One year on, justice denied for Muslim victims in central Sri Lanka

By Kithsiri Wijesinghe

Members of the Muslim community who suffered at the hands of Sinhala mobs during anti-Muslim violence in central Sri Lanka a year ago express fear of attempts to cover up the findings of subsequent investigations.

The delay by the country's Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) in making its findings of the investigation public was also brought to the attention of the UN rights body convening in Geneva.

The violent events rocked the central province in March 2018, when mobs of Sinhalese led by Buddhist monks went on a rampage against the minority Muslims in the Kandy district, after a Sinhala lorry driver died following a road rage incident. Properties owned by Muslims were set on fire and mosques attacked during the three day long deadly riots forcing the government to declare a state of emergency and impose curfew.

Justice delayed

Speaking to JDS, several survivors said that they fear the truth will never surface as the final report of Sri Lanka's Human Rights Commission has been delayed for over 10 months. The national human rights body led by Dr Deepika Udagama conducted a three day inquiry into the events in May 2018 and promised to release the findings by July.

"They took statements from us. We were promised compensation. But so far, we haven't receive any justice," said Mohamed Fazil who suffered injuries from an attack by the members of Sri Lanka's police paramilitary unit, Special Task Force (STF).

STF troopers deployed in the province during the riots to curtail unrest came under fire over inciting violence against Muslims and turning a blind eye to the Sinhala rioters.

"If the report had been released, it would have made clear to everyone what really happened. But the unusual delay worries all of us and we fear that the report would never see the light of day," said Fazeel.

"None of us were happy about the manner the inquiry was conducted. They questioned us as if we had initiated riots. I made complaints to the police how the STF threatened me to admit that I was possessing firearms and how some Sinhala doctors serving at Theldeniya hospital refused to treat my wounds because I am a Muslim. But, there was no investigation. Instead, the case filed against me based on false allegations made by the STF is in court."

'I have no hope'

Samsudeen Mohammed Fayaz suffered severe burn injuries in an attempt to save his brother, Abdul Basith (24), when their house was set ablaze by rioters. He wasn't able to save his brother's life. One year on, he still remains bed ridden after being treated for several months at the Kandy Teaching Hospital.

"My husband still cannot get off his bed after undergoing several surgeries in the hospital. His skin keeps peeling off,"' Samsudeen's distraught wife, Mohammed Haseena told JDS.

"We went to the regional human rights office in Kandy to give evidence. We told them that police refused to write down our complaints. We hoped at least the human rights commission would do justice to us. Now I have no hope at all" she said.

When Mazood Mohammed Faizal resisted STF pressure to falsely admit that he possessed hand grenades, he was severely beaten up by the armed members of the paramilitary. He too had submitted evidence to the HRCSL during the inquiry.

"We were beaten up by the STF. Our properties were destroyed by the Sinhala rioters and it all happened while police looked on. When the commission wanted us to submit written evidence, we did that all with much expectations. Now it has been one year and we have seen nothing", he said.

Suspects bailed out

Meanwhile, in her report on Sri Lanka at the 40th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council's in Geneva, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has highlighted the plight of the Muslim victims.  She had expressed deep concerns at the "aggravation of inter-communal tensions" and the "attacks conducted by militant Buddhist groups targeting cultural and religious groups" including Muslims.

"The most serious incident was the series of riots that broke out in Kandy district, between 5 and 8 March 2018, when mobs of Sinhala-Buddhist demonstrators attacked mosques and Muslim-owned houses and businesses," the High Commissioner's report said.

Making an oral intervention on Tuesday (19), at the discussion on "Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance" the leader of the Tamil National Peoples Front, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam had also pointed out that no compensation had been paid to the victims despite the government publicly admitting the extent of destruction inflicted upon the Muslim community.

"In addition to the SLHRC inquiry, both the TID & CID have carried out separate investigations'" he said.

"Even after one year, there has been no justice. All the suspects accused of instigating violence have been bailed out, and no compensation for the victims.That is anti Muslim racism for you, Madam Vice President" he added.

After touring the beleaguered district  in the aftermath of the violence in March 2018, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe admitted that a total of 465 properties were damaged and 14 mosques had undergone complete, partial and minor damages.

“Damaged property can be rebuilt. But it will take two years before the damage to the country’s image is restored. The law will be enforced strictly on those behind the violence,” Wickremesinghe had reportedly said.☐



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.