Photo courtesy of Rediff

Ever since the aragalaya began in April this year, Father Jeewantha Peiris has been a familiar figure in the forefront of the protesters, easily identifiable by his flowing black hair and bright white cassock, a striking Christ-like figure. Media friendly and bilingual, he quickly became a spokesman for the struggle against the corrupt and ruthless regime of the Rajapaksas.

Many religious clergy have been supporting the call for system change and in the process have been a target for repression and reprisal; the image of a priest dodging a vicious swipe from a metal pole is an enduring one.

A clinical psychology graduate Father Peiris, 45, is the parish priest of a remote village of plantation workers in the Ratnapura district. A major part of his efforts have been behind the scenes trying keep different groups together and guide them in the struggle through a peaceful strategy and the other part of it has been more public, including in speaking to media. He has been an inspiration to young people from all religions in their fight for truth, justice, accountability and system change.

“For me, it has been a joy and an inspiration to have worked with Father Peiris for many years in youth camps he organized, supporting victims of police brutality and more recently in context of the aragalaya. He serves in one of the most isolated andpoorest parishes in the diocese of Ratnapura, helping estate workers and educating children but he is also a frequent visitor to Colombo and other parts of the country, joining and supporting people’s struggles for their rights,” said human rights activist Ruki Fernando.

In his parish in Doloswala in the Ratnapura district, several youth who were employed in shops and restaurants in Colombo returned to the village jobless after the pandemic struck. “Physical distancing is impossible in their line room accommodation. Many children were already malnourished. The situation has only got worse due to the current shortages,” Father Peiris said.

“He is among the few Sinhalese Catholic clergy who have spent time in the war ravaged North and East and is loved by many Tamil priests and laity,” Mr. Fernando pointed out.

As he faces reprisals for his unwavering commitment to the aragalaya, church leaders and others have come forward to support and protect him as he has done for others.

In a statement, 1,640 priests and nuns from 23 congregations expressed serious concern about the potential arrest of Father Peiris after the court issued a travel ban on him and police went to a church in Ratnapura seeking to arrest him for his participation in alleged unlawful assembly and damage to public property during a protest rally in June.

The statement called on the government to stop the repression of those involved in and supporting the Aragalaya and focus on listening to grievances and aspirations of people and take actions to address both immediate and long term problems.

Now in hiding, Father Peiris has given several media interviews to explain his position and calling for justice. He is adamant that, having managed to get rid of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Ranil  Wickremesinghe should be the next to go because of his intention to protect what Father Peiris called a “bankrupt system.” He vowed to continue the nonviolent protest until President Wickremesinghe has been sent home.

In a BBC interview soon after he had evaded arrest Father Peiris, speaking in measured tones, denied the charges that he had been involved in damaging public property – metal barricades erected to deter protesters – a charge that could result in a jail sentence.

He explained that the horrific conditions faced by people in his parish, suffering from malnutrition due to lack of food, had driven him to Colombo in search of a change to the system that allowed inequality and indifference to continue unchecked.

Asked to describe his emotions at being forced into hiding, Father Peiris said he was “calm and cool” because he had expected such harassment. He was convinced that the protest movement for justice and democracy must continue. “I am calm and cool because I know all these things are repercussions of fighting for justice, for truth.”

“My only worry is that these innocent protesters, many youth, are brutally arrested and being repressed. For that I really worry because I am worried about the lives of our youth and our people and they are crying for justice,” he concluded.

As Father Peiris filed an fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court seeking an order to prevent his detention, the spate of arrests continued drawing international and local condemnation and demands for the government to cease its reprisals on the protesters. The latest ultimatum is for the site to be cleared by 5 pm on Friday.

The arrest of trade union leader Joseph Stalin was mentioned by UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, who tweeted, “The work of Human Rights Defenders like Joseph has been more important than ever in in recent weeks & must be supported, not punished.”

Mahanama Thero, who was in the forefront of the aragalaya, has also been taken into custody.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, “The Sri Lankan government is using emergency regulations to harass and arbitrarily detain activists seeking political reform and accountability for the country’s economic crisis…The police and military have sought to curtail protests through the intimidation, surveillance, and arbitrary arrests of demonstrators, civil society activists, lawyers, and journalists.

“Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted sweeping additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. These provisions increase the risk of torture and enforced disappearance.”

While claiming that “stability” was necessary to deal with the economic crisis, the Wickremesinghe regime is ignoring the fact that good governance, rule of law and human rights are prerequisites for gaining the trust and assistance of donors.

In a statement after the assault on protesters on July 22, the European Union said it “expects the new Government to work in full compliance” with its human rights commitments, which are conditions for preferential access to the EU market under its GSP+ programme.