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The Sri Lankan government has been accused of a draconian crackdown on protesters who were involved in toppling Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president, with activists facing intimidation, surveillance and arbitrary arrest.
Dozens of protesters have been detained by the police in recent days as the government, led by the newly appointed president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, tried to crush the mass protest movement that forced Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign in early July.
After the fall of Rajapaksa, the protest movement, known as the Aragalaya, has turned its focus to Wickremesinghe, calling for him to step down. He is accused of lacking legitimacy and public support and of protecting the powerful Rajapaksa family, who are accused of bankrupting the country.
Wickremesinghe pledged his backing for the protest movement, but since taking office as president, has described the protesters as “fascists” and begun to use the full force of state machinery against activists he alleged had broken the law.
One of his firsts act of office was to declare a state of emergency, granting the police sweeping powers to detain people. In the early hours of 22 July, he authorised the military to clear part of a protest camp and take back the presidential secretariat building which had been occupied; more than 50 people, including lawyers and journalists, were injured.
Since then, activists and human rights organisations described a systematic targeting of figures who are prominent in the protest movement. More than 100 people, including a Buddhist monk, have been arrested, the courts have issued travel bans, police have raided protesters’ family homes and security agencies have taken activists off the streets and questioned them for hours.
“The government’s strategy seem to be to instil fear to make the protesters withdraw,” said Ruki Fernando, a prominent rights activist.
Among those targeted has been Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest who is a well-known figure in the protest movement and has been outspoken against the government. Police were given orders to arrest him on site and two churches, one in his home town and one in Colombo, were raided by officers looking for him.
Peiris has filed a petition in the courts seeking protection from arrest, but he told the Guardian he had gone underground in the meantime, as police continued to visit his parents’ house asking for his whereabouts.
“I have personally felt the intimidation and repression of protesters,” said Peiris. “We always remained peaceful and non-violent. They are now targeting all the protest coordinators and accusing us of committing terrorist acts which is false. This president is undemocratic.”
Protests erupted in Colombo this week following the arrest of Joseph Stalin, leader of Ceylon Teachers Service Union and Sri Lanka’s most well known trade unionist, who was detained on Wednesday for taking part in a march in May.
“The right to protest is a democratic right. What crime have I committed? Have I stolen public money or murdered people? What crime did I commit?” asked Stalin as he was taken from his offices and forced into a police vehicle.
Among those who condemned his arrest was Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, who called his arrest “disturbing” and said his work “must be supported, not punished”.
Sri Lanka’s opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa, questioned why members of the Rajapaksa family still in the country, who are accused of corruption and economic mismanagement and had “launched this cycle of violence”, remained free while figures such as Stalin were now behind bars.
Police gave an ultimatum to protesters to clear the protest camp in the central Colombo area of Galle Face, known as GotaGoGama, which has been the heart of the Aragalaya movement, by Friday evening or face legal action. But a case was filed in the courts opposing the action and hours before the clearance was due to happen the Attorney General declared that the camp would not be removed until 10 August.
Angelo Kulasuriya, 38, who has been living at GotaGoGama, was among the protesters who said they would stay put. “We are not here to protest according to what the police say,” he said. “We have been here fighting for our rights, talking about the issues of the country, because that is the right that was given to us by the constitution of Sri Lanka.”
Wickremesinghe has denied any crackdown on the protesters. He said he was taking action only against those who engaged in “violent or terrorist acts” and claimed that protests had delayed essential international financial assistance, including a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“Some groups are trying to spread a huge propaganda through social media that I am hunting down the protesters. But it is not true,” Wickremesinghe told parliament on Wednesday. “I will not allow any kind of prejudice to the peaceful activists. I will establish an office to protect the peaceful protesters and support them.”
But many groups, including the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), who have been very active throughout the protests, say they are being harassed and arbitrarily detained. In the past two weeks, IUSF leaders have received travel bans, been pulled off planes and buses by plainclothes officers and arrested. One was forcibly picked from the streets in an alleged “white van abduction”, questioned for several hours by officers about the location of the IUSF convener Wasantha Mudalige, and then let go three hours later.
Other less prominent figures have also been arrested, including a protester who took a beer mug from the president’s house and another who sat in his chair when thousands of protesters had taken over the property. Fathima Banu, 37, described how her husband, Moulavi Ismath, who had spent months staying at the GotaGoGama camp, was summoned to the police station last week and then arrested.
“I was only able to meet him once since his arrest,” she said. “We couldn’t talk much, and no one officially informed me what his crime was.”
She said, like so many, that Ismail had taken part in the protests because of the terrible impact the economic crisis was having on his family, with shortages of fuel and food and cooking gas, meaning they had to cook meals on firewood. “He went for the sake of the country,” she said.