On August 18, 2022, riot police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse a nonviolent anti-government protest organized by the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) and detained 20 protesters.
The IUSF held the demonstration in the streets of Colombo over the ongoing economic crisis and to demand the release of detained protesters. At least several hundred people participated in the protest. It’s not clear what prompted the use of force or detentions by police.
On August 19, 16 of the detained protesters were released on bail. Three student leaders—Wasantha Mudalige (also written as Vasantha Mudalike), convenor of the IUSF, Hashantha Jawantha Gunathilake, a member of the Kelaniya University Students’ Union, and Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, convenor of the Inter-University Bhikku (Buddhist Monks) Federation—were transferred to the Terrorism Investigation Department and held without access to their lawyers. On August 22, they were given a 90-day detention order the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). According to Human Rights Watch, under the PTA detention order, authorities can hold detainees in custody for 90 days without evidence or the opportunity for detainees to apply for bail; the order can be renewed for up to one year.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of force against and detentions of students for the nonviolent exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — 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 state authorities have a responsibility to maintain order and safety, they must do so in a manner that is proportionate and does not violate fundamental human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. The use of force and detentions to restrict peaceful student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.