On March 13, 2019, Sri Lankan authorities reportedly used violent force against a group of university students in an apparent attempt to prevent them from staging a protest against a proposed anti-terror law outside of parliament in Colombo. Police arrested the chief organizer of the protest, who was later released.
In 2015, the Sri Lankan government, under pressure from the international community, announced its intention to repeal and replace the controversial 1979 “Prevention of Terror Act.” Since the 1980s, the law had facilitated the arrest and detention of journalists, opposition politicians, and tens of thousands of ethnic Tamils reportedly based on weak allegations of connections to armed groups. In late 2018, the government unveiled a new draft of the “Counter Terrorism Act” that was met with fierce opposition from human rights groups, various political parties, and free press advocates who claimed that the law still left the state significant discretion in labeling expressive activities as “terrorism.”
On March 13, 2019, a group of students organized by the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) convened on the campus of the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo and marched towards parliament where they would protest the proposed “Counter Terrorism Act.” Video evidence reportedly shows authorities blocking the students’ path towards parliament with metal barriers and firing water cannons and tear gas canisters at students when they attempted to push back the metal barricades. Police reportedly claim that one officer was injured when a student protesters threw back a tear gas canister that officers had initially fired at demonstrators. Sources have not reported the extent of injuries resulting from the clashes, if any.
Police later arrested IUSF Convener Maheel Bandara for alleged “unruly behavior” connected with the protest. Media reports do not indicate the basis of the charges. Bandara was released on bail on March 18.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of violent force by police and arrests in connection to nonviolent student expression — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party. While states have a responsibility to maintain order and security, they have an obligation not to interfere with the exercise of these rights so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly. The use of violent force and arrests to restrict peaceful student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.