Sri Lanka stifles dissent to block justice for war crimes, Amnesty says

Colombo, Feb 18 (efe-epa).- Sri Lanka has launched a new crackdown to stifle dissent and hinder justice for the crimes committed during the nation’s civil war, says an Amnesty International report released Thursday.

The report alleges that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s concerted effort to target human rights bodies, media, lawyers, political opponents, and law enforcement officers is to silence the voices opposing it.

“Over the past year, the Sri Lankan government has radically transformed the country’s civic space, which is now defined by an increasing hostility and intolerance towards dissenting voices,” said David Griffiths, Director of the Office of the Secretary-General at Amnesty International.

The report notes that the authorities, in a year after a new government came into power in 2019, have escalated the crackdown into a full assault on dissent.

“A climate of fear and censorship has quickly expanded around the country, targeting key voices critical of the government and human rights defenders,” it says.

The report says that the new government in its early months “presented an additional cover for greater control and repression” in the garb of controlling the outbreak of the Covid-19 global pandemic.”

“In April 2020, the police announced that legal action would be taken against those criticizing the government’s Covid-19 response under the guise of curbing the spread of misinformation,” the report points out.

Within a month of its coronavirus-induced lockdown, 17 people were arrested allegedly for sharing “fake news”, and 53 others were arrested for taking part in a ‘Black Lives Matter’ public protest.

The rights group alleged that families of forcibly disappeared people in the war-affected north and the east of the island faced obstructions in carrying out memorialization activities.

The report highlights the government’s treatment towards minorities and the forced cremation of people who died with Covid-19 on the pretext that the burial per Islamic tradition posed a public health risk.

The forced cremation denied Muslims, nearly 10 percent of the country’s 22 million population, their religious rights.

The Amnesty report says peaceful protest against the practice “faced repression from intelligence agencies” even as state-sanctioned gatherings went on unabated amid a ban on assemblies seen as critical of the government.

The report also notes that the government had promoted or appointed to new administration positions many members of the armed forces who were involved in the last phase of the war marked by grave violations of international human rights laws.

One such controversial appointment involves Gen. Shavendra Silva, who was implicated in war crimes and banned entry to the United States.

He is currently the head of the body that is looking over the Covid-19 situation in the country.

President Rajapaksa established a commission to investigate allegations of political victimization by the previous government in January last year.

The commission “intended to whitewash criminals and label them instead as victims of political persecution” has interfered in ongoing rights violations cases, including enforced disappearances, “to let military personnel off the hook,” says the report.

One of these cases concerns Prageeth Ekneligoda, a journalist and cartoonist, who disappeared without a trace in 2010.

Since then, his wife, Sandya, has been struggling for justice, even as she believes the new rulers are ridiculing the judicial system.

“How can people like us trust that the judiciary will protect us? When for years we fought for justice within the country and failed, we have to now seek justice out of the country,” she told EFE.

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