Rights groups urge Sri Lanka not to use force against protesters

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On Saturday, international human rights groups urged Sri Lanka’s new president to immediately order security forces to stop using force against protesters after troops and police evacuated their main camp after months of protests against the country’s economic crisis.

A day after President Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in, hundreds of armed soldiers stormed into a protest camp outside the president’s office in the early hours of Friday, attacking protesters with batons. Human Rights Watch said the action “sends a dangerous message to the people of Sri Lanka that the new government intends to act through brute force rather than the rule of law.”

Two journalists and two lawyers were also assaulted by soldiers during the crackdown. Security forces arrested 11 people, including protesters and lawyers.

“Urgently needed action to meet the economic needs of Sri Lankans requires a government that respects basic rights,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Sri Lanka’s international partners should send a loud and clear message that they cannot support an administration that tramples on the rights of its people.”

Also condemning the attack, Amnesty International said “it is shameful that the new government resorted to such violent tactics within hours of coming to power.”

“Protesters have the right to demonstrate peacefully. Excessive use of force, intimidation and unlawful arrests seem to be an ever-repeating pattern in which the Sri Lankan authorities respond to dissent and peaceful assembly,” he said. said Kyle Ward, deputy general secretary of the group.

Wickremesinghe, who has served as prime minister six times, was sworn in as president a week after his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country. Rajapaksa later resigned while in exile in Singapore.

Police commandos stand guard at a barricade outside the president’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 22, 2022.

Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months to demand that their top leaders step down to take responsibility for the economic chaos that has left the country’s 22 million people struggling with shortages of essentials, including medicines, fuel and food. While protesters have focused on Rajapaksa’s family, Wickremesinghe has also drawn their ire as a perceived substitute for Rajapaksa.

Armed troops and police arrived in trucks and buses on Friday to clear the main protest camp in the capital, Colombo, even though protesters had announced they would leave the site voluntarily.

The Sri Lankan opposition, the United Nations and the United States have denounced the government’s brutal tactics.

Despite tighter security outside the president’s office, protesters have vowed to continue until Wickremesinghe resigns.

On Friday, he named an ally of Rajapaksa, Dinesh Gunawardena, prime minister.

Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency as interim president on Monday in a bid to quell protests. Just hours after being sworn in, he issued a notice calling on the armed forces to maintain law and order, paving the way for action against the protest camp.

Protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful family of siphoning off money from government coffers and hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family denied allegations of corruption, but the former president admitted that some of his policies had contributed to the Sri Lankan crisis.

Political unrest threatened efforts to seek bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Yet earlier this week, Wickremesinghe said bailout talks were coming to an end.

IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva told the Japanese financial magazine Nikkei Asia this week that the IMF hopes for an agreement “as soon as possible”.

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