pamphlet. The two trade union leaders explained that the pamphlets merely contained some information and it was within their legitimate rights to share such information with the people. They also explained that in Negombo the newspapers are distributed and the radio and television are listened to by the people and these are just normal activities which the people are accustomed to.

However, Inspector Liyanage told them that they had committed an offense under Section 150 of the Penal Code and they had conspired against the government of Sri Lanka and were trying to incite people to overthrow the government. The trade unionist denied and dismissed the charge as ridiculous and baseless.

Inspector Liyanage ordered the two trade unionists to be taken to a police cell of the headquarters' office. In this cell there were already about 20 persons brought for various charges and some of them complained that they had been there for months. It was an overcrowded and filthy cell and the toilet was within the cell itself. The people pleaded with the two men to bring the issue of their miserable existence in this filthy cell to the notice of the authorities.

Sometime later a statement was recorded from the two men and they were then returned to the cell. Later they were taken to a magistrate and by then a lawyer had arrived at the magistrate's residence to represent them. They found that they were charged under Section 150 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code which reads as follows:

150.Whoever maliciously or wantonly, by doing anything which is illegal ,gives provocation to any person intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause the offence of rioting to be committed, shall, if the offence of rioting be committed in consequence of such provocation, be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year , or with fine , or with both; and if the offence of rioting be not committed , with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.

After listening to the legal submissions by the lawyer the magistrate granted bail to the two trade union leaders and asked them to appear in court later for trial.

The Asian Human Rights Commission expresses shock and dismay at this blatant violation of the freedom of expression of the two trade union leaders and the others who participated in the peaceful distribution of a pamphlet relating to the environmental damage that will be caused by the tourism project. The Sri Lankan Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression and the freedom to impart information and the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has, over and over again held that this right should not in any way be violated. That action of the police inspector, Somasiri Liyanage was in blatant violation of this right.

The arrest, detention and the charging of the two trade union leaders is illegal and the AHRC calls upon the Inspector General of Police to withdraw the charges forthwith.

The charging of persons under Section 150 of the Penal Code relating to incitement to riot under the circumstances of this case is ridiculous, absurd and senseless. The particular police inspector has demonstrated complete ignorance of the law in charging these two men for incitement to riot for the mere distribution of a pamphlet. This police officer's conduct should be subjected to inquiry and his fitness to hold the position of inspector should be seriously examined in the light of such complete ignorance of the law as demonstrated in this instance.

The Inspector General of Police should also immediately send senior officers to look into the state of the police cell inside the police headquarters in Negombo. The allegation that about 20 persons are being held in this small cell and its filthy condition requires an immediate investigation. The allegation that persons are being kept for long periods against the law also needs to be inquired into. The IGP must take action to close down this police cell and to provide better facilities for persons held in custody. According to allegations the present conditions amount to cruel and degrading treatment which is against the Sri Lankan Constitution.

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