On March 7, 2023, Sri Lankan police fired teargas and water cannons to disperse a group of peacefully protesting students at the University of Colombo. Priyantha Wanninayake, a security guard at the university, died due to teargas inhalation.
The demonstration was organized by the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), who were protesting to demand political reforms, economic assistance, and the release of imprisoned IUSF activists. The group originally planned to hold a protest march in the business district of Colombo, but relocated near the University of Colombo after court orders were issued to block them from accessing several streets in the city. The orders were requested by the police.
Police fired water cannons and teargas to disperse the protesters, which caused some people to take refuge inside the campus. Police followed them and continued their assault.
According to reports, several members of the campus community were hospitalized due to the teargas, including people uninvolved with the protests.
On March 8, police released an apology for firing teargas on campus.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of water cannons and tear gas to disperse students peacefully exercising 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. SAR offers condolences to the family and colleagues of the deceased staff member. 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 generally.