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Sri Lanka’s virus curfew illegal: rights commission

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s nation-wide curfew to contain the coronavirus had been imposed illegally, the independent Human Rights Commission has said in a decision that could impact thousands of prosecutions.

The panel which has wide powers to investigate rights abuses said it received a large number of complaints of wrongful arrests during the 24-hour curfew period from March 20 to May 27.

Police had arrested 65,930 people for allegedly breaking the curfew and more than a third of them have already been prosecuted, police said adding that they have also seized 18,614 vehicles from curfew violators.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka said the curfew had no legal basis although police used an 1897 quarantine law to restrict movement of people to prevent the spread of the virus.

The quarantine and disease control ordinance did “not confer wider enough authority to impose countrywide curfew as a precautionary measure,” the commission said.

It noted, however, that restricting of peoples’ movements was necessary to deal with COVID-19, but that it should be done lawfully and within Sri Lanka’s international obligations to uphold rule of law.

The Commission’s statement decision could have consequences for those already facing prosecution. It also contradicted a ruling by a magistrate in Gampaha who had previously upheld prosecutions of curfew violators.

The Commission also noted that notices of imposition of curfew had been issued by the President’s Media unit, but they were not available in the public domain.

“It is essential that there is transparency in the declaration of curfew and all other forms of restriction of movement. All declarations of curfew must be formally made and must be available in the public domain.

“Currently, the Presidential Media Division announces the imposition and withdrawal of curfew. Although we are made to understand that curfew is currently declared by the police purportedly under the Quarantine and Prevention of Disease Ordinance, the declarations are not available in the public domain,” the Commission said.

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It said the curfew could be regularized by an order of the President under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO).

“This is the most authoritative manner in which curfew could be declared. A pandemic calls for decisive action; this option would be the stronger one also taking into account the extent to which rights of the public are affected by continuous restrictions on right to movement. It also must be noted that a declaration of a state of emergency is not required to use powers under Section 16 of the PSO.”

Sri Lanka eased the 24-hour curfew in the capital and the neighbouring district of Gampaha on May 27, but a nation-wide night curfew is maintained.

The country has reported 11 virus deaths and 1,880 infections.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka report can be accessed here: http://www.hrcsl.lk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/curfew.HRCSL-recommendation-final.pdf.