The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor this week expressed concerns over what she called as “vague” terrorism charges brought against detained Sri Lankan lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah.
She said Hizbullah’s human rights work and legal practice may have been conflated with terrorism and his detention may be used to prevent him from further engaging in ongoing human rights cases.
Referring to a joint communication issued on 8 July signed by seven United Nations (UN) special rapporteurs that included herself, Lawlor sought clarification on the circumstances of Hizbullah’s arrest and subsequent detention.
“We are deeply concerned by the vague terrorism charges brought against Mr. Hizbullah and believe that his previous human rights work and practice of his legal profession may have been conflated with terrorism. We find this particularly concerning in light of the changing focus of the investigation and allegations that minors and clerics have been pressured to give false statements,” Lawlor said.
“We are further concerned by the reported irregularities in due process, partly facilitated by the PTA, which allowed Mr. Hizbullah to be held without charge for almost a year with severely restricted access to lawyers. We find additionally concerning that the COVID-19 pandemic has been used on multiple occasions as an apparent pretext of bypassing due process, reportedly without sufficient notice or explanation, leaving Mr. Hizbullah for a prolonged period of time in adequate prison conditions,” the rapporteurs said in their 8 July communication.
The lawyer was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on 14 April 2020, and was detained under provisions in the Prevention for Terrorism Act (PTA) for allegedly “aiding and abetting” the 2019 Easter Sunday bombers and for engaging in activities deemed “detrimental to religious harmony among communities.” The rapporteurs also sought information on measures in place to ensure that witness statements are recorded freely and not under duress, measures taken to ensure the safety of Sri Lanka’s human right defenders and steps taken to tackle allegations of rising hate speech and discrimination against Muslims and other minorities.