The South Asia Collective Online Bulletin #3

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In this section, our researchers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka review major news developments between 15 April and 15 July, 2020, that have impacted or have the potential to impact the lives of South Asia's minorities.

Afghanistan

During the period under review, Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara ethnic minority were the target of a major terrorist attack. Afghanistan’s beleaguered Sikh community also faced targeting, resulting in international condemnation.

Major Developments

  1. On 12 May, a group of gunmen disguised in Afghan police uniforms stormed a maternity ward in a residential neighbourhood in Kabul largely dominated by the Shia Hazara community. The attack, during which residents were ‘systematically shot dead’, claimed 24 lives. Among the dead were nurses, mothers, and newborn babies. According to reports, the attack was carried out by IS-Khorasan, a local affiliate of the Islamic State (IS). Fearing further attacks, the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which managed the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital that hosted the ward, has announced its decision to wind up its operations in the hospital. The move is expected to affect more than a million people. 

    The United States State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom, released in June 2020, quantified Afghanistan’s Shia population at 10 to 15%. The report also noted that there are no reliable sources of information about Afghanistan’s real religious break-up. This observation was dismissed by Sarwar Danesh, the Second Vice President of Afghanistan who is himself an ethnic Hazara. Danesh remarked that this was not the real break-up of Shias and Sunnis in the country, but did not offer any new numbers. 
     
  2. There were several developments concerning Afghanistan’s minuscule Sikh religious minority, which is still reeling from the attack on a gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) on 26 March that had claimed at least 25 lives. (click here for more)

    On 22 June, Nidan Singh Sachdeva, an Afghan Sikh community leader, was abducted by unidentified persons from a gurdwara in the Paktia province in south-eastern Afghanistan. Sachdeva was eventually safely released from captivity, due to efforts made by the Afghan government and local tribal elders. Following the abduction, India offered to facilitate the transfer of Hindus and Sikhs facing security threats in Afghanistan to India. Indian intervention has resulted in Sachdeva and 10 other members of the Afghan Sikh community being moved to New Delhi, on short-term visas.

    The increasing targeting of Sikhs had also resulted in 20 US Senators requesting the Trump administration in June to facilitate the resettlement of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs to the United States under the U.S. Refugee Admission Program (USRAP)

    At least one more instance of Sikhs being targeted has been reported since then. In July, a 13-year-old Sikh girl was alleged to have been lured for marriage by a Muslim man. The girl was rescued after a local cleric informed the police. The girl’s father and uncle were among those killed in the gurdwara attack on March.

    Due to long years of oppression and negligence, Afghanistan’s Sikh community has dwindled from thousands of families to only a few hundred now in Afghanistan. A recent report revealed that 99% of Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus have left the country over the last 3 decades.  

Bangladesh

Bangladesh spent most of the reporting period under complete lockdown, with socio-economic activities coming to a halt. Still, numerous instances of violence against minorities were reported from across the country.

Major Developments

  1. Several attacks on Hindus were reported.

    On 16 April, a teenage girl in Rajshahi district’s Ghasi village died by suicide, allegedly after she was subject to repeated harassment. The girl had been abducted by criminals from a neighbouring village last year before she was rescued by the police. The main accused in the abduction case secured bail earlier this year, and is alleged to have harassed and threatened the girl. Also on 16 April, a woman of the minority community in Jessore district was allegedly sexually assaulted by Babu Sarkar, a member of local unit Awami League. Police arrested Sarkar but he was granted bail soon. The accused has reportedly been harassing the woman’s family to withdraw the case.

    On 21 April, 30 Hindu families in Sukladas Para in Chittagong district came under attack by a mob, leading to at least 15 injuries. The mob also allegedly threatened to oust the families from the country.  Also on April 21, a Hindu man in Kurigram district was beaten and handed over to the police for allegedly insulting Islam. 

    On 24 April, alleged land grabbers attacked a Hindu family in Goledanga village in Bagerhat district. Seven people including women and children were injured in the attack. A complaint was lodged at the local police station but no arrests were reported. 

    On 15 May, fundamentalist mobs accused a Hindu man of insulting Islam and attacked and vandalised at least houses of 10 Hindu families in Bhola district. 

    And on 18 May, Baul Ronesh Thakur, a Hindu musician, had his music room set on fire by miscreants.
     
  2. Bangladesh’s Ahmadiyya community also continued to face resistance.

    The corpse of an Ahmadiyya infant was exhumed and left by a road in Bharmanbaria district’s Ghatura village. According to media reports, the mother of the baby girl prematurely gave birth on 7 July. The baby died after three day, and was buried in a public Muslim graveyard. After the exhumed body was discovered, it was buried in an Ahmadiyya graveyard. Islamic Oikko Jote (Islamic Unity Alliance), the biggest alliance of Islamic organisations in Bangladesh, reiterated its stand that members of the Ahmadiyya community should never be allowed in Muslim graveyards, and accused the baby’s family of deliberately trying to stoke tensions. 
     
  3. Members of Bangladesh’s indigenous communities also faced targeting. Amid the pandemic, seven indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts region are reported to have faced arbitrary arrest, and 13 persons are reported to have faced torture and harassment. Security forces conducted several search operations. A pregnant woman was also reported to have died on her way to a hospital due to a blockade during one such search operation.

    In Bandarban Hill district, land grabbers allegedly linked to the ruling party burned down around 5000 acres of rubber plantations of the indigenous peoples in May.
     
  4. The United States Commission for International Freedom (USCIRF), in its 2020 Annual Report—which covers developments in 2019—noted that Bangladesh’s controversial Digital Security Act, which criminalises content that hurts ‘religious sentiment or values’, has been repeatedly misused in the country. 

India

At a time when the country is facing a humanitarian crisis in the form of COVID-19, India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has escalated its repression of dissent, as well as exclusion and discrimination of those most marginalised. Unfettered by the pandemic or by widespread international condemnation, the BJP government has continued with its efforts to vilify and criminalise the victims of the two major campaigns of anti-Muslim mass violence witnessed in India in the recent past: the violent police crackdown in the state of Uttar Pradesh in December 2019, and the three days of targeted violence in national capital Delhi in February 2020. Both episodes were against the backdrop of the enactment of the 'fundamentally discriminatory’ Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and the large-scale, country-wide opposition to it. In Muslim-majority Kashmir, authorities have continued to impose one unjust measure after another upon a largely unwilling populace. In Assam, 1.9 million persons excluded from the National Register of Citizens, continue to wait for a chance to reclaim Indian citizenship, with Muslims among them being more at risk of statelessness. Simultaneously, India’s other minorities—Christians and Dalits—have also continued to face widespread targeting across the country. Below is a round-up of major developments concerning the lives of India's minorities between 15 April and 15 July, 2020.

Major Developments

  1. In the aftermath of the violence in Delhi that had left 53 people dead in February, chilling new details emerged that seemed to confirm previous assertions that the episode was indeed a targeted, anti-Muslim pogrom. 

    New reports—based on witness complaints filed before the police, and the analysis of court documents—offered several insights: According to multiple witnesses, the violence was directly led at many places by BJP leaders including Kapil Mishra, who had also made an incendiary speech believed to be the immediate catalyst for the violence. Other senior BJP leaders were also involved. Men and weapons, including bombs, were meticulously mobilised. Muslims disproportionately bore the brunt of the violence—75% (40) of the 53 dead and 55% (257) of the 473 officially acknowledged injured civilians were Muslims, and 85-90% of targeted houses and 80-85% of targeted shops also belonged to Muslims. Women and Dalits protesting against the CAA were also singled out for abuse and physical violence. These details were recently confirmed by a fact-finding report commissioned by the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC). Witnesses have also identified as many as five specific, senior Delhi Police officers and described in detail the crimes allegedly committed by them in tandem with Hindutva mobs. None of the named BJP leaders or the police officers have been officially investigated or charged till now, with complaints being suppressed and witnesses allegedly being intimidated

    In recent months, Delhi Police have gone a step further and sought to criminalise the victims themselves. The charge sheet filed by them makes no mention of Mishra’s provocative speech—caught on video—and instead paints a picture of an anti-India, anti-Hindu conspiracy led by students and activists protesting against the CAA. In this regard, even as the country was under lockdown due to COVID-19, Delhi Police continued to arrest working-class Muslims and youth activists, including women and students. Those arrested during the period under review included leaders of Jamia Coordination Committee, a student alumni network, and Pinjra Tod, a women’s collective. Almost all the arrested protesters have been implicated in fabricated cases, and charged under the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act (UAPA), India’s principal anti-terror law. Safoora Zargar, a scholar who was two months pregnant when she was picked up and spent two months in custody, was released on bail. Delhi Police continues to fight tooth and nail to deny bail to the others. An attempt was also made to target Zafarul Islam Khan, the chairman of the DMC who had ordered the fact-finding report. Some Hindutva foot soldiers have also been arrested, but the police have been accused of going soft on them. 

    Meanwhile, the victims of the violence—shattered first by the violence and then by the pandemic—still await relief and justice. 
     
  2. Even beyond Delhi, the state continued its rampant targeting of critics. In Uttar Pradesh (UP), where the Muslim community is still reeling from the violent police crackdown on anti-CAA protesters that left 23 dead in December 2019, the BJP government continued with its campaign to ‘silence’ opponents of the CAA.

    Arrests of peaceful protesters continued. Those detained included Shahnawaz Alam, a senior leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), and Sharjeel Usmani, a 23-year-old student leader at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). And Dr. Kafeel Khan, a prominent Muslim voice who was arrested earlier this year for speaking at a protest at AMU, continued to be detained without trial under the National Security Act (NSA), a draconian preventive detention law. Khan, who has been granted bail by courts in several other cases, recently penned a letter detailing the deplorable conditions in UP’s prisons, even as COVID-19 intensifies in the state. Another detainee is Sharjeel Imam, a student activist with multiple FIRs under UAPA against in several states including UP, where he spoke out against the CAA in January 2020. Imam is reported to have contracted COVID-19, but remains under detention.

    UP Police also continued its campaign of sealing shops and property belonging to those they accuse of involvement in protests, and continued harassing others with frivolous notices for payment of exorbitant damages for the alleged destruction of public property. Meanwhile, six policemen who were accused of murdering a 20-year-old Muslim student in cold blood were absolved by a Special Investigation Team (SIT). 

    UP continued to be a hostile place for Muslims, with state police forces being accused of harassing, assaulting and ransacking Muslim villagers in Shamli and Meerut. Both incidents involved accusations of cow slaughter. The state also reported other instances of targeting of Muslims including the mob lynching of a Muslim youth in Saharanpur district. 
     
  3. In Muslim-majority Kashmir, the systematic repression of dissent has continued taking a heavy toll. During the first six months of 2020, Kashmiri civil society groups recorded 32 extrajudicial killings (EJKs), including that of 3 children and 2 women. At least 57 violent ‘encounters’ were also recorded by the groups, which resulted in the deaths of 143 Kashmiri militants and 54 Indian security personnel. Increasingly, such encounters are followed by the vandalism, looting and destruction of households and businesses in the vicinity, as a form of collective punishment by government forces. 

    A large number of youth, political leaders and activists continue to languish in jails or under house arrest in ‘preventive detentions’ – while the justice system fails them. A report in late June revealed that 99% of the 600-plus habeas corpus petitions filed in Kashmir since August 2019 have not been heard by the courts.  

    Alongside, the blockade on high-speed Internet—now in force for almost a year, since the revocation of limited autonomy in August 2019—continued, despite repeated pleas before the Indian Supreme Court. Localised internet shutdowns were enforced in various parts of Kashmir at least 17 times in May and at least 12 times in June. The dearth of fast and reliable internet is reported to have greatly hampered the Kashmiri medical community’s efforts against COVID-19. The pandemic has also been used cynically as an opportunity by authorities to target civilians. (Click here for more)  

    The Indian government has also recently introduced changes to Kashmir’s domicile law, stoking fears among the indigenous population of a demographic invasion by non-Kashmiris. The new J&K administration’s decision to issue domicile certificates to thousands of non-Kashmiris, including Indian Army soldiers, have reinforced these fears. 

    Press freedom in Kashmir also came increasingly under attack, with the announcement of a new media policy that allows authorities to decide what constitutes ‘anti-social’ and ‘anti-national’ content and gives them the  authority to ‘de-empanel’ journalists that do not toe the line. Signalling the direction in which media personnel are being targeted was the charging in April of 3 Kashmiri journalists under the UAPA, India’s principal anti-terror law. 
     
  4. India’s other minorities too have faced increased targeting and harassment. 

    48 incidents of targeting of Christians have been reported by civil society groups. These included three murders—a woman who was allegedly raped and killed in Chhattisgarh, a 14-year old boy who was murdered and buried by a mob in Odisha, and a pastor who was kidnapped and shot dead by villagers in Maharashtra. There were at least six other incidents of mass violence, including the shooting of a girl in Jharkhand allegedly for promoting religious conversions. And there have been reported incidents of attacks on Christian Adivasi families in rural Chhattisgarh, the fallout allegedly of an ongoing campaign by local BJP and other Hindutva leaders to forcibly convert Christians to Hinduism. 

    In Agra, Uttar Pradesh, a Sikh student was reported being abused and physically assaulted by police personnel. In Mohali, Punjab, a Dalit Sikh man died by suicide after he was summoned by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for questioning in a sedition case.
     
  5. Dalits too continued to be subjects of targeting. More than 200 cases of atrocities against Dalits were documented by civil society groups between April and June 2020. These included murders, lynching, sexual violence, attacks on human rights defenders, police brutality and torture, and cases of untouchability practices. There has also been a spike in violence against Dalit women, with multiple reports of murder, gang rape, extreme physical molestations, and acid attacks. Part of the context to this has been COVID-19 and the increased targeting of vulnerable populations, including Dalits. (More on this in our COVID-19 section) 
     
  6. These and other developments have led to a continuing spate of international censures for the Indian government. In May, The UN Special Advisor on Prevention of Genocide expressed concern at increased hate speech and discrimination against minorities in India. Also in May, the United States Commission for Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended to the US State Department that India be designated as a ‘country of particular concern’ (CPC). In June, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) condemned Indian authorities’ crackdown against anti-CAA protestors, stating that it was ‘clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society’. The same month, it also expressed  alarm at India’s—and 11 other countries’—clampdown on freedom of expression during the pandemic. In July, India was again pulled up by the OHCHR for its stigmatisation of minorities during the pandemic. Also in July, four UN Special Rapporteurs made public their third communication to the Indian government over its various human rights violations in Kashmir since August 2019. 

Nepal

With Nepal in lockdown since 23 March, the country witnessed a shocking lynching of some Dalit as well as non-Dalit youths in an incident instigated by caste-based violence in western Nepal. Also on the news during this period was the contention over the different provisions of citizenship of male and female spouses of Nepali nationals.

Major Developments

  1. The government introduced a new regulation which stipulates that social security allowance would be provided only to single women who reach 60 years of age. This is a change from previous years when such allowance was provided to all economically vulnerable women, and places the livelihood of countless women in jeopardy.
     
  2. In May, the members of Nepal National Oppressed Students’ Union padlocked the Gurukul Sanskrit School in Bhadrapur, in southeast Nepal, after the school administration denied admission to a Dalit student. 
     
  3. Also in May, in a case that gained national prominence, a 21-year-old Dalit boy and his friends were beaten up and then thrown into the Bheri river by a large gathering of mostly so-called 'upper caste' villagers. The Dalit boy had gone to a neighbouring village, accompanied by 18 friends, to bring home a 17-year-old ‘upper-caste’ girl as his bride when the locals, including local elected officials, participated in the public lynching of the young boys. This resulted in a national outcry with mass protests, with the UN too condemning the killings and calling for an independent probe. On 3 June, the Parliamentary Committee on Law and Justice asked the government and Nepal Police to form a separate Dalit unit within the Police Department to investigate and deal with the cases of caste-based discrimination. On June 5, the government set up a parliamentary panel to investigate the killings, though only after the main opposition, the Nepali Congress, warned of obstructing the parliamentary proceedings. A month later, the panel concluded that the killings were a result of caste-based discrimination. The police has filed charges against 34 people in connection with the case and arrested 29 of them. 
     
  4. Again in May, a 13-year old Dalit girl was allegedly raped by a 25-year-old ‘upper caste’ villager. The incident took place in Rupandehi district of southern Nepal. Claiming that the ‘honour’ of the girl had been lost and that no one would marry her, the villagers under the leadership of an elected official decided that the girl should marry the alleged rapist and live with him. Not long afterwards, her body was found hanging from a tree. While the girl’s mother then reported her rape and murder to the police, they refused to register the complaint and deemed the action a suicide. The case, too, gained national attention and the police belatedly took the accused into custody.
     
  5. After a deadlock over the amendment to the Citizenship Act of 2006, the all-male members of the Secretariat of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), its highest decision-making body, decided to grant naturalised citizenship to foreign women married to Nepali men after seven years of residence in Nepal. The bill, which was then endorsed by the parliamentary State Affairs and Good Governance Committee was met with public outrage not only because it increased the time period required for foreign women to live in Nepal to gain citizenship from the earlier zero to seven years, but also because it failed to grant the same privilege to foreign men married to Nepali women.
     
  6. It its annual report for 2019 released in May 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed out that Nepal’s record on transitional justice, minority rights and freedom of expression leaves a lot to be desired. The report noted that the country had proposed many new laws curtailing free expression and limiting the powers of the National Human Rights Commission. The government reportedly did not make adequate efforts to meet its pledges on transitional justice, and even drafted legislation that would give the government powers to monitor and control the activities of domestic and international organisations in the country. The report also found that caste/ethnic minorities remained more vulnerable to abuses, including excessive use of force by police, and torture in police custody. Furthermore, crimes such as sexual violence against members of minority communities often went unreported and uninvestigated. This has left civil society members wondering whether Nepal even deserves re-election for a second term at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
     
  7. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2020 Annual Report, published in May 2020, does not designate Nepal as a country of special concern but does mention instances of religious intolerance in the country in 2019. The report also warned of the rise of ethno-religious nationalism in Nepal, as a number of Nepali politicians continued their push to redefine Nepal as a Hindu state. The report also noted the government’s decision to begin the implementation of a strict anti-conversion law, leading to the arrests of members of religious minority communities, especially Christians, for alleged acts of proselytisation.
     
  8. In June, two journalists identified 18 custodial deaths in Nepal from June 2015 to June 2020. Of the 18, 12 individuals belonged to the marginalised Dalit, Madhesi, or Janajati communities. Most of the cases were found to not even have been reported by major news outlets or rights organisations.
     
  9. In July, the National Human Rights Commission released the report, Human Rights Status of Sexual and Gender Minorities, warning that sexual and gender minorities in the  Tarai in southern Nepal were most in need of protection, and urged the government to introduce programmes to make them economically self-reliant. The report further recognised that despite constitutional rights, the LGBTI community in Nepal continue to be discriminated against and stigmatised due to their sexual orientation.
     
  10. Despite caste-based discrimination being illegal in Nepal, Dalits continue to be treated as untouchable, as seen by the case of two men assaulting a 16-year-old Dalit youth on the charge of touching the door of a house. On a positive note, the police arrested the two perpetrators.
     
  11. In mid-July, the government promoted the joint-secretary Man Bahadur Bishwokarma at the Ministry of Health and Population to the position of secretary. With the decision, he became the first Dalit to reach the rank in the country’s civil service. 

Pakistan

Pakistan has a population of around 200 million, though reliable disaggregated data on population statistics broken down by religion is not available - the results of the latest census (2017) remain disputed and have not been accepted by several religious minority communities. According to the 1998 census, the country had around 2% Christians, 1.85% Hindus, and 0.22% Ahmadis.

Major Developments

  1. On 5 May 2020, Pakistan’s cabinet established the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), but announced that it would not have Ahmadiyya representatives, arguing that they did not "fall in the definition of minorities." The formation of this body has been recommended by multiple actors, including UN treaty bodies and USCIRF, and the creation of a “national council for minorities” was also part of the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s landmark judgement on minority rights in June 2014. However, the recent formation of the NCM has been widely criticised by human rights groups and civil society, who have argued that it is largely an eye wash for appeasement. The NCM does not come through an act of parliament, which has historically been the problem. During the tenure of the previous government it was notified as a judicial order.

    On 30 April, a 55-year old Ahmadiyya woman was convicted of blasphemy in Cheleki, under 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code. The case built on some pre-existing resentment in the community, when the woman had donated some money for an event being held in a non-Ahmadiyya mosque in the community. Once the money was returned to her and the donation rejected, she was allegedly assaulted by the non-Ahmadiyya residents of Cheleki. They also approached the District Police Officer to file a case of blasphemy against her. 
     
  2. The trial of Shagufta Masih—a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy along with her husband, and has spent six years in imprisonment—was effectively adjourned indefinitely. Although the case was due for a final decision on 6 June, the hearing was adjourned till 22 June, when court holidays were announced.

    On 4 June, Nadeem Joseph, a Christian homeowner, passed away after being shot multiple times by his neighbour. He had moved into a new neighbourhood and was attacked by his neighbours—Salman Khan and sons—who disapproved of a Christian family moving in. Joseph’s mother-in-law Elizabeth Masih was also shot. 

    In July, news emerged that a 14-year-old Christian girl who was forcibly converted and taken into marriage in 2019 is now pregnant and remains in the custody of her kidnappers. Pakistan's legal system has failed to grant the girl any relief so far.
    There were also several instances of Christians allegedly being denied rations and other services in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (click here for more)
     
  3. On 20 May, 25 houses belonging to members of the Hindu community were levelled and another 10 partly demolished by local authorities in Yazman (Bahawalpur), leaving their occupants – including young children – without any access to shelter. An independent fact-finding mission by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) found that demolition of Hindu homes was done despite a restraining order. One respondent told the HRCP that she was dragged out of the house by her hair.

    On 23 June, the move to lay down the first foundation stones for a government-approved Hindu temple complex in Islamabad led to severe backlash from hardliners. Fatwas were announced against the temple and, on 5 July, angry mobs broke down the temple wall. The decision regarding the temple construction has been left to the Council of Islamic ideology, the country’s top Islamic guidance body. The Islamabad High Court has disposed of three petitions filed before it that sought to halt the construction, as Article 20 of Pakistan’s Constitution grants religious minorities the freedom to profess, practice and propagate their religion

    blasphemy complaint was filed against Khawaja Asif, Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister, for speaking in favour of religious equality on account of the issue. The complaint was filed by Qamar Riaz, a local leader of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. This is yet another example of the Government acting in contravention to multiple recommendations to repeal or significantly reform blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Instead, such actions are reflective of a continuation of these laws being used as a tool including by government officials, bringing with it damaging effects on political stability in the country, and in particular the condition for minorities.
     
  4. Blasphemy allegations continued to be raised elsewhere. 

    In Sialkot, a football maker was accused of blasphemy on Friday owing to a design on the ball, which members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) deemed insulting to Islam.

    Sajid Soomro, an assistant professor at Shah Abdul Latif University, also faced blasphemy charges, for remarking that Islam is a male-dominated religion. Arfana Mallah, another academic, also came under pressure for supporting Soomro. Several NGOs and Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission condemned this misuse of the blasphemy law. 

    The release of Zindagi Tamasha, an award-winning film by Sarmad Khoosad, was also briefly barred from release over blasphemy allegations by the TLP. 
     

Sri Lanka

Major Developments

  1.  During the period under review, Sri Lanka witnessed two instances of arbitrary detention of prominent Muslims. Both cases encompassed several types of targeting–arrest without due process, hate speech, slander campaigns and death threats in digital spaces and mainstream media.

    The first, Hejaaz Hizbullah, is a prominent Sri Lankan lawyer. Hizbullah was arrested in April and has been detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). A Police spokesperson, during a media briefing, noted that he had been arrested based on alleged evidence found during investigations around the Easter Sunday bombings. For more than three months, he has not been produced before a magistrate and not provided meaningful access to his lawyers. 

    After his arrest, three children of ages 16 and under, reported to have submitted petitions to the Supreme Court, alleging that: they were forcibly taken by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police to an undisclosed location, were not accompanied by guardians and no arrest note or information had been provided to the guardians about where the children were taken. The children allege that they had been shown photographs and threatened to admit that persons in the photograph had preached extremist and violent ideas in the school they had received scholarships to study. The children had also been asked whether they had received weapons training, which they had denied. They were videoed and asked to place their signatures on documents that they could not read. All three boys are from poor families and the school they had received scholarships to study was funded by a charity of which Hejaaz is a trustee.

    Hejaaz’s family have decried media reports that falsify and fabricate information to show his guilt. A majority of said coverage is done by Sinhala-language mainstream and digital media platforms. 

    Ramzy Razeek, a retired government official, was also arrested in April. The laws cited for the arrest are: (1) Article 3 (1) of the ICCPR Act no. 56 of 2007 (propagation of or advocating national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence), (2) Article 120 of the Penal Code - exciting or attempting to excite disaffection, and (3)Article 6 of the Computer Crimes Act no. 24 of 2007 - Offences committed against national security

    Razeek has a history of critiquing fundamentalism (including Muslim and Buddhist) and racism in Sri Lanka. The post over which he was arrested, called for a ‘jihad (struggle) of thought’ against all forms of fundamentalisms and racism persecuting the Sri Lankan Muslims as a community. Razeek very specifically states in his post that he is proposing a struggle of ideas and intellect to question and counter the attacks against progressive Muslims from outside, as well within the Muslim community. A day later, Razeek posted that he will stop posting in Sinhalese, citing safety concerns of his children, as he had received countless messages of hate speech and death threats as a result of his post, and that many had misconstrued his words, calling for him to be jailed for propagating racist ideas.  

    Razeek is still in detention for more than 3 months without clear evidence being produced against him. He has been in prison hospital on and off. His lawyers state that he had not received adequate medical care and his health condition is deteriorating due to lack of access to specific medicines of which he is in dire need.

    Many activists and lawyers have called for him to be released and for the ICCPR – which was intended to protect freedom of speech – not be abused by the state in curtailing it.
     
  2. In June, the Sri Lankan President appointed a Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province. The Eastern Province is presently inhabited by equal proportions of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim citizens. Historically, majority of population was Tamil, but the demography has been altered significantly through government organized colonization schemes. However, the Task Force has no Muslims or Tamils and consists almost entirely of Sinhala military personnel and Buddhist monks. This composition, in addition to existing tensions around land in the Province, have raised concerns that the Task Force will overlook the concerns of Tamils and Muslims in its activities. 

    The People’s Alliance for Right to Land (PARL) in an analysis of this appointment, noted that it does little to foster connections between communities of people already facing severe hardships and instances of intimidation by the military in the Eastern Province. They add that it could deepen mistrust and polarization between resident communities.

    In June, the Task Force along with the Archaeological Department started surveying land surrounding the Muhudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuvil amidst much opposition from long-standing Muslim residents who now face a threat of eviction. This Viharaya (Buddhist temple) has been a site politicised – especially through false news prior to elections - to question legitimacy of the Muslim citizens who live nearby.
     
  3. In July, Sri Lanka saw attempted restrictions by security forces at a Tamil commemoration event in Navaly. A memorial mass took place at St. Peter and St Paul's Church in Navaly, for the Tamil civilians who lost their lives 25 years ago in the Sri Lanka Air Force bombing of the area and Church on July 9th, 1995. News of the Mallakam Court denying a request from the Manipay police to issue an injunction against this event was reported only in Tamil-language news sites. The injunction was requested labelling the mass and commemoration a 'protest'. There were a lot of Police, Special Task Force (STF) and intelligence personnel in civilian clothing around the area, and surveillance had begun a few days prior. Banners put up by local community was removed and the parish priest had received calls that questioned about the event. 

    As people went to place candles at monument to the dead, Police attempted to restrict mourners, asking priests to lead the crowd in remaining calm, and asking them not to politicise this. People shot back saying they were only remembering the lost, and priests insisted people be let through. People did eventually get to light candles, pray and place flowers at the monument however Police maintained a close watch the whole time + intel personnel photographed those lighting lamps and others gathering.
     
  4. In May, a young, autistic Muslim boy was assaulted and abused with Islamophobic slurs by policemen. 

    On the 25th of May, while curfew was imposed, Thariq Ahmed had wandered out of his house to Dharga Town where there was a police checkpoint manned by 7 policemen. He was first stopped and accosted by a policeman in civilian attire, and pushed violently off his bicycle. As he was pulled to his feet, another 5 policemen started brutally assaulting him. He was then dragged towards the checkpoint where another 2 civilians joined the police in assaulting him.

    Thariq, being autistic, was not able to effectively communicate who he was and what he was doing there. All the while he was sobbing unintelligibly, which further infuriated the police. His hands were then tied behind his back as he was trying to struggle free, and then tied against a post under a tree, by the checkpoint. When his father arrived, he immediately rushed to his son and pleaded with the officers to release him explaining his son’s medical disorder and condition.

    A CCTV recording of the entire incident is available, however three police officers have been only interdictedbased on the evidence.

    On visiting the Judicial Medical officer, Thariq’s father was asked why he was brought here, and not sent to Angoda (the location of the National Institute of Mental Health; it is used derogatorily to refer to individuals with mental illnesses). In addition, the Officer also stated that Thariq’s ‘kind’ (Muslims) are the reason for the spread of COVID, and they should all be punished. 
     
  5. On 30 June, the UK's International Ambassador for Human Rights, Rita French, delivered the statement on behalf of Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and the UK, the Core Group on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council 44

    The Group reiterated their disappointment at Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from UNHRC Resolution 30/1, while remaining committed to ‘advancing the resolution’s goals of accountability, reconciliation, and inclusive peace in Sri Lanka.’ The Group also highlighted the continued targeting of minorities through ‘the pardoning of Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake and promotion of others accused of serious violations during the conflict, and the militarisation of a wide range of civilian functions

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The South Asia Collective would like to thank the following for reviewing this edition of the Bulletin: Afghanistan: Khodadad Bisharat (Founder, Development Alternative Experts, and Policy Advisor to the Ministry of Education, Government of Afghanistan); Bangladesh: Khalid Hussain (Founder & Chief Executive, Council of Minorities); India: Tehmina Arora (Alliance Defending Freedom), Meena Varma and Ritwajit Das (International Dalit Solidarity Network); Nepal: Khem Shreesh (Social Science Baha); Pakistan: Naumana Suleman (Minority Rights Group International); Sri Lanka: Ruki Fernando (INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre)

The contents of this Online Bulletin are the sole responsibility of The South Asia Collective and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or Norad.
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