On August 6, 2021, police arrested five student leaders in apparent retaliation for their participation in an August 3 protest over a controversial bill concerning the management of General Sir John Kotelawala National Defense University (KNDU).
The Kotelawala University Bill would transfer the management of KNDU from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education to the Ministry of Defense. Students and academics have expressed fears that, if passed, the bill will accelerate the privatization and militarization of higher education institutions. The bill was previously advanced in 2018, but it was quashed after significant opposition. In June, students and academics alleged that the Ministry of Defense was attempting to rush the bill through Parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when public gatherings and protests were prohibited and resistance would be less visible. On June 21, police clashed with students during a protest over the bill (see report).
On August 3, the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) organized a protest, in which students marched on the road to the Parliament of Sri Lanka to demand the withdrawal of the bill, in anticipation of its presentation before Parliament on August 6. Police used barricades to block students from marching further towards the government building. During the protest, students reportedly burned a coffin on the road.
On August 6, police arrested five students after IUSF Convener Wasantha Mudalige made allegations on television that they had “caus[ed] injuries to fingers of a policeman,” “violat[ed] COVID-19 regulations,” and “damag[ed] public property.” In addition to Mudalige, the four other students arrested are Heshan Harshana, a student leader from Rajarata University, Chameera Koswatte, a member of the Workers Struggle Center, Amila Sandeepa, President of the Jayewardenepura University Students Union, and Koshila Hansamali Perera, a member of the People’s Movement for Free Education. As of September 30, the students remained in prison without access to medical care, legal counsel, or family.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the lengthy detention of students without access to counsel, medical care, or family, as well as authorities’ actions to prevent students from exercising the right to freedom of expression and assembly — conduct which 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. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting or retaliating against expressive activities and assemblies so long as they are peaceful and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such actions in response to peaceful student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.