An international human rights group says Sri Lanka's government is using emergency laws to harass and arbitrarily detain protesters who are seeking political reform and accountability amid the island country's economic crisis.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday that Sri Lanka's military sought to curtail protests through intimidation, surveillance, and arbitrary arrests of demonstrators, activists, lawyers and journalists since President Ranil Wickremesinghe took office last month.
Sri Lanka's Parliament approved a state of emergency July 27. The decree gives the president the power to make regulations in the interest of public security and order.
Wickremesinghe, who had ordered arrests of protesters, has said that although the protests started peacefully, groups with political interests took over later and became violent, citing the burning of dozens of ruling party politicians' homes in May.
Sri Lankans had been protesting for months over the country's economic crisis that has led to a severe shortage of many essential imported items like medicines, fuel and cooking gas. Wickremesinghe's predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country after protesters stormed his official residence and also occupied many key state buildings including the president's office, prime minister's office and the prime minister's official residence. Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament to complete Rajapaksa's term, which ends in 2024.
In a speech to Parliament on Wednesday, Wickremesinghe promised leniency for those who took to violence unknowingly or at the instigation of others. He also promised to punish those who broke laws willfully.
Some of those arrested are accused of clashing with security forces and encouraging people to break into Parliament. Officials have also seized the passport of a British woman who posted about the protests on social media.
“The Sri Lankan government's crackdown on peaceful dissent appears to be a misguided and unlawful attempt to divert attention from the need to address the country's urgent economic crisis,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch's South Asia director.
Sri Lanka is bankrupt, having announced that it is suspending repayment of its foreign loans pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package.
“Sri Lanka's international partners should be clear that they need to be working with a rights-respecting administration to address Sri Lanka's deeply rooted economic problems," Ganguly said.