On January 18, 2023, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse members of the Peradeniya University Students’ Union who were demanding the release of fellow students who were in custody.
On the day of the protest, police set up roadblocks to prevent the march and used teargas and water cannons when students attempted to cross the line. Prior to the start of the protest, police had reportedly told students that the march was not approved and, therefore, that it was illegal to hold the protest.
The students were protesting the ongoing detention of some of their peers who had been arrested on December 13, 2022 because of an alleged connection to an attack on former Peradeniya University Vice Chancellor Professor Athula Senaratne and his son Vidura Senaratne. A group of around 300 students had argued with Professor Senaratne’s son, who had hit a parked motorcycle with his car; the group of students had subsequently attacked the professor and his son.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of violence in the course of a student protest. While state authorities have the right to take reasonable measures to ensure order, they must also exercise restraint and refrain from disproportionate actions, actions that may result in unnecessary harm, and or actions which encroach on the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of 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 a responsibility to refrain from restricting the nonviolent exercise of such rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of force to restrict or deter nonviolent student expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society more generally.
*SAR identified this incident in data made publicly available by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)