Rights groups condemn ‘shameful’ attacks on protesters: ‘Sends dangerous message to Sri Lankans’

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International human rights groups have urged Sri Lanka’s new president to direct security forces to cease the use of force against demonstrators after police cleared their main camp.

Thousands of Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months demanding the resignation of the head of the government over an economic crisis that has left the nation’s 22 million people short of fuel and food.

Armed troops raided a protest camp in front of the president’s office and attacked demonstrators with batons in the early hours of Friday, just a day after Ranil Wickremesinghewas sworn to Sri Lanka’s presidential seat.

At least two journalists and two lawyers were injured in the crackdown, following which authorities arrested 11 people, including protesters and lawyers.

Condemning the pre-dawn raid by Sri Lankan authorities, Human Rights Watch said the action “sends a dangerous message to the Sri Lankan people that the new government intends to act through brute force rather than the rule of law”.

“Urgently needed measures to address the economic needs of Sri Lankans demand a government that respects fundamental rights,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the rights group’s South Asia director, said. “Sri Lanka’s international partners should send the message loud and clear that they can’t support an administration that tramples on the rights of its people.”

Human Rights Watch’s deputy secretary general, Kyle Ward, also condemned the brute force.

“The protesters have a right to demonstrate peacefully. Excessive use of force, intimidation and unlawful arrests seem to be an endlessly repetitive pattern in which the Sri Lankan authorities respond to dissent and peaceful assembly,” Mr Ward said.

Army soldiers remove tents from the site of a protest camp outside the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on Friday (AP)
Army soldiers remove tents from the site of a protest camp outside the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on Friday (AP)

Visuals from the spot showed troops in riot gear and armed with assault rifles razing the camp where protesters have been housed since April. The forced clampdown was criticised by the British and the US high commissions.

The site was used by demonstrators in the wake of Sri Lanka’s economic collapse and acute shortage of fuel, food and medicine. The street protests forced former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down from his office and flee to Singapore after demonstrators stormed his official residence earlier this month.

Sri Lankan police spokesperson Nalin Thalduwa confirmed the police action and said: “A joint operation involving the military, police and police special forces was launched in the early hours to recover the presidential secretariat from the protesters, as they have no legal right to hold it.”

Of the total arrested, nine were released and granted bail by a Colombo court, police officials said.

Sri Lanka elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as its president on Thursday after a parliamentary vote, leading to widespread protests among civilians unhappy with the return of the leader who was elected by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sri Lankans have termed Mr Wickremesinghe an ally of Rajapaksa, leading to widespread anger.

Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency since last week, declared by the then-acting president Mr Wickremesinghe, who later gave broad authority to the armed forces to “restore law and order” nationwide.

Veteran politician Dinesh Gunawardena was sworn in as the new prime minister of Sri Lanka on Friday.

Additional reporting by agencies

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