A Sri Lankan government order that allows two-years of detention without trial for causing “religious, racial, or communal disharmony,” will be used against the country’s minorities, a rights group has claimed.
The Prevention of Terrorism (De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No. 01 of 2021, was issued on March 9. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that it expands the “draconian and abusive” Prevention of Terrorism Act.
The rights group said the regulation will allow the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to more easily target religious and racial minorities, in violation of their basic rights.
“The Sri Lankan government has added a new weapon to its arsenal of abusive laws, putting religious and racial minorities at greater risk of torture and prolonged detention without trial,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW in a statement.
The rights group said the regulation broadly allows the authorities to detain and “rehabilitate” anyone who “by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations” causes the commission of violence or “religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups.”
Instead of being tried, the suspect faces detention in a “reintegration center” for up to one year. HRW said the defense minister, currently President Rajapaksa, is empowered to extend the detention for a second year.
HRW said that the Rajapaksa administration has used the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other laws to target members of minority communities, especially Muslims and Tamils, while taking no action against those inciting violence and discrimination against minority groups.
Sri Lanka’s relatively small Christian community has also been targeted. “You can’t even write anything on Facebook,” a Christian activist told HRW. “Anything could happen. We don’t feel safe to express ourselves. They could lock you up under any pretext.”
Three days after the regulation being issued, the public security minister, Sarath Weerasekara announced plans to ban Islamic face coverings, which he claimed was justified on “national security” grounds. He also said he intended to shut down over 1,000 Islamic schools in the country.
For nearly a year, the Rajapaksa government imposed a policy requiring cremation, instead of burial, for anyone who died with COVID-19, in violation of Muslims’ religious rights. The rights group said that the government claimed the policy was necessary to protect public health although it had no medical basis. It was abandoned in March, after considerable domestic and international pressure.
Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of the island nation’s 22 million people while 12 percent are Hindus, mostly from the ethnic Tamil minority. Seven percent are Christians. The majority are Sinhalese Buddhists.
The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva is currently considering a resolution that would strengthen monitoring of Sri Lanka’s worsening human rights situation and create a mechanism to collect and analyze evidence of violations for use in future prosecutions, HRW said.