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AsiaCurrent

Sri Lanka: Activists Seek Release of Muslim Human Rights Lawyer Held Under Terror Law

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AsiaCurrent

Sri Lanka: Activists Seek Release of Muslim Human Rights Lawyer Held Under Terror Law

“The handling of Hejaaz Hizbullah‘s case has trampled over a host of Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations, including the protection from arbitrary detention and unfettered access to legal counsel. This must not be compounded further by yet another unwarranted detention order depriving him of his freedom – this draconian law must not be used to justify his unlawful detention.”

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“The handling of Hejaaz Hizbullah‘s case has trampled over a host of Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations, including the protection from arbitrary detention and unfettered access to legal counsel. This must not be compounded further by yet another unwarranted detention order depriving him of his freedom – this draconian law must not be used to justify his unlawful detention.”

Global human rights groups have expressed concern over the continuous detention of a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer held under terror laws without charges in Sri Lanka since April 2020.

The authorities of the island nation in the Indian Ocean accuse Hejaaz Hizbullah, a respected human rights and constitutional lawyer, of having links with the perpetrators of the Sunday Easter bombings of 2019 that killed more than 250 people.

However, rights groups say that Hizbullah is in fact being targeted for his advocacy of the rights of the Muslim minority of Sri Lanka. Hizbullah has appeared on the behalf of well-known cases including as counsel for Dr. Shafi – a Muslim doctor who was falsely accused of carrying out sterilisations of Sinhalese women.

Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, a researcher with Amnesty International in Sri Lanka, said he was [made] a scapegoat for the lack of accountability for the bombings. She added that authorities went after Hizbullah because he had spoken against the government’s decision to ban Muslims from burying their dead, forcing them to cremate in the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic. She stated:

This is a violation of their right to freedom of religion, as protected by Sri Lanka’s constitution and its international obligations.”

Hizbullah was arrested in a raid at his home in April by men from the Criminal Investigation Department and booked under the draconian anti-terror law Prevention of Terrorism Act – which Amnesty describes as one of the main tools used to perpetrate human rights violations including to crush dissent and forcibly kidnap people, along with other violations in Sri Lanka.

Ruwanpathirana alleged that Hizbullah has not been given due process safeguards like unrestricted access to counsel or family.

“The handling of Hejaaz Hizbullah‘s case has trampled over a host of Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations, including the protection from arbitrary detention and unfettered access to legal counsel. This must not be compounded further by yet another unwarranted detention order depriving him of his freedom – this draconian law must not be used to justify his unlawful detention,” said David Griffiths, Director of the Office of the Secretary-General of Amnesty International in a statement, demanding his release, on October 16. Hizbullah’s next hearing on the case is scheduled on Wednesday but given the harsh laws invoked, has little chance of bail.

Several other human rights groups which include Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, the European Union, and UN Human Rights Core Group on Sri Lanka have spoken out against the Hizbullah’s detention under terror laws.

The government has also criminalised Hizbullah’s relationship with Yusuf Mohammad Ibrahim, a businessman, whose sons Inshaf and Ilham were two of the seven men involved in the 2019 bombings. Amnesty terms his association with Ibrami as “legitimate”. His family has said that he is being targeted for his peaceful activism for his community.

Hejaaz, besides serving as  Ibrahim’s lawyer, was also part of his “Save the Pearls” organization that worked to keep children away from criminal activities and drug abuse. Hafeel Farisz, one of Hizbullah’s lawyers, was cited by Aljazeera in a report saying the police interrogated children of a Muslim School Al-Zuhriya Arabic College in Puttalam district in April to coerce them to say that Hizbullah was providing “terrorist” training.

Activists say that the detention of Hizbullah reeks of anti-Muslim bias of the current government under the rightwing Buddhist president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. According to the Aljazeera report, Hilmy Ahmed, CEO of Young Asia Television, said that Hizbullah was a “victim of the hate campaign that has been staged-managed by extremist Buddhists”.

In a worrying move, Buddhist extremist groups have been fanning hate crimes against Muslims, which the reports say have increased since the unfortunate bombings. It remains to be seen how Hizbullah’s case will proceed, as well as the growing tensions within the country and the implications of government-fueled incitements.

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