In a submission made to the Special Rapporteur On Freedom Of Religion Or Belief, Amnesty International said that the first Muslim death due to COVID-19 took place in Negombo, on 30 March, and the body was forcibly cremated by health officials, against the wishes of his family.
This was despite efforts from his family, the Muslim community, religious and political leaders to urge health officials to adhere to the Sri Lanka Ministry of Health guidelines, which at the time allowed for both burials and cremations. In the Islamic tradition, burials are a required part of a person’s last rites. On 31 March, day later, these guidelines were revised by the Ministry of Health to order cremations for anyone who died or is suspected
to have died of COVID-19.
World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines clearly state that there is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus can spread from a dead body.
Further, it has been reported that the body of Fathima Rinosa, a 44 year old Muslim woman from Colombo, who tested negative for COVID-19, was wrongfully cremated, Amnesty International said.
On 21 May, 20 Muslim groups called on the Minister of Health to revoke the Gazette making cremations mandatory, citing that more than 185 countries permit burial, and that there was no consultation with the affected communities.
In a concept proposal for a COVID-19 exit strategy presented to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) and the Information and Communication Technology Agency Sri Lanka (ICTA), identified the Muslim population as a variable in their methodology, to determine the risk of spread of COVID-19 in each district, Amnesty International said.
The report assigned the highest weightage of risk to the ‘Muslim population’. The racial profiling in the report was met with heavy criticism on social media, causing ICTA to disassociate itself with the report.
The GMOA has since deleted the earlier report, and the revised version, does not bear the ICTA name or logo, does not mention ‘Muslim population’, or has replaced it with the term ‘population density’.
In May 2020, at the second meeting of the Buddhist Advisory Council, President Gotabaya appointed a Task Force led by the Secretary of Defence, Major General (Retd.) Kamal Gunaratne, to survey archaeological sites in the Eastern Province, and “take action to preserve them, due to concerns raised about their destruction”.
Considering the concerns emerging from disputes over Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian sites archeological sites, the appointment of this Task Force, headed by retired military personnel may exacerbate this politicized and ethnicised issue which was a key factor in the inception of the civil war, Amnesty International said.
In a Gazette dated 2 June 2020, the President appointed 11 people to this task force: 2 Buddhist monks, Secretary of Defence, the Director-General of Archaeology, Land Commissioner General, Surveyor General, lecturers from the University of Kelaniya and University of Peradeniya, a Senior police DIG, the Eastern Province Provincial Land Commissioner, and Dilith Jayaweera, Chairman of the Derana Media network.
Amnesty said that the Derana network, a right-wing media network, frequently peddles Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist content. The lack of representation of any minority community on this task force is extremely problematic given the existence of archeological sites from different religions and ethnicities. Media reports and commentators fear this task force will be used to further the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist agenda. (Colombo Gazette)