Death Threat Deals New Blow to Free Expression in Sri
Sri Lankan government is solely responsible for ensuring
the safety of all its citizens. The recent anonymous
death threat received by prominent human rights activist
Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is a case in point.
Saravanamuttu, Executive Director for the Centre for
Policy Alternatives is the latest in a number of
high-profile people who have been threatened, assaulted
or, in some cases, murdered in recent months in the
country. Almost all of the victims — including
activists, journalists and lawyers — have been targeted
for their criticism of government policies.
prominent individuals such as Dr. Saravanamuttu are now
being targeted shatters the myth that the human rights
situation in Sri Lanka, is returning to normal.
letter Saravanamuttu received said he would be killed
because he supplied information that may cause the
European Union to suspend preferential trading benefits
In reality, his organisation has consistently urged that
the benefits be renewed and that Sri Lanka use the
opportunity to bring its human rights record in line
with international standards.
Lankan authorities are largely failing to prosecute the
perpetrators of attacks on activists, lawyers and
journalists, creating a culture of impunity. In January,
gunmen murdered The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha
Wickrematunge in Colombo. Months earlier, human rights
lawyer J.C. Weliamuna and his family survived a grenade
attack on their Colombo home. Weliamuna is the head of
the Sri Lankan branch of Transparency International, an
international non governmental organisation that
campaigns against government corruption. Dozens of
lesser-known activists and journalists have faced the
same threats in recent months.
Freedom of expression has steadily declined in Sri Lanka
over the last five years, despite constitutional
guarantees. Journalists and activists regularly face
verbal and physical attacks, both from official sources
and nationalist vigilantes.
number of journalists have fled the country and gone
into exile as a result of the threats, while others
practice self censorship. In addition, the Defence
Ministry website and state-controlled media often engage
in smear tactics against journalists, activists and
ongoing culture of impunity is likely to further erode
Sri Lanka’s ranking as a democratic nation that pays
heed to political rights and civil liberties.
was recently granted a $2.6 bn (£1.6 bn) loan from the
International Monetary Fund.
went through the IMF board with Chinese help although
the US, Britain, and other Western governments abstained
because of concerns over human rights issues raised
after the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tigers in
May and put up to 300,000 displaced Tamils in special
decision on trade benefits is considered equally
important, and will be feted by the government as proof
of international support if it is positive. But the
decision could go against Sri Lanka, since many European
states have been troubled by
member governments will decide by the end of the year
whether to end the trade benefits.
death threat appears aimed at pressuring the EU as well
as Saravanamuttu. It purports to come from people
representing thousands of workers rather than any
political group. Claiming that Saravanamuttu has been
lobbying Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European
Commissioner for external relations, to end the export
benefits, it says: “The only way you can live is if that
woman and her coyotes grant us the concession, but that
now seems most unlikely, so we are left with no option
but to kill you for what you would have done to us and
the thousands of poor families who have had a livelihood
because of the garment industry and would be pauperised
because of you.”
has consistently argued that the GSP Plus benefits MUST
be renewed, and that Sri Lanka should use the
opportunity to also strengthen its human rights
protection framework by complying with international
law. It is indeed regrettable that their constructive
contribution to this public policy debate has been
perversely distorted and deliberately misunderstood in
lack of prompt and effective investigations into threats
and attacks against members of civil society has
fostered a sense of impunity surrounding these incidents
in addition to creating a chilling effect on freedom of
It is a matter of great concern that members of civil
society continue to receive such threats, despite the
end of the conflict. Dr. Saravanamuttu and the CPA have
a right to lobby and campaign on rule of law issues
without fearing for their lives.
rights to freedom of expression and security of the
person are well-established in international law and are
of fundamental importance to a free civil society. We
call on the Sri Lankan authorities to show that such
insidious threats against free speech are not tolerated
by the State. This they can do by ensuring there is a
swift investigation and that steps are taken to protect
Dr. Saravanamuttu and other members of the CPA.
imperative that the government demonstrate that it will
not continue to tolerate such vigilantism by carrying
out a full and impartial investigation and bringing the
perpetrators to justice.
The government must ensure that human rights activists
and journalists can carry out their work in documenting
the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war and ongoing
abuses without fear of harassment and intimidation.