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Sri Lanka: Police Action Against Pamphlet Comes Under Attack

Sri Lanka: Police Action in Negombo Against Distribution of a Pamphlet Comes Under Attack

Last Sunday (November 28), two trade unionists were arrested and charged for causing incitement for rioting under Section 150 of the Penal Code by the Officer-in-Charge of Negombo Police Headquarters, for the mere distribution of a pamphlet. This action has been condemned by several persons.

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, human rights advocate, media columnist & author, said:

''The action of the police in quite unjustifiably moving under Section 150 of the Penal Code to prohibits what is a legitimate expression of dissent and infringes a number of constitutional rights, most prominently among them being the freedom of speech, expression and information as well as the freedom of assembly and association. These freedoms have been upheld by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in similar contexts of violations in a plethora of cases. As the Court has very rightly said, freedom of speech and expression includes the right to fairly and within reasonable limits criticise a Government. This has been widely recognised in civilized jurisdictions as a natural right inherent in the status of a free citizen. The people have a right to be informed of public issues through sources outside and independent of the Government.''

Mr. J.C. Weliammuna, A well known Sri Lankan lawyer stated that:

"Free expression is basic right in democracy. The violation of this right will lead to the erosion of democratic freedoms and the making of a dictatorship.

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The courts in Sri Lanka have consistently upheld the right of free expression of views even against the governments."

Mr. Welliamuna recalled a case decided in 1992, regarding a "Jana Gosha", organized by a then opposition member of parliament, now the President, Mahinda Rajapakse. This was stopped by police and a fundamental rights petition was filed. The court held that such obstruction was a violation of rights. Justice Mark Fernando pointed out that stifling of the right of expression invariably leads to violence in some future date.

He went on the say that, "Today police has no respect for rule of law and often police officers do this kind of actions to please politicians. That is how this kind of case comes up."

"The courts and the Attorney General has the power to order withdrawal of such proceeding. Allowing such cases to proceed is bad for the judicial system", he said.

A well known human rights activist, Mr. Chitral Perera stated that previously the government was using threats of terrorism in order to stifle public expressions of protest. Now that excuse is no longer possible and the government is looking for other methods to stop people expressing their dissatisfaction over government policies. What has happened in Negombo is just another part of that. He also said that the government, under the pretext of a development project is interfering into a lot of businesses and trying to acquire these concerns. This is happening particularly with regard to tourism. Under the pretext of promoting tourism lands are being acquired. In Negombo the lagoon area which has traditionally used by local fishermen is coming under similar attack. The government is trying to use the police and the law in order to suppress expressions of public protests. That is why this needs to be exposed before it goes too far.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has written to the Inspector General of Police to inquire and to take appropriate action against the arrest, detention and fabrication of charges under Section 150 of the Penal Code by the HQI Negombo, Somasiri Liyanage. The text of this letter is provided below:

December 2, 2010

Mr. Mahinda Balasuriya
Inspector General of Police
New Secretariat
Colombo 1

Dear Mr. Balasuriya,

Re: The illegal arrest and fabrication of charges against two trade unionists by the Officer-in-Charge of the Negombo Police Headquarters

I am writing to bring to your notice the illegal arrest, detention and fabrication of charges under Section 150 of the Penal Code against two trade unionists who have exercised their legitimate right to distribute a pamphlet regarding the possible ecological damage and hardships to the fisher folk of the Negombo lagoon area by a proposed development project. The two trade unionists and many people in Negombo are merely expressing their legitimate concerns about the possible damage that may be caused by this project.

You are well aware that the Constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees freedom of expression and the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has zealously guarded this right whenever the police have interfered against this right in the past. The Supreme Court has clearly stated the right of people to criticise the government. Despite of so many judgements against police actions to stifle legitimate dissent that action taken by Inspector Somasiri Liyanage, HQI Negombo, clearly demonstrates blatant disregard for people's constitutional rights.

What is even more worrying is the abuse of Section 150 of the Penal Code to arrest, detain and fabricate charges without any basis. This officer is either showing an incredible lack of knowledge about the basic law or acting for some perverse reason to subvert the rule of law.

On behalf of the Asian Human Rights Commission I request you to investigate and take appropriate action including the withdrawal of fabricated charges against Marcus Fernando and Aruna Roshan Fernando who were arrested on Sunday November 28 for distributing a pamphlet on the previous day.

Thank you,
Yours sincerely,
Basil Fernando
Director Programmes and Policy
Asian Human Rights Commission


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