South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of Human Rights Defenders, vehemently condemns the intimidating remarks made by Hon. Wijedasa Rajapakshe, the Minister of Justice and Buddhist Affairs, to Mr. Lakshan Dias, a prominent Human Rights Defender and lawyer, who has been asked to publicly apologise within 24 hours on a comment made on the TV show “Aluth Parlimenthuwa.” SAHR strongly believes that such a comment by the Minister and the consequent threat to remove Mr. Dias as a lawyer is not only intimidating but is a blatant violation of his freedom of expression. The Minister made these remarks at the occasion of the opening ceremony of the new court complex in Maankulam, Killinochchi in the Northern Province on 17 June 2017.
SAHR has learnt that the cause for the Minister’s intimidating threats follows a comment Mr. Dias made on a talk show on Derana TV channel on 14 June 2017. During the talk show, Mr. Dias stated that since 8 January 2015 (when the current government came into power promising Good Governance) 195 Christian religious places have been attacked and that these attacks have been well documented and publicised by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL).1 He also mentioned that he has been involved in many court cases on attacks, where Buddhist monks have been accused in some cases. Mr. Dias giving further details said that many cases had to be filed in court due to the absolute inaction of the police even after four complaints have been lodged (in some instances) with regard to the incident.
In his remarks, the Minister has denied the attacks on Christian religious places based on the response received from Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo. SAHR believes that his response conforms solely to the Catholic religious places and does not to take into account the other Christian denominations. Further, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka also mentions about the “the spate of attacks on places of Christian religious worship in the recent past” in her letter dated 31 May 2017 to the President.2
Religious extremism continues to rise in South Asia and in Sri Lanka in the past couple of months alone many minority persons, businesses and religious places of worship have been attacked. The denial of such actions and the refusal to bring perpetrators to justice indicates the government’s lack of interest to address the issue or protect the freedom of religion of its citizens.
SAHR reminds the government of Sri Lanka that according to international obligations, specifically as a state party to the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the government is the primary duty bearer in providing protection to all citizens without discriminating on the basis of ethnicity, caste, sexual orientation or the freedom of following any religion of their preference. Further, SAHR urges the government to immediately look into the veracity of these incidents, conduct independent investigations and provide justice for the victims. SAHR further calls upon respective authorities to immediately stop the threat and harassment of Mr. Lakshan Dias and other HRDs working with religious minority communities on this issue so that they could continue to work toward the promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Lakshan Dias is a nationally and regionally recognised human rights lawyer, a Human Rights Defender as well as a civil society activist. He is a vocal advocate of judicial independence and has provided legal protection to Human Rights Defenders and journalists at risk; he has also legally represented a number of high-profile cases involving deportation and immigration, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, torture, religious rights of the minorities and state sponsored land grabbing. He is an active member of the Lawyers’ Collective and a SAHR bureau member.
On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights
Dr. Nimalka Fernando
1 Statement on ‘Increase in Attacks on Religious Minorities in Sri Lanka’, 27 May 2017, http://mailchi.mp/0f02c4911569/press-release-increase-in-attacks-on-religious-minorities-in-sri-lanka-1208153
2 Letter to the President by the Chairperson of HRCSL, 31 May 2017, http://hrcsl.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Letter-to-H.E.-re-Religious-Intolerance-E.pdf