Amid gov't disarray, Sri Lanka emergency powers 'ripe for abuse'

State of emergency in wake of Easter Sunday attacks grants security forces sweeping powers, sets new media restrictions.

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    Shortly after a spate of bombings tore through churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the country's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe admitted that a top police official had warned the government of impending attacks on the country's Christian minority.

    "The information was there," he told reporters a day after the attacks which killed more than 250 people. But "adequate precautions" were not taken, he said.

    Amid mass burials and growing public anger over the intelligence failures, Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena announced a nationwide state of emergency - the first time such measures were imposed throughout the country since 2011, two years after the end of a 26-year civil war against Tamil separatists. 

    The 33-page declaration granted security forces sweeping powers of search and arrest and included curbs on press freedom. 

    Authorities had already imposed a social media ban and a nighttime curfew in the wake of the suicide bombings - the worst violence to hit the country since the military defeat of the Tamil rebels in 2009. 

    By Friday, Sirisena, who is embroiled in a long-running power struggle with his prime minister, pledged that every household in Sri Lanka would be "checked" as part of the investigation into the attacks. 

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    Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe said they were not warned of the attacks, claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). 

    The government has accused two obscure Muslim groups of being involved in the attacks, and is investigating international involvement in the blasts.

    More than 70 suspects have now been arrested and security forces on Friday seized more bomb-making material in raids in the country's east.

    Historic misuse of powers

    The moves may reassure some, but amid the apparent government dysfunction, analysts and human rights experts said they are concerned about the expansive emergency powers. 

    "Sri Lanka has faced a brutal attack and should arrest and prosecute those responsible … [but] it is crucial that promoting security does not come at the cost of compromising on civil liberties," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

    "Laws have been misused in the past to crack down on critics, harming civil society efforts to uphold human rights," she added.

    Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka was under a state of emergency for nearly three decades while beset by civil war, during which government forces and rebel fighters carried out widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture. 

    Up to 100,000 people died in that conflict.

    People come to the site of a mass burial to pay their respects to victims of Easter Sunday bombings [Athit Perawongmetha/ Reuters]

    "Emergency regulations were in place near continuously from 1971 to 2011 … [and] granted sweeping powers to search, arrest and detain, which led to serious human rights violations," Ganguly said.

    The new emergency decree permits Sirisena to ban public assembly and allows security forces to hold suspects for up to 90 days without a court warrant. 

    Under the new rules, authorities also have the power to restrict the publication of something deemed "prejudicial to national security or the preservation of public order".

    Additionally, officials can request material be submitted to them before publication, potentially enabling prior censorship, and shut down any newspapers deemed to contravene the rules concerning publishing rights.

    Press freedom

    Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka's project director at the International Crisis Group, said there was "reason for serious concern at the broad scope of new offences declared in the emergency regulations". 

    "Many previously legal activities have been criminalised based on a broad and ill-defined notion of 'national security', and there are real risks that media freedom and the democratic rights of assembly could be unduly restricted, especially given the absence of independent oversight procedures," he said.

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    Gehan Gunatilleke, a human rights law researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said the curbs on publishing amount to "excessive regulation" of the media.

    "[This] is problematic because they [the rules] can be directed at independent sources of information, and particularly against those who legitimately criticise the state for its inaction and incompetence," Gunatilleke said.

    "Neither incitement to violence nor the planning of new attacks happen via newspapers, so there is no real security rationale behind regulating such publications; it seems the state is more interested in preventing criticism," he added.

    Under the regulations, coverage of the intelligence failures could land publishers in hot water, said Gunatilleke. 

    "The document that was leaked to the press revealing the intelligence failure and incompetence of the security establishment falls within the scope of the new regulations, [so] publishing such a document would now become an offence," he warned.

    'Ripe for abuse'

    Amid the continued tensions it is unclear how long the state of emergency will last. 

    Sri Lankan law says the decree will end after 30 days unless the country's parliament opts to extend it.

    In March 2018, Sirisena imposed emergency rule for 12 days in the central district of Kandy because of communal violence, but given the scale of the Easter Sunday bombings, some fear the expanded powers might be in place for some time yet.

    Keenan, at the International Crisis Group, called for the measures to be rolled back as soon as "the current period of uncertainty and insecurity has ended". 

    "One can hope that the government will avoid the abuses of past emergency and limit its use of the new powers to only those absolutely essential to protect citizens against real threats," Keenan said.

    "What Sri Lankans ultimately need to be safe are effective and non-politicised police and intelligence services - not expanded powers ripe for abuse by political leaders who have lost the trust of the people."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News