Eleven international human rights organizations have issued a statement calling on the Sri Lankan government to “immediately and unconditionally” release human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, who has been detained for 15 months without trial, as well as other prisoners denied due process under the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The groups also call for the wholesale repeal of the PTA.
The PTA grants the Sri Lankan authorities sweeping powers to detain individuals arbitrarily for up to 18 months without charge or trial. Used to stifle dissent, it is disproportionately used against ethnic and religious minorities in the country, particularly Tamils and Muslims. A 2020 report found that some prisoners are remanded for as long as 20 years in some cases. Allegations have also been made of the torture and poor treatment of detainees.
Hizbullah is a vocal critic of the government and one of the lawyers who challenged the dissolution of the parliament in 2018 in the Sri Lankan Supreme Court. He has also worked as counsel for the attorney general’s department. Last month, Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.
“Since the Sri Lankan authorities have so far been unable to show any evidence of wrongdoing, it appears he is being targeted solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression,” human rights groups wrote in the letter issued last week.
Like other states, Sri Lanka has used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to crack down on dissidents and civil liberties. Sri Lankan authorities arrested six members of the Muslim community shortly after passing a controversial ban in March 2020 on Muslims burying their COVID-19 dead that forces them to cremate bodies instead.
Hizbullah was arrested at his home on April 14, 2020, a day after he had written with others to the Sri Lankan government against the ban, calling it a serious violation of religious freedom. Officials later accused him of involvement in the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings that targeted churches and luxury hotels, killing more than 250 people and injuring hundreds of others.
While there have been no prosecutions over the bombings over the past two years, the Sri Lankan government has instead used the tragedy to ramp up anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric, a useful distraction to neoliberal policies in South Asia. Such scapegoating facilitated Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s win in the November 2019 election, followed by the victory of his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister in the 2020 election. Both men are controversial figures with ties to the country’s long-running civil war.
Hizbullah has not had a single opportunity to challenge the ever-changing claims against him in the past 15 months. He was initially accused of “aiding and abetting” the Easter Sunday bombers and engaging in activities deemed “detrimental to the religious harmony among communities.” This was on the tenuous basis of his connection to his client, Mohamed Ibrahim, the father of two of the bombers and with whom Hizbullah served on the board of a children’s charity. The claim has since been withdrawn.
In February 2021, Hizbullah was brought before the court briefly and told he would be charged with “causing communal disharmony” under the PTA on the basis of an extremist speech he is alleged to have made at a school connected to the charity.
Formal charges were pressed in early March on the basis of a single statement made by one pupil at the school. Other pupils and teachers have alleged they were forced to make statements against Hizbullah, whom they do not know, to the police. Some have since filed complaints against the police, as the children were reportedly questioned without a parent or guardian present. As early as July 2020, Amnesty International expressed that it “extremely concerned that the case and evidence against Hizbullah may now be subject to fabrication.”
Throughout his detention, he has been denied due process rights. His detention order under the PTA was signed by the President Rajapaksa, even though only the Minister of Defence has the proper authority to do this. A habeas corpus petition made on his behalf found that, “Authorities searched Hizbullah’s legal office, opened files, and ‘perused his briefs and professional work related files.’” His 90-day detention order was extended on October 14, 2020, but he was not brought before the court. A hearing scheduled for October 28 was delayed until February because of the pandemic.
Sri Lanka has used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to crack down on dissidents and civil liberties.
He was finally able to appear in court on February 18, 2021, but hearings scheduled for March and April were also cancelled, and he has since not been able to return to court to challenge the charges against him. He has also been denied confidential and sufficient access to his lawyers and family. In December 2020, he was granted confidential access to his lawyers for the first and only time following a court order.
No credible connection has ever been established linking him and “terrorist activity.” This, “combined with the repeated changes in the allegations,” human rights organizations write, “leads us to believe the allegations against him are unsupported by any credible evidence.”
Silencing Hizbullah, a respected legal advocate for the rights of Sri Lanka’s Muslims and other minorities who has chosen the courts as his battleground to fight injustice, does not simply silence one person; it is a warning to Sri Lanka’s Muslim and other marginalized communities to keep quiet and not assert their lawful and legal rights in the face of a rapidly deteriorating situation for all ethnic and religious minorities.
In May 2020, Ahnaf Jazeem, a Tamil poet and teacher, was also arrested under the PTA after an anthology of poetry he had written was allegedly found at the school associated with the allegations. He has never been charged and was denied access to legal representation for 10 months after his arrest. He has reportedly been subject to torture and other forms of degrading and inhuman treatment.
In spite of commitments and pledges made by Sri Lanka to amend the PTA, in March, new regulations on “de-radicalization” were passed under it, “which allow for the arbitrary administrative detention of people for up to two years without trial.” According to the International Commission of Jurists, “The new regulations are likely to be used as a bargaining tool where the option is given to a detainee to choose between a year or two spent in ‘rehabilitation,’ or detention and trial for an indeterminate period of time, instead of a fair trial on legitimate charges.”
Calls for the release of Hizbullah and Jazeem have been made from various quarters: human rights organizations, legal organizations and writers’ organizations. More recently, political organizations such as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the European Union have added their voices, particularly in reference to repealing the PTA. The U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka has also called for their release and the repeal or amendment of the PTA.