Increased searches, arrests by the law enforcement and hate speech by Buddhist hardliners has had a chilling effect on Sri Lankan Muslims in the wake of the Easter terror attack. Photo: AFP

Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community is being targeted and persecuted in the aftermath of the Easter bombings, carried out by a local ISIS terrorist cell, in Colombo. Scores are being picked up by Sri Lanka’s investigating agencies and are also being targeted by hardline Sinhala Buddhists who are a majority.

Soon after the terrorist attack on churches and luxury hotels on April 21, which killed more than 250 people, communal tensions peaked. Tensions between the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority were already high and last year saw a series of attacks.

The Easter Sunday suicide bombings were claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Sri Lankan government named a little-known Muslim group called the National Thowheeth Jama’ath as the foot soldiers who carried out the attack. Riots broke out in May and mosques, shops and homes owned by Muslims were attacked and vandalized.  A person was also killed pushing the police to arrest dozens of people. The government’s search operations after the attack led to a disproportionate arrest of Muslims, which human rights activists said was a violation of their fundamental rights and abuse of counter-terrorism laws.

On June 4, the police said they had arrested 2,289 suspects in connection with the terror attacks and the violence that followed. Among those arrested 1,820 were Muslims, 330 Sinhalese and 139 Tamils. Muslims constitute 10% of the 22 million population of the island country and Sinhalese Buddhists make up around 70%.

Buddhists against Muslims

On Sunday, hardline Buddhist monks held their first rally in Kandy city where they called for the formation of a ‘Sinhalese’ government. Muslim traders in Kandy closed shops in fear of violence. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, general secretary of Buddhist nationalist organization, Bodu Bala Sena, was at the helm of the rally and reportedly called for Buddhists to take control of the country.

Gnanasara has been accused of hate crimes against Muslims and was released from prison in May this year after President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned him.

Monk Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana, the chief prelate of the large Asgiriya Chapter of Buddhism, last month called for a boycott of Muslim shops, which is still happening informally.

He also said Muslims should be stoned and repeated an unsubstantiated accusation that a Muslim doctor in the central Kurunegala district had covertly sterilized 4,000 Buddhist women after cesarian deliveries. Such claims have increased tension in the region where Buddhist nationalists had been accusing Muslims of trying to have a higher birth rate to spread their influence.

“As if on cue, Buddhist extremists used the attacks to target Muslims and refugees,” human rights activist and founding member of Women’s Action Network, Shreen Abdul Saroor, told Asia Times.

On June 3, all nine Sri Lankan Muslim ministers and their deputies resigned from their portfolios after accusing the government of failing to guarantee the security of the community. The resignations were in response to a hunger strike by an influential Buddhist monk who said he would fast to death unless Sirisena removed three senior Muslim officials that the monk accused of having ties to the suicide bombers.

“The attacks against Muslims in Sri Lanka are not isolated to the events post-Easter bombings, but follow a recurring pattern over the years that has been fostered due to state inaction and impunity against the perpetrators,” Biraj Patnaik, the South Asia director of Amnesty International told Asia Times. “There is a clear possibility that those involved in the violence earlier are also involved this time around. No action has been taken over hate speech, especially by Buddhist hardliners calling for Muslim businesses to be boycotted, or condoning the killing of Muslims,” he said.

Abuse of law

Police arrested over 2,000 persons under different provisions of the penal code along with counter-terrorism and emergency laws in connection with the attack. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a long-abused law that the government pledged to the United Nations Human Rights Council to repeal, has been used the most.

A young man and his father have been detained since May 11 for having in their house around 250 grams of a substance they said was chlorine. The army thought the white powder was C-4 explosive.

Abdul Raheem Masaheena, 47, was detained for three weeks under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) for wearing a dress with what the police mistook as dharmachakraya (a Buddhist symbol) embroidered on it. The Act, which had been upheld for its potential to promote and protect individual rights, is now haunting Sri Lankan Muslims.

Lawyer Swasthika Arulingam who has represented some of the arrested persons, told Asia Times that PTA and the ICCPR Act were broad enough to give absolute discretion to the police and armed forces to arrest on mere suspicion. She explained that once someone is arrested under PTA they cannot get bail unless the Attorney General consents and can be detained indefinitely until the trial ends.

“In a case which I’m handling, a Muslim activist was arrested because he was writing [on social media] against ISIS in Tamil and police thought he was writing in support of ISIS because they could not read or understand Tamil (the language of another minority),” Arulingam said.

“Since 1978, PTA has been misused for arresting political dissidents and journalists. Then throughout the 90s and early 2000s it primarily targeted Tamil people. Now, Muslims are the new ‘terrorists’ under the law,” she said.

Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist based in Colombo, said that the government had the duty to investigate and arrest those responsible for the Easter attack. “But this must be based on evidence, not discriminatory. We saw similar discriminatory tactics being used against Tamils during the [civil] war, where many Tamils were subjected to prolonged detention. Such discriminatory treatment may have contributed to pushing Tamils towards violence. So we must be very careful not to make the same mistakes again,” he said.

Sri Lanka was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government. The war only ended in 2009.

Atmosphere of fear

Human rights activists said that the Muslims are being increasingly searched in public spaces, especially women wearing Hijab and abayah as face covering is prohibited under emergency regulations that are currently in place.

“In one case, another lawyer was handling a pregnant lady who was arrested because she covered her face as she was feeling nausea. And the police came and arrested her. She was in prison for more than two weeks until she was granted bail. She is still not released from her charges,” said Arulingam.

Muslims are living in permanent terror in areas that came under mob attack recently, particularly Negombo and Minuwangoda and other small Muslim villages in Northwestern province. Children and women do not get out of their house while men are afraid to go to jobs.  “The impact of the attacks has made the Muslim community further sever their connection with other communities,” Saroor said.

Zul Luthufi, a 28-year-old law student in Colombo, said: “We feel like second-class citizens whose fundamental rights cannot be enforced.”

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