ECONOMYNEXT – Detained Sri Lankan lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah’s human rights work and legal practice may have been conflated with terrorism and his detention may be used to prevent him from further engaging in ongoing human rights cases, Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said Tuesday (07).
Referring to a joint communication issued on July 08, 2021, signed by seven United Nations (UN) special rapporteurs that included herself, Lawlor sought clarification on the circumstances of Hizbullah’s arrest and subsequent detention.
“We are deeply concerned by the vague terrorism charges brought against Mr Hizbullah and believe that his previous human rights work and practice of his legal profession may have been conflated with terrorism. We find this particularly concerning in light of the changing focus of the investigation and allegations that minors and clerics have been pressured to give false statements.
“We are further concerned by the reported irregularities in due process partly facilitated by the PTA which allowed Mr Hizbullah to be held without charge for almost a year with severely restricted access to lawyers. We find additionally concerning that the COVID-19 pandemic has been used on multiple occasions as an apparent pretext of bypassing due process, reportedly without sufficient notice or explanation, leaving Mr Hizbullah for a prolonged period of time in adequate prison conditions,” the rapporteurs said in their July 08 communication.
The lawyer was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on April 14, 2020, and was detained under provisions in the PTA for allegedly “aiding and abetting” the 2019 Easter Sunday bombers and for engaging in activities deemed “detrimental to religious harmony among communities.”
The PTA permits authorities to detain a suspect without any charges for 18 months.
On July 14 this year, Amnesty International declared Hizbullah a prisoner of conscience.
In the joint communication, the rapporteurs sought clarification on the factual and legal grounds for Hizbullah’s arrest and detention, how the charges are in line with the definition of terrorism as elucidated by international law norms, the rationale for prevoiusly preventing Hizbullah from confidential access to his lawyers, and the conditions in which he is being held and whether they are in line with the Mandela Rules.
The rapporteurs also sought information on measures in place to ensure that witness statements are recorded freely and not under duress, measures taken to ensure the safety of Sri Lanka’s human right defenders and steps taken to tackle allegations of rising hate speech and discrimination against Muslims and other minorities.
“As previously communicated, the evidence allegedly incriminating Mr Hizbullah was related to phone calls he made with a suicide bomber at the Easter Sunday attacks. It has been alleged that Mr Hizbullah made 14 phone calls to this individual over a period of five years, being his legal representative in civil property dispute cases.
“Mr Hizbullah later faced accusations that he radicalised children at the charity, Save the Pearls. He is the only member of the organisation that has been arrested. Since his arrest, leading figures of the organisation have sworn affidavits attesting to the falsity of rumours that children were radicalised,” Lawlor said in her statement on Tuesday.
During the first nine months of his arrest and detention, claimed Lawlor, Hizbullah was permitted just four visits from his legal counsel, all of which were supervised by the authorities.
“His lawyers filed a petition to the Court of Appeal, which was granted on 15 December 2020, allowing him to speak with his lawyers confidentially for the first time since his arrest. His access to lawyers is still reportedly limited and he can speak only occasionally to his family over the phone,” she said.
“Mr Hizbullah was scheduled to appear in court on 18 March 2021, however this was later postponed. He was due to appear in court again on 11 June, but he was reportedly not produced in court on the day, which authorities claimed was due to the new wave of COVID-19 infections in the country,” she added.
Lawlor further claimed that allegations have emerged that some children who received Save the Pearls scholarships have been taken to the CID premises, threatened, and forced to sign false statements.
“There are reports that members of the clergy have also reportedly been pressured to falsely testify against Mr Hizbullah,” she claimed.
“Mr Hizbullah is being held in a cell measuring six feet in length, three feet in width and seven feet high. He reportedly has no bed and is only permitted to leave his cell to use the bathroom. There is reportedly no ventilation in the cell,” she added. (Colombo/Sep09/2021)