Human Rights Watch: Security agencies shutting down civic space in Sri Lanka

Citing 15 Sri Lankan human rights activists working in different parts of the country, Human Rights Watch raised concern yesterday over allegations of surveillance, harassment, and threats against human rights activists and journalists.

Since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president in November 2019, the rights watchdog said in a statement, there has been a “rapid closing of civic space and freedom of expression”.

In its statement, HRW referred to what it called consistent accounts of increased surveillance and pressure from security agencies.

“Several [activists] said that intelligence officials had asked activists and victims about their advocacy plans ahead of the current United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session, which began on February 24, 2020 in Geneva,” the organisation said in a statement.

“We fear that international lobbying and travel to Geneva may not happen in future because of this situation,” the statement quoted an unnamed activist as saying.

HRW South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly said that since the return of the Rajapaksas to power, a state of fear is being re-established in Sri Lanka.

“The activities of the government’s security apparatus are evident in some violent attacks and public death threats against activists and journalists, but also in equally dangerous actions happening out of sight,” she said.

HRW noted with concern that the president has placed a number of “important civilian agencies” under the Defence Ministry, including the police and the NGO Secretariat.

“He has appointed a serving military officer as head of the civilian intelligence agency and a retired general, Kamal Gunaratne, who is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as defense secretary,” it said.

The HRW statement also highlighted physical assaults and death threats on journalists perceived as critical of the government.

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“Security officials have searched media offices. The Defence Ministry announced on January 24 that it had drafted a new cybersecurity law to prevent people from publishing ‘defamatory posts’ on social media. The proposals have not yet been published,” it added.

Quoting a human rights activist, HRW said: “Everything has shifted into a critical situation. After the election, military activities including monitoring and inquiries have increased. They are following us. That is a huge threat for human rights groups.”

A different activist said, according to HRW: “We collected stories and documents. Now we’ve stopped everything. We did a lot of work. Now, zero.” A third activist said she so constantly feels under surveillance that intelligence officers “might even be in the next seat on the bus.”

“Police and intelligence officers have sought to instil fear in rights groups by visiting their offices and demanding staff lists, home addresses, and other personal details. One activist said the authorities came to his office demanding this information, but then revealed that ‘they knew already everything. My personal details, they knew it. This is part of the intimidation (sic)’,” the statement said.

A representative of a group looking into alleged white van abductions was quoted by HRW as saying: “It is in question what will happen to me and my staff.” Another activist said, “I am even more scared because the kind of inquiry that has been happening is about people’s families, so that is even more frightening than if they are asking about our official activities.”

The intelligence agencies have also begun to target the financial and administrative records of nongovernmental organizations over the last five years, and especially details of funding from donors abroad, the rights body further said, adding that activists fear the authorities will allege accounting errors as a pretext to shut them down or to bring criminal charges.

Several human rights groups based in eastern Sri Lanka, it said, have been summoned for questioning in Colombo by the police Terrorist Investigation Department (TID).

One human rights activist said, according to the statement: “In the investigation they told us, ‘You have used money you received from abroad for terrorist activities in Sri Lanka. You are involved in terrorist activities, that is why you have been called for investigation.’”

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