Photo courtesy of IFEX

The days of white vans and enforced disappearances may be on the wane but President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his regime have embarked on a just as insidious method to suppress people’s freedom of expression, association, assembly and speech: judicial harassment.

Judicial harassment includes arbitrary arrest and detention, enactment of repressive legislation and policies and all other forms of charges, prosecutions and judicial processes imposed to interfere with the work of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and to intimidate and harass them.

In the recent months, there have been a spate of arrests of people who were involved in the aragalaya, social media activists and vocal opponents of the regime using the ICCPR Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government is proposing legislation that will further impact adversely on HRDs and freedom of expression such as the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the Broadcasting Authority Bill.

Comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya, who was arrested for her remarks during a performance that allegedly insulted Buddhism, was re-remanded while Bruno Divakara, the owner of the YouTube channel where Nathasha’s video was posted, was released on bail.

The CIVICUS Monitor, a global civil society alliance, called on the government to immediately release Nathasha Edirisooriya and drop the charges against her unconditionally. Her arrest and detention go against the country’s international human rights obligations to protect fundamental freedoms, it said.

At the ongoing 53rd session of the Human Rights Council, Nada Al-Nashif, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, gave an oral update on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.

“The past months have unfortunately witnessed the old reflex of using draconian laws to curtail opposition and control civic space, with a heavy-handed approach to protests far too often, including the arrest of protest leaders and forceful crowd control measures, as well as the persistent use of the military in police functions.

“Recent arrests over statements made during comedy performances and of a member of parliament engaged in protests exemplified this concern. In March 2023, the Human Rights Committee expressed deep concern about the misuse of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act against journalists, human rights defenders and other civil society actors,” Ms. Al-Nashif said.

The CIVICUS Monitor has rated the state of civic space as “obstructed” because of the targeting of civil society groups, human rights defenders and the families of victims of past violations. There were also restrictions and excessive use of force around the protests, arrests of protesters and the PTA. Journalists have also been targeted, its report said.

It is in this backdrop that FORUM-ASIA, together with the Law and Society Trust, launched its new report Defending in Numbers – Rising Together Against All Odds, a study of the obstacles faced by human rights advocates in Asia in 2021 and 2022. “Despite the gradual recovery from the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the region experienced unprecedented political changes and turmoil, creating a hostile and volatile environment for those engaged in human rights work,” the report said.

Judicial harassment was the most common violation that HRDs in Asia experienced in 2021 and 2022, a trend that has not changed in the last few years, the report said. The categories of HRDs that were most affected by judicial harassment were pro-democracy defenders, women HRDs and media workers. Judicial harassment was most often perpetrated by state actors, such as the police, judiciary, military, and other government entities, but was at times also committed by non-state actors such as corporations.

“The sheer scale of arrests is meant to silence, diminish and ask you to sit down and shut up otherwise it’s your turn,” said Deanne Uyangoda from Front Line Defenders at the launch of the report. “We don’t all their names, we don’t know who their lawyers are.”

She pointed out that the cost to HRDs was very high but the cost to the state was minimal. The state was weaponising proxy wars against defenders by empowering extremist groups to go and disrupt protests, knowing they could get away with it, she added.

The anti-terror laws allowed for prolonged detention and tied the hands of the judiciary, giving power to the police and investigation agencies instead, Ms. Uyangoda said.

Speaking at the event, lawyer and activist Nuwan Bopage pointed out that there were about 50 aragalaya activists currently in detention. They had been fighting for economic and social rights brought on by pressures of the economic collapse last year. The draconian laws being implemented were aimed at crushing future protests including ones against new labour laws aimed at diluting workers’ rights.

Here are some key findings from the report:

Freedom of expression was the right that was most frequently violated in cases involving judicial harassment.

After judicial harassment, physical violence was the second most common violation, which saw a significant rise compared to recent years, reflecting how defenders’ right to a healthy and safe environment has increasingly been violated. This violation occurred most frequently when HRDs were staging peaceful gatherings, and in many cases, such attacks caused them to be hospitalised or permanently injured. Incidents of intimidation and threats were persistent across the region, involving death threats, much of which was perpetrated by unknown actors.

Online attacks and harassment were also on the increase, reflecting how HRDs endure violations even within digital spaces.

Intimidation and threats were the most common violations committed against family members of HRDs, demonstrating that harassment against defenders frequently had repercussions on their loved ones. Intimidation and threats remain commonly underreported by HRDs.

Other violations that were widely documented included administrative harassment, restrictions of movement, vilification and abduction.

A total of 18 different groups of defenders were affected by the violations but some were more heavily targeted than others such as pro-democracy defenders, women human rights defenders, land, indigenous, environmental and community-based defenders, media workers, minority rights defenders, student and youth HRDs and NGOs and NGO staff.

Throughout the region, pro-democracy defenders stood up for democracy while also being at the forefront of collective movements calling for civil society’s greater involvement and inclusion in the political decisions that affect their lives. Pro-democracy defenders called for the restoration of democratic values in countries where these were under threat. Such efforts, however, often came at the expense of their safety and well-being.

Women human rights defenders followed as the group with the second highest recorded violations, reflecting the leading role women played in advancing human rights in Asia, as well as their contribution to fighting injustice and societal inequities. They were subject to a broad range of harassment and threats, including violations that targeted them based on their gender and their role in challenging oppressive gender stereotypes and structures.

Key perpetrators of attacks against HRDs were state actors, non-state actors and corporations. State actors accounted for 83% of the total cases documented.

The perpetrator was unknown in many documented cases, demonstrating that impunity remains a key issue across Asia. Perpetrators thrive in contexts where justice systems fail to hold them accountable, and where law enforcement agencies do not conduct proper investigations on the violations against defenders or offer adequate protection to HRDs to ensure the threats they report do not escalate into more grave forms of violations.

Read the full report here: