Rights groups press to free Sri Lanka lawyer

International calls mounted Wednesday for the release of a Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and the repeal of anti-terror laws used to detain him for 15 months.

Eleven rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists urged Sri Lanka to free Hejaaz Hizbullah who has been held since April last year.

Hizbullah’s case has also been highlighted by the UN Human Rights Council and the European parliament this year.

“Hizbullah is one of many people detained for inordinate lengths of time without due process under Sri Lanka’s draconian counter-terrorism laws,” the rights groups said in a statement.

They called for the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allows for the prolonged detention of suspects without judicial review.

“We are deeply concerned by Sri Lanka’s continuing use of the PTA to enable arbitrary detention, despite commitments made to repeal the act,” the statement said. Dozens of people are held under the act.

Hizbullah was a vocal advocate of minority Muslim rights and also successfully challenged a constitutional coup that briefly brought former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to power in October 2018.

The Rajapaksa family made another comeback in 2019 when younger brother Gotabaya won the presidency in an election and then made Mahinda Prime Minister.

Another Sri Lankan whose release was called for by the UN and the EU parliament this year, police officer Shani Abeysekara, was bailed in June after a court said he had been framed.

Abeysekara investigated high profile cases involving Rajapaksa family members and their allies during Mahinda’s presidency between 2005 and 2015.

After Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency, Abeysekara was dismissed and arrested on what the Court of Appeal held in June to be false allegations.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet last year called for “renewed attention” to the intimidation of journalists, lawyers and activists in Sri Lanka. (Courtesy AFP)