Amnesty calls for release of human rights lawyer held under anti-terror law

Colombo, Oct 16 (efe-epa).- The nonprofit Amnesty International (AI) on Friday called for the release of a prominent human rights lawyer, held without charges for over six months in Sri Lanka under its anti-terror law.

Hejaaz Hizbullah was arrested in April by the country’s Criminal Investigation Department under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), under which the authorities can hold a suspect for up to 18 months through multiple detention orders with a validity of 90 days each.

“The handling of Hejaaz Hizbullah’s case has trampled over a host of Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations, including the protection from arbitrary detention and unfettered access to legal counsel,” David Griffiths, AI’s Director of the Office of the Secretary General, said in a statement.

Calling for Hizbullah’s release, Griffiths underlined that “this draconian law must not be used to justify his unlawful detention,” and urged the Sri Lankan authorities to repeal the PTA.

The human rights watchdog observed that as per the detention orders, Hizbullah was being investigated for allegedly “aiding and abetting” one of the bombers who perpetrated infamous Easter bombings in 2019 – in which more than 250 people died and around 500 were injured – and for activities deemed “detrimental to the religious harmony among communities”.

“Hejaaz appeared for a case involving a property owned by the father of two of the bombers, and during this time he has made 20 calls between the years 2014-2019 to these brothers. But how can one plan a bombing with just few calls?” the lawyer’s sister Hasna Hizbullah told EFE.

Hizbullah has been involved in a number of important constitutional cases including a challenge against the dissolution of Parliament during Sri Lanka’s 2018 constitutional crisis.

Then-President Maithripala Sirisena had sparked off the crisis by appointing former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister before formally dismissing the incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The political reins of the country are currently in the hands of the Rajapaksa family, with Mahinda as prime minister and his younger brother Gotabaya serving as president.

Hizbullah has also represented clients in several human rights cases involving the arrest and detention of members of minority communities, such as that of a Muslim doctor accused of sterilizing thousands of Sinhala women in the aftermath of the Easter attacks.

He has also been an outspoken voice on issues of reconciliation, co-existence and minority rights, and has even challenged the mandatory cremation of Covid-19 victims for violating Muslims’ right to burial as per Islamic faith.

These cases, according to Hasna, made the young lawyer a political target.

She remarked that Hizbullah’s prolonged incarceration was “a political witch-hunt to suppress voices that speak against this government.”

Hasna added that her family is now forced to find evidence to prove that Hizbullah is innocent, stressing that it was “easy to come up with allegations but it is hard to disprove them.”

However, she expressed hope that Hizbullah would return home in time for the birth of his baby, due in early November, given that his second period of detention expires on Oct. 17. EFE-EPA


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