Sri Lankan police have detained three student activists and begun a probe into their possible links to an anti-government conspiracy and inciting violence and arson attacks across the country amid widespread protests over the worst economic crisis, a senior police official said on Sunday.
Sri Lanka, a country of 22 million people, is grappling with its worst economic turmoil in seven decades, leaving millions struggling to buy food, medicine, fuel and other essentials. The massive protests that began in March culminated with ex-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation.
Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said three of the detained student activists – Mudalige Wasantha Kumara, Hashan Jeewantha and Buddhist monk Galwewa Siridhamma – of the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF) have been detained since August 18 when the IUSF staged an anti-government demonstration. He said under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) the police are empowered to detain and question them for 3 days.
We have followed the defence minister’s directive to detain and question them over a longer period, Thalduwa said. Recalling the incidents since March 31, Thalduwa said the police had seen a pattern of violence in the mass anti-government protests.
There were violent clashes on May 9, July 9, 13 and July 18. Mudalige Wasantha Kumara’s statement on each occasion gave rise to suspicions of an anti-government conspiracy, Thalduwa said. He said the police’s CID wing has started the investigation into a possible anti-government conspiracy of violence and arson attacks.
Thalduwa said many individuals had used social media to provoke people to gather at demonstrations and had called for rejecting the Constitution. Many important buildings have been damaged in violence, while the current President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s house was also set on fire.
Firearms were snatched off soldiers while assaulting the policemen. The probe would focus on links to each incident, Thalduwa said. As Thalduwa made his statement, Mary Lowler, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders said in a statement that the arrest of the three IUSF activists under the PTA was a concern.
I call on President Ranil not to sign their detention order, doing so would be a darker day for Sri Lanka. “I’m deeply concerned that Human Rights Defenders Wasantha Mudalige, Hashan Jeevantha & Galwewa Siridamma Himi have been arrested under the #SriLanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. I call on President Ranil not to sign their detention order, doing so would be a dark day for Sri Lanka,” she said in a tweet.
After months of protests over Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis, Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives from Sri Lanka on July 13, then flew to Singapore, where he announced his resignation as the president a day later. The anti-government protesters accused the Rajapaksa family, which has dominated Sri Lanka’s political scene for nearly two decades, of plunging the country into the worst economic crisis since the country’s independence in 1948 through mismanagement and corruption.
The country, with an acute foreign currency crisis that resulted in foreign debt default, had announced in April that it is suspending nearly USD 7 billion foreign debt repayment due for this year out of about USD 25 billion due through 2026. Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt stands at USD 51 billion. The United Nations has warned that 5.7 million people require immediate humanitarian assistance, with Sri Lankans experiencing extreme shortages of essentials including food, fuel and medicines.
The new Sri Lankan government led by Rajapaksa’s ally President Ranil Wickremesinghe faces the task of leading the country out of its economic collapse and restoring order. Sri Lanka has seen months of mass unrest over the worst economic crisis, with the government declaring bankruptcy in mid-April by refusing to honour its international debt.
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