Sri Lankan top court admits case against forced cremation of COVID-19 victims

By Aanya Wipulasena

Colombo, Jun 8 (efe-epa).- The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka on Monday agreed to hear petitions against a government order to cremate all people who die of the new coronavirus, effectively banning burials in a move which has irked religious minorities such as Muslim communities.

The top court will begin hearing petitions against the order on 13 July, Rushdy Habeeb, the lawyer representing two of the petitioners, told Efe.

“The decision to cremate is against international and local fundamental rights. I strongly believe this will be reversed,” he said.

The matter reached the courts after people like M Safeek, a 51-year-old Muslim citizen, were unable to say goodbye to their relatives who died of the disease: in this case his wife, whose body was sealed and cremated without his knowledge, an act that goes against the family’s religious beliefs.

Fathima Rinoza, 44 and a mother of six, died on 4 May in a Sri Lankan hospital two days after being admitted for respiratory troubles.

“I am a broken man. For 27 years we were married and brought up our children (together) but when she died, I didn’t even get to see her face,” a visibly emotional Safeek told Efe.

However, Safeek’s grief goes beyond the inability to pay his last respects to his wife, a tragedy faced by many people across the world who have lost their relatives due to the pandemic. The process has also hurt the family’s religious sentiments.

Rinoza was a devout Muslim, and followed a faith which says that human bodies should be left to decompose underground after death.

However, Sri Lanka, a Buddhist majority country which has so far registered over 1,800 cases and 11 deaths linked to Covid-19, has not paid heed to the minorities’ traditions.

Authorities have enforced a rule for obligatory cremation as part of the fight against the epidemic, although the norms have been modified several times during recent months.

In the “provisional clinical practice guidelines on Covid-19 suspected and confirmed patients” issued on 27 March, the ministry of health (MoH) had said that both burial and cremation of victims was allowed if the necessary precautions were taken.

However, when a Muslim man died of the disease on 30 March, his body was cremated by authorities against the wishes of the family.

A day later, the MoH revised its guidelines and imposed obligatory cremation, and the rule was reiterated in a gazette notification issued on 11 April.

“The decision was taken considering various factors,” Dr Paba Palihawadana, the deputy director general of public health services at the MoH, told EFE.

“We don’t know what (exactly) Covid-19 is and therefore we can’t take any risks,” she said.

In its interim guidance document issued on 24 March, the World Health Organization had said that Covid-19 victims can be both buried or cremated in accordance with “national and local requirements.”

However, Sri Lanka’s funeral norms have cast a shadow on the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who came to power last year on the back of a campaign focused on national security and aimed at attracting the majority Buddhist community.

“This is very much a political agenda. This ‘national security rhetoric’ was introduced to reach out to the Sinhala Buddhist voters,” Hilal Ahmed, the vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told Efe.

Gotabaya, the brother of former president and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, registered a landslide victory in national elections held in the backdrop of last year’s deadly Easter bombings in hotels and churches in the country.

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