News / Asia

Amnesty Accuses Sri Lanka of Intensifying Repression of Dissent

Journalists, rights activists and opposition lawmakers shout slogans and display placards during a demonstration alleging government suppression of media in Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 29, 2013.
Journalists, rights activists and opposition lawmakers shout slogans and display placards during a demonstration alleging government suppression of media in Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 29, 2013.
Anjana Pasricha
— The international human rights group, Amnesty International, has accused the Sri Lankan government of intensifying repression of dissent in institutions such as the media and the judiciary. Amnesty says the sometimes violent crackdown is largely meant to tighten the government’s grip on power and silence criticism of rights violations during the final stages of a war with Tamil Tiger rebels. 

In a new report called Assault on Dissent, Amnesty says critics of the government in Colombo have been subjected to verbal and physical harassment, attacks and in some cases, killings.

It says the abuses are often committed by the security forces or their proxies. The targets: judges known to rule in favor of victims of human rights violations, media outlets that criticize official policies, opposition politicians and human rights activists.

Climate of fear

Steve Crawshaw, special adviser to Amnesty International’s secretary-general, expresses worry about an official attitude that he said equates criticism with treason. He says this is creating a climate of fear.

"What we have now ongoing is enormous pressure on those who dare to speak out about the rule of law, about the truth of what has happened. Those are facing enormous pressure, either removed from their posts, physically disappeared completely or forced to leave the country or in some cases even killed. These are all very worrying signs," said Crawshaw.  

Amnesty cites the impeachment in January of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, which critics described as “politically motivated.”  A close aide of the president was appointed as the new chief justice. It also says that at least 15 journalists have been killed since 2006 and several others forced to flee the country after writing reports critical of the government.

Crawshaw said a constitutional amendment passed in 2010 has boosted the president’s control over the judiciary, police and election officials. 

"We have seen a very serious consolidation of power over the years. Whether it is in a political context, whether it is in a human rights context, it has become extremely difficult to be heard. I think it will be extremely hard to even use the word democracy in connection with the way the country is run at present," he said.

International scrutiny

The Sri Lankan government is under international scrutiny for the conduct of the final stages of its military campaign against Tamil Tiger rebels, when thousands of civilians died allegedly at the hands of the army and the rebels. The government has staunchly denied allegations of war crimes that include shooting prisoners. That civil conflict ended in 2009. 

The Sri Lankan government did not immediately comment on the Amnesty report, but in the past it has denied similar accusations.

The head of the independent National Peace Council in Colombo, Jehan Perera, said the environment in Sri Lanka has been “restrictive” for several years, but is not worsening. 

"There is intimidation of political opponents and there is a degree of self censorship in the media. It has always been there for a long time, and it does not show any sign of abatement. It is not getting any less, but I would not also say it is getting more," said Perera.

Amnesty has called on Commonwealth nations, whose heads will be meeting in Colombo in November, to pressure the Sri Lankan government to address what it calls an “alarming” human rights situation in the country.

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