A PETITION: Stop Labelling Student Protestors as Terrorists. 22 August 2022
We are a group of feminists writing to call urgent attention to the extra-constitutional attempts of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to suppress dissent. Lacking a popular mandate, hunting down student protestors and activists, including a LGBTIQ activist has become a central strategy of the political élite to retain power. The latest move by the GoSL is to brand three student leaders and the student union they represent, the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF), as ‘terrorists’.
Wasantha Mudalige, Convenor of IUSF, Galwewa Siridhamma thero, Convenor of the Inter-University Bhikkhu Federation, and Hashan Jeewantha, a student activist, were among the 20 arrested on August 18, 2022, for participating in a peaceful protest led by the student movement. All three of them are prominent student leaders who have been at the forefront of struggles for socio-economic justice in Sri Lanka, particularly against numerous ongoing attempts to dismantle free education.
The Sri Lankan Police has failed to adhere to legal due process safeguards in relation to all arrests made on 18th August 2022. Further, in direct communications with lawyers intervening on behalf of Wasantha Mudalige, Galwewa Siridhamma thero, Hashan Jeewantha, have been informed that the three are detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). At the time of issuing this statement, it has been 97 hours since the arrest of these student activists, the maximum detention permitted without a detention order is 72 hours. Their lawyers are still not aware of the whereabouts of the three students, and have not been shown a detention order as issued under the PTA. These three detentions are arbitrary, illegal, blatant violations of the fundamental rights of these activist students and amounts to enforced disappearances for the reason that their whereabouts and status of their well-being are unknown.
The threat of detention and charges under the PTA will effectively limit their political activism and their important contribution to calling for a system change in Sri Lanka. It continues the dangerous practice adopted by successive governments against citizens who have a different view, who are critical, who legitimately air grievances and exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech including right to protest, peaceful assembly and citizen participation in governance.
Successive governments have weaponised colonial anti-terror laws (public security ordinance, PTA, hate speech provisions of the ICCPR act) to suppress Tamil and Muslim minority communities and dissidents of the governments’ anti-democratic behaviour. Civil society activists, journalists, doctors and students, almost always of minority origin, were arrested and detained for months without being afforded due process. The PTA was also used to strike terror in the Muslim communities after the Easter Sunday Attacks in 2019. Many of those arrested under the PTA experience torture for confessions and languish in prisons without a fair opportunity to defend themselves.
International human rights actors and organizations have condemned the PTA which has become a whip to control the Sri Lankan population. Repeal of the PTA drew international support from human rights lobbies and has been insisted as a precondition to renewing the GSP+ trade benefits with the European Union. In response, successive governments have explored different mechanisms to retain the PTA. In 2018, an equally repressive Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) was presented by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe cabinet and in 2022 Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse’s cabinet passed in Parliament cursory amendments to the PTA to appease international pressure. These attempts were heavily resisted by the people of Sri Lanka, a struggle to which IUSF was a party. Retaining these anti-terror laws is part the Government strategy to control citizen engagement.
Peoples’ protests in Sri Lanka are a celebration of democracy. Instead of listening to the voices of the people and respecting their aspirations for democratic futures, an unpopular government is trying to extend the national security apparatus to silence people. As people call for justice and accountability, the government employs fear statics, creates new enemies, and silences dissent against moves to establish oppressive socio-economic systems. Detaining student leaders under the PTA would be the death of democracy in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is going through the worst economic crisis. Under pressure from the international bondholders, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), the current government is steamrolling harsh neoliberal reforms on already distressed people. Detaining student leaders under the PTA is preemptive law enforcement to stop future protests against neoliberal reforms. In other words, the government is closing democratic spaces, so there would be zero resistance.
We call upon your support, solidarity and power to join hands with a feminist voice against this government of Sri Lanka that has without a shadow of doubt failed to protect its citizens, punishes expression of rights, and is mobilizing every repressive law and practice at its disposal to maintain anti-democratic hold over power.