Image by Nicolas Ortega via New York Times
On 9th April, hundreds of people in Doluwa, in the Kandy district, came to the road demanding food and relief in the context of the three-week-long indefinite curfew. Media coverage showed one woman saying she had only had boiled jackfruit for four meals, another man asking what he could give to his four children to eat and several complaining that they were helpless as they could not engage in daily work that was their livelihood. One woman said there were many poor families, but they had observed assistance being delivered on a political level, another man accused officials of distributing (assistance) to their own families and another man said people won’t gather like this if distribution (of assistance) was done equally to all. Close examination of the TV news broadcast with a video of the protest indicates this was a spontaneous protest by people desperate for food and other essentials to sustain their lives. There were no visible leaders or placards that are common in most organized protests. However, the next day, police had arrested one person who had participated in the protest and he has been remanded till 16th April 2020.
On 4th April, media reported that a person who had criticized the District Secretary (Government Agent – GA) of Trincomalee through his Facebook page had been arrested based on a complaint by the GA. He has been released on police bail and ordered to appear in courts on 20th April. There was also a media report of police raiding the home of a university student in Maharagama, near Colombo, following allegations that he criticized the appointment of Basil Rajapakse (the Sri Lankan president’s youngest brother who now heads a key Presidential Task Force on COVID19), on his Facebook account.
The arrest of Ramzy Razeek
On 2nd April, Ramzy Razeek wrote a post on his Facebook wall about the need for ideological jihad or ideological struggle (චින්තන ජිහාදයකට / මතවාදී අරගලය). Jihad is a controversial and often misunderstood word. According to multiple scholars, “jihad” means “struggle”, though it’s often misunderstood to mean armed warfare or terrorism. In his post, Ramzy is specific about the kind of struggle he is talking about – “ideological” – with “pen and keyboard”, through “social and mainstream media”, “on behalf of the county and all its citizens” and “to help people understand the truth” in context of “hate propagated against Muslims”.
When we read some of Ramzy’s past Facebook posts, it becomes clear he has been a consistent advocate against racism and promoting communal harmony, equality and justice. On 1st April, he had criticized the cremation of a Muslim COVID19 victim at a time Health Ministry guidelines allowed burials, but referring to reports of subsequently amended government regulations, he called on Muslims to accept cremations if it’s proved through health science that burials are bad for health or if the government has made a reasonable decision not to allow burials for public good.
On 3rd April, a day after the Facebook post about “ideological struggle”, April, Ramzy announced self-censorship – that he will not make future posts related to politics or national problems in Sinhalese, as he doesn’t want to endanger his children’s life. He explained that some of the responses to his above-mentioned post included death threats and calls for his arrest and that his eldest daughter had been traumatized and fearful after seeing these. That statement of self-censorship is the last visible post on his Facebook wall.
It is reported that the above-mentioned post on 2nd April, had led to his arrest and that he has been remanded till 22nd April. His lawyer said that the Magistrate had asked the police to report on 22nd April whether there is actual grounds to arrest and remand him. According to the lawyer, the police had cited the ICCPR Act and the Cyber Crimes Act. The ICCPR Act gives discretion for the police to arrest and detain a person and Magistrates don’t have discretion in providing bail. Last year, a writer arrested under the ICCPR Act was imprisoned for more than four (4) months until a High Court judge gave him bail.
We have not seen any post or comment by Ramzy that would amount to the propagation of war or advocating hatred leading to incitement to hostility, discrimination or violence which is prohibited by Article 3 (1) of the ICCPR Act. When arresting Ramzy, it appears the police has not considered the detailed recommendations by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) on balancing the ICCPR Act provisions on hate speech with constitutional guarantees for free expression, six-point threshold test and the three-pronged test of legality, proportionality and necessity from Sri Lanka’s fundamental rights jurisprudence.
Ironically, there are comments that are death threats against Ramzy on Facebook, which is still available at the time of writing but we have not seen news of any arrests or police actions in relation to these.
Why we must challenge restrictions on free expression and dissent
In 2013, demands for clean drinking water led to Army shooting three people dead. Now, police have imprisoned hungry people demanding food and speedy, equal distribution of state assistance. Last year, an award-winning writer was imprisoned for around four months for writing a short story and he still faces potential charges and sentence up to ten years. Now, we have Ramzy being arrested for expressing an opinion online, after having announced self-censorship due to death threats and fears of his family.
Restrictions on fundamental rights in our constitution, such as freedom of movement and assembly is needed in the context of COVID19. The constitution also provides for restrictions on freedom of expression in certain circumstances but insists that all such restrictions must be prescribed by law or regulations based on laws. But more than a month after the COVID19 affected numbers started to rise in Sri Lanka, we have not seen any such laws or regulations restricting rights, neither have we seem a proclamation of an emergency by the President as provided by the constitution.
Instead, earlier this month, we saw an arbitrary announcement by the police that those criticizing government officials and pointing out their shortcomings will be arrested and legal action taken against them. The announcement seems to equate criticism and pointing out shortcomings with false news, hate speech and obstructing duties of officials.
COVID19 related measures such as curfew, restrictions in prisons and limited court work also make it difficult to seek legal remedies for detainees. Access to lawyers is difficult for detainees and their families, it’s more difficult to obtain court proceedings and seeking bail for those detained under ICCPR Act will be even more difficult as lawyers have to approach High Courts.
Being detained in overcrowded detention facilities with minimal opportunities for physical distancing and basic hygiene also poses health risks to new and old detainees – this is why in Sri Lanka and around the world, release of prisoners has been initiated as a measure to prevent spread of COVID19.
Free expression and criticism is essential in crisis such as COVID19, to ensure voices and grievances of most vulnerable are heard – especially of persons and communities which are hungry, subjected to discrimination, hate speech and threats. This is why we must condemn arrests of the Doluwa protester, others criticizing officials and Ramzy. The right to free expression is crucial in fighting COVID19 and its spillover into economic, social, political crisis. Citizens should not have to pay with their freedom, health and lives for exercising right to free expression and for holding public authorities accountable for their actions in this crisis, however inconvenient they may be to those in power.
Damith Chandimal and Ruki Fernando
 Newsfirst, Primetime Sinhala news, at 7pm news, 9th April 2020, available at https://www.newsfirst.lk/programs/news-sinhala/ (37.43-40.32)
 “Lankadeepa” e-newspaper of 4th April 2020 (Sinhalese)
 This was probably a reference to a Muslim who died on 29th March due to COVID19 who was reported to have been cremated on 30th March, and Ministry of Health guidelines dated 27th March 2020 which allowed burials.
 Amendment of above regulations by Ministry of Health is reported to have been done on 31st March 2020, limiting disposing of dead COVID19 bodies to only creation
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act no. 56 of 2007. This is the domestic incorporation in Sri Lanka through a parliamentary act, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one of the nine core international human rights treaties, through which states commit to promote and protect a range of rights including freedom of expression. Sri Lanka is party to this international convention.
 See for example comments by Pathum Sameera Wijayalath, Tharindu Fernando, Lakshan Asanka, Pathum Dhanushka that amount to direct or indirect death threats and other comments demanding him and Muslims to leave Sri Lanka
 The announcement is available at https://twitter.com/rukitweets/status/1245987392189640712/photo/1 (Sinhalese) and civil society demand for withdrawal available at https://srilankabrief.org/2020/04/freedom-of-expression-in-sri-lanka-revoke-your-directive-use-existing-legal-provisions-civil-society-tell-igp-acting/