Submit or suffer: P2P and muzzling peaceful protest

By Kumbhakarna

Sri Lanka is using the judiciary and the police to harass Tamil and Muslim politicians and activists who participated in a march protesting wartime mass atrocities, enforced cremations, and terror tactics unleashed by the government of accused war criminal President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The march from Pothuvil to Polihandy (P2P), two towns in the majority Tamil-speaking Northeastern Sri Lanka, took place between 3 and 5 February.

Before protests, police persuaded magistrates of the towns through which the march was to pass, to issue restraining orders citing the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, the police are filing action in the local courts against alleged offenders for both contempt of court and endangering the public by spreading the virus.

Twice in a week, officers from Mallavi and Mullaitivu police stations, towns in the Northern Province’s Mullaitivu District through which marchers passed, interrogated former member of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) Thurairasa Ravikaran of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) political party about his participation in P2P.

Speaking to the media after the interrogation by the Mullativu police, Mr. Ravikaran said, “I told them that I engaged in the protests for my people and against the injustices perpetrated against them in a peaceful manner and without causing hindrance to anyone. Since all people came together in droves to participate in the protests, I took part in the capacity that I was a people’s representative.”

When the P2P march was being organised in January, Colombo had withdrawn from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1 adopted in September 2015 to usher in transitional justice mechanisms mainly against mass atrocities committed by the government in the final phase of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009.

The report of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released on 27 January reflected the frustration of the international community for the lack of progress in the implementation of Resolution 30/1 and subsequent resolutions. The report said, “Given the demonstrated inability and unwillingness of Government to advance accountability at the national level, it is time for international action to ensure justice for international crimes.”

With publication of High Commissioner Bachelet’s report there was anticipation that the new resolution expected to be adopted by the UNHRC in March would be stronger if there were demonstrations demanding effective mechanisms for justice and accountability be adopted by the UNHRC.

Meanwhile, the Rajapaksa regime attracted further international scrutiny when it passed regulations in April 2020 forbidding the burial of persons who had died of the coronavirus, because it could spread the pandemic. The order mostly affected Muslims because under Islamic practice cremations are forbidden as a mutilation of the body. Although there were several appeals by Sri Lankan and international Muslim leaders that it was a violation of the Muslims’ cultural rights and UN experts said there was no scientific evidence that corpses shed germs into the soil that would spread through infecting groundwater, Colombo was unwilling to withdraw regulations banning burials.

Hence, Muslims too joined P2P, which was organised by North and East Civil Society Forum consisting mostly of Tamil civil society organisations.

The police initially tried to block the march by using the court ban. At Pothuvil in the East, police tried to bar ITAK parliamentarian Chanakayan Rasamanikkam and his followers, on the first day of the march. Again, when the protestors crossed into Mullaitivu in the North, the police sought to prevent the march from advancing, but to no avail.

Following the march’s successful culmination in Polihandy, near the northern town of Pt. Pedro on 5 February, the government used Sinhala nationalists to stoke public opposition to the marchers. Government minister of public security Retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara said on national TV that participants like Mr. Sumanthiran, the ITAK spokesman, and Mr. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) had to be arrested. “Since we had obtained court orders, now we have their photos and we have their vehicle numbers, we know who these individuals are. We can sue them and confiscate all their vehicles and put them in prison… We have already started the process. Within the next few days, we will file cases against them,” Mr. Weerasekera said.

On 14 February, the magistrate of the Eastern Province town of Kalmunai issued summons on Mr. Rasamanikkam and seven others for defying court orders. Meanwhile the police of Pt. Pedro, Nelliyadi and Valvettithurai also charge sheeted Mr. Rasamanikkam and Mr. Sumanthiran. They were charged under Sections 55(1) and 56 (2) of the Criminal Procedure Code as were Jaffna city’s Mayor V. Manivannan and former NPC member M. K. Sivajilingam of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO). The cases are similar in nature although filed by different police jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, the Mullaitivu police charge sheeted ITAK parliamentarians Vino Norathaligam, Sivgnanam Sritharan and Selvam Adaikalanathan. Further, police filed charges against Mr. Ponnambalam, and TNPF General Secretary Selvarajah Kajendran. Hunais Farook, a former Muslim MP of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), a party whose members are part of the current ruling coalition, was questioned by the Mannar police.

On 20 February, police personnel from six stations through which the march passed – Sammanthurai, Kattankudy, Valachenai, Muttur, Kilinochchi and Mankulam – recorded Mr. Rasamanikkam’s statement. Parliamentarians Sritharan, Noharthalingam, Ponnambalam and Kajendran also made statements to the police on their participation.
Mr. Adaikalanathan had his statement recorded by the Mankulam and Vavuniya police at different times in his office in the Northern Province town of Mannar and he was asked to report to the Oddusuddan police later.

After the interrogation Mr. Adaikalanathan referring to Minister Weeraskera told media, “He was acting to eliminate the Tamil people,” adding, “The police are now intensely investigating the youth, the common masses and politicians who participated in the march. This is an attempt to portray it as though Tamils have violated the law and insulted the court.”

Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees the right to the freedom of speech, association and assembly. However, they can be suspended by counterterrorism laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that is now in force. Under the PTA, the protest can be construed as an act to incite violence and participants liable to prosecution.

On 17 March former Batticaloa District Parliamentarian Sinnathamby Yogeswaran was charged by the police in the Pothuvil magistrate’s court and released on Rs.100,000 bail. He was charged by both the Pothuvil and Tirukovil police for participation by the identification of his vehicle.

The police also questioned prominent civil society activists about their participation in P2P. Iswary Mariayasuresh, head of the Mullaitivu branch of the Association of the Relatives of the Disappeared was questioned soon after families of the disappeared protested on International Women’s Day in March but said that it was her participation in P2P that seemed to interest the Mullaitivu police.

Most cases are still in the preliminary stages in their movement through the courts. On 5 March, a group of lawyers working with Mr. Sumanthiran told the Pt Pedro magistrate that although charges were filed and statements recorded from the alleged offenders, no action could be taken because the police had not specified charges. The matter was postponed for 22 March. More cases are expected to be taken up.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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