Sri Lanka: Release human rights defenders detained for advocating for education rights

CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society, stands in solidarity with five human rights defenders (HRDs) detained for participating in peaceful protests to promote and protect education rights in Sri Lanka. Ahead of their hearing on 11 November 2021, we urge the courts to grant them bail immediately. We also call on the government of Sri Lanka to drop all charges against them and respect their rights to dissent and to peaceful assembly.

Five HRDs —Koshila Hansamali Perera, of the People’s Movement for Free Education; Chameera Koswatte, from the Workers Struggle Centre; Amila Sandeepa, President of the Jayewardenepura University Students’ Union; Wasantha Mudalige, Convenor of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF); and Heshan Harshana, a student leader from Rajarata University – have been detained for more than three months due to their participation in a peaceful protest on 3 August 2021.

There have peaceful protests since July 2021, which stemmed, among other things, from a demand to withdraw the Kotelawala Defense National University (KDNU) Bill that will facilitate the privatisation and militarisation of education in the country. The bill will transfer the authority of the Kotelawala Defense National University, which is supposed to be under the University Grant Commission (UGC) based on the 1978 University Act of Sri Lanka, to be an institution under the control of the Defense Ministry and the military. It will subject the students to military discipline and risks depriving academic freedom and rights to join student unions.

The HRDs are accused of “damaging public property”, “causing injuries to fingers of a policeman”, and “violating COVID-19 regulations”. On 11 November 2021, the courts will decide on their bail application.

According to reports, the HRDs have been previously denied bail under the provisions of the Offences Against Public Property Act (No. 12 of 1982), based on baseless arguments that the activists had caused damage amounting to Rs. 213,633.42 (USD 1,073) for alleged harm caused to police barricades and the road resulting from the burning of a mock coffin made of cardboard. The law denies bail except in exceptional circumstances if the damage to public property is estimated to be above Rs. 25,000 (USD 125). Despite arguments made by the lawyers of the activists for bail due to the COVID-19 pandemic, upcoming university examinations, and underlying health conditions as exceptional circumstances, this has been rejected by the courts.

“The authorities should end their judicial harassment against human rights defenders who are just exercising their rights to peaceful assembly. Such actions which are protected under international law and should be respected and protected by the authorities and therefore they should not be criminalised,” said Cornelius Hanung, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer for Asia from CIVICUS.

CIVICUS is concerned about the shrinking of civic space under the Rajapaksa administration. Since the government has come to power, we have seen human rights lawyers, activists and academics targeted with arrests, intimidation and threats for speaking up and attempts to crackdown on protests under the guise of the pandemic. We urge the government to put an end to this and ensure a safe and enabling environment for activists in which they can organise, assemble, receive and share information.

Civic space in the Sri Lanka is rated as obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor.