Sri Lanka urged to act against incitement and protect Muslims

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Authorities in Sri Lanka should end arbitrary arrests and other abuses against Muslims and appropriately protect the community from violence, Human Rights Watch said today.

The international human rights group said that since the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 that killed over 250 people, which was claimed by Islamist militants, Sri Lankan Muslims have faced an upsurge in violations of their basic rights and assaults and other abuses from Buddhist nationalists.

Sri Lankan officials and politicians should stop endorsing, ignoring, or exploiting hate speech and mob violence directed at Muslims by members of the Buddhist clergy and other powerful figures, it said.

“The Sri Lankan government has a duty to protect its citizens and prosecute those responsible for the terrible Easter Sunday bombings, but it shouldn’t be punishing the Muslim community for this crime,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“It’s crucial for the authorities to act swiftly to stop mob violence, threats, and discrimination against Muslims.”

In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed Muslim victims of abuses, activists, lawyers, and officials to document abuses against Muslims, often with state complicity.

It claims that since the bombings, the authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained hundreds of people under counterterrorism and emergency laws. According to lawyers and activists, the vast majority of arrests are under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a long-abused law that the government pledged to the United Nations Human Rights Council to repeal.

Lawyers said their clients had often been arrested without any credible evidence of terrorist involvement, for reasons including having the Quran or other Arabic literature in their possession during searches, HRW said in a statement.

The governmental Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found in May that the government failed to protect Muslims during communal rioting. Police have repeatedly failed to act properly or prosecute perpetrators. For instance, the manager of a Muslim-owned business who was attacked said the police did not make any arrests “despite plenty of CCTV footage to identify the perpetrators.”

The rights group charged that Government leaders, instead of fulfilling their duty to protect Muslim citizens, have at times appeared to associate themselves with Buddhist nationalist elements.

One activist, explaining that Muslim women face constant harassment, including in government buildings and public spaces, said: “It is very difficult for them to bear. Their dignity is challenged continually.”

HRW said the situation has caused mounting international alarm for the safety of Muslims and other minorities.

The Sri Lankan government should ensure the prompt and impartial enforcement of the law to protect the fundamental rights of all Sri Lankans. Crucial for ending abuses over the long term is for the government to implement its pledges to the Human Rights Council to ensure human rights reforms, transitional justice, accountability, and reconciliation, Human Rights Watch said.

“The ethnic violence and human rights violations that many Sri Lankans have suffered are now being directed against Muslims,” Ganguly said. “The Sri Lankan government needs to take a stand against discrimination and intolerance, use the law to punish those responsible for abuses and protect, rather than target, vulnerable people.”