When Words Become Illegal
On April 9, under the state-imposed curfew and heightened health risk of the pandemic, Ramzy Razeek, a disabled 50-year-old father of two, was arrested in Sri Lanka for violating the Computer Crimes Act and the ICCPR Act.
The global spread of COVID-19 has seen nation-states stifling day-to-day life. Once again, Sri Lankans are under a state-imposed curfew, a year after the Easter Sunday attacks which the previous Sirisena government deliberately did not prevent.
The governing Rajapaksa administration militarized its pandemic prevention operation at the onset of the spread of COVID-19. As dissent has been abating since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year over credible fears of state-enforced abduction, arbitrary arrest and murder, the pandemic was expediently utilized to assign civilian tasks such as detecting, tracing and quarantining of cases to Rajapaksa-loyal war criminals from the Civil War era.
The Tri-Forces and the police force received nebulous powers to intimidate and arrest civilians with impunity under the guise of preventing hindrances to the prevention operation run by the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak. In light of this, dissent of any kind has been virtually incapacitated within the island in the past few months.
At the recently held general elections, the nation reconsolidated the terrifying Rajapaksa regime it unseated in 2015 by endorsing a two-thirds Parliament majority of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the party led by the Rajapaksa brothers. Consequently, Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was reinstated as Prime Minister.
During his campaign, he vowed to abolish the much debated 19th Amendment of the Constitution – an amendment that deters free rein of Presidential power, along with other legal structures which may impede SLPP’s agenda.
The Easter Sunday bombings by local militant Islamist group last April proved to be opportune for positioning the incumbent authoritarian leader, Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the rightful Presidential candidate. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who ruthlessly led the genocide on Tamils in the north during the last stages of the Civil War, is hailed as the ‘strongman leader’ of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. During his service as Defence Secretary between 2005 and 2015, he was responsible for breeding a culture of wanton arrests, enforced torture, disappearances (some victims are still being searched for), and targeted assassinations using the infamous unmarked “white vans” across the island.
His election was a brazen call to further enact Sinhala Buddhist subjugation over Sri Lanka’s minorities and despotically discipline dissenters. He capitalized on these particular majoritarian sentiments during his 2019 election campaign; in an increasingly apprehensive post-Easter-Sunday-attack Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan state is notorious for taking prompt legal action against speech-related offences. These are conducted under the guise of policing harmful hate speech and terrorism, allowing the state to suppress voices expressing discontentment or critique of Sinhala Buddhist extremism. This approach also briskly curbs rightful minority pushback. The laws unconscionably exploited in the state’s propogation of ethno-religious fascism include the Computer Crimes Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Penal Code, and, most importantly, a fortuitously ambiguous international law called the International Convent for Civil and Political Rights Act (ICCPR Act No. 56 of 2007).
THE CASE OF RAMZY RAZEEK:
On April 9, under the state-imposed curfew and heightened health risk of the pandemic, Ramzy Razeek, a disabled 50-year-old father of two, was arrested for violating the Computer Crimes Act and the ICCPR Act. The charges under ICCPR have ostensibly lengthened his detention in state custody which today completed 131 days.
ICCPR was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1966. The Sri Lankan government later acceded to it in 1980 as a result of becoming a state party to the International Preamble. However, it was only in 2007 that the Sri Lankan state enacted legislation in accordance with ICCPR. As a redress to this constitutional discrepancy, the ICCPR Act No. 56 of 2007 was passed into the Sri Lankan Constitution. Section 3 (1) states: “No person shall advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Those who are found guilty of violating this can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. They cannot receive bail in any court except by the High Court and that too only under exceptional circumstances.
Ethno-religious political turmoil was further aggravated by the arrival of COVID-19 on the island as the majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist extremists began scapegoating Muslims for being unsympathetic and stealthy carriers of the virus. It should be noted that this is a revamp of the prevalent conspiracy theory that Muslims are intent on eradicating the Sinhala race. Mainstream Sinhala medium news programs began highlighting the ethnicity of Muslim COVID-19 patients. Chathura Alwis, a popular TV show anchor, made inflammatory remarks on his show about how Muslims should be flogged for violating curfew.
Implementing new guidelines regarding the last rites of citizens in COVID-19 times, the government unnecessarily banned burials and made cremations mandatory. This was a way to make its stance on the Muslim population in Sri Lanka known.
Ramzy Razeek hails from Katugastota in Kandy. He is a sharp commentator known for posting critiques of racism and ethno-nationalist extremism on Facebook. Recently, he wrote about this particular series of events in a post dated 1st April, 2020. In colourful Sinhala, he said:
The pack of racist jackals who elected this government are now disappointed in it. Therefore if the government is to persevere, they would have to keep entertaining this pack by churning out more racism, even if it means making use of this pandemic situation. Therefore this is their time to amuse the racists, which is clear from that video of Chathura’s. There is nothing else we can do other than holding onto our patience and enduring this.
Facebook was also the platform used to stoke and incite the 2018 anti-Muslim riots in Digana and Kandy. Though the corporation recently apologized and professed to its irresponsibility, it is yet to hire content moderators with knowledge of local languages to curb the hate speech and violent incitements the platform has proven capable of. Certain Sri Lankans denounce the platform as unwelcoming to Muslim Sri Lankans due to the rampant Islamaphobia it is used to propagate and the unrestricted targeting of Muslims it enables.
A post of Ramzy’s in Sinhala, dated April 2, 2020, reads:
The Sri Lankan Muslim community is faced with an ideological war and have been surrounded on all sides by racist groups; in such a calculative manner that they are unable to face this ideological war. [...] Muslims should immediately prepare for an ideological jihad. [...] It is a religious duty imposed on their backs on behalf of the entire Sri Lankan society. It is time to prepare for an ideological jihad for the country and all its citizens, using the pen and key-board as weapons. [...] Muslims should focus more on helping people understand the truth through an ideological struggle, using every available space, including the mainstream media and social media, to face the hate propagated against Muslims, who are also people of this nation. Nothing is impossible.
The next day, Ramzy followed his previous post with another, announcing a period of self-censorship:
It seems like many ethno-nationalists have been angered over my post on the ‘ideological war’ which was published. I am being sent death threats. ...The opinion I expressed that we should engage in an ideological struggle with the pen and keyboard without violence against the long-standing, well planned and systematic anti-Muslim propaganda, has been interpreted as a racist and extremist comment according to some. ...There isn’t a slightest sign of the free and the independent country we wished for. ...The time has now arrived to make a decision. My eldest daughter was shocked and terrified when she saw the inbox messages and other responses I received from strangers regarding my post. On the promise I made to her and considering the requests of many of those who love me, I decided not to publish any further posts on political or national issues in Sinhala. ...As a father, I am bound to be more concerned about the safety of my children. I have no intention of risking the lives of my children’s conscience.
This was Ramzy’s last post on Facebook.
At 11:04 a.m on April 9, Ramzy informed the police that he was concerned for his and his family’s safety. He filed a complaint with the Inspector General of the Police through an email naming those who were threatening him.
A few hours later, Ramzy was arrested by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) for violating the Computer Crimes Act and the ICCPR Act. His detention has been lengthened because of the ICCPR Act as he is unable to be granted bail in a magistrate’s court.
According to his brother Riyasz Razeek, Ramzy suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis, leg ulcers, and kidney and liver problems associated with cardiovascular issues. He has difficulties using the toilet and needs assistance to walk. He also requires constant medical assistance for the large wounds on his legs that need cleaning and dressing. Riyasz mentioned that these were the primary reasons Ramzy’s premature retirement at the age of 45 from his job as a translator in the Ministry of Justice.
“On the day he was arrested, the police did not make note of his medical needs and promised the family that they would return him home the next day. They only asked for one spare change of clothes and one day’s worth medication to be sent with Ramzy. No bail was granted the next day,” Riyasz revealed to me.
When Ramzy was incarcerated at Pallensena Prison in Negombo (western Sri Lanka), he was denied his medications and any medical assistance for twenty-one days. He was then transferred to Colombo and finally, three days later, admitted to a prison hospital there.
His arrest occurred amidst a state-imposed curfew and under the pandemic prevention restrictions. Riyasz claims that Ramzy’s family has only spoken to him twice till today. From what Riyasz maintains, Ramzy’s wife suffers from chronic depression. “She isn’t quite aware of the happenings; court hearings, bail and what not,” he said. However, she is aware of the arrest and her husband’s absence is surely taking a toll on her already volatile mental health.
Ruki Fernando, a local activist who has closely followed this case since April, attests that there is “no certainty that Ramzy will be released even on hearing.” In the last four months, Ramzy has been summoned to four High Court hearings and has still not been granted bail. “Ramzy’s arrest indicates intolerance and reprisals against those exercising free speech even as there is a high tolerance of hate speech, false, and misleading news,” Ruki Fernando concluded.
When asked about Ramzy’s arrest, former Human Rights Council Commissioner and activist, Ambika Satkunanathan similarly remarked, “Particularly when people, and even media outlets, that have been clearly propagating hatred have not been arrested, one cannot fathom the reason for Ramzy’s arrest.”
On June 3, Gotabaya Rajapaksa released a gazette announcing the creation of a 13-member “Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society”. This task force was composed entirely of top brass military, intelligence and police officials who were given the power to “take necessary immediate steps to curb the illegal activities of social groups which are violating the law, which is emerging as harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society”.
With regard to the appointed Presidential Task Force, Satkunanathan expressed, “The fact that an ad-hoc body with the membership of several members of the defence establishment has wide-ranging powers is a cause for concern; as it could potentially impinge upon freedom of expression and association. The state is increasingly impinging upon freedom of expression and is doing so within a context where Sinhala Buddhist nationalism seems to have sway over state policy and action. Identity, based only on a Sinhala Buddhist identity, will only lead to increasing insecurity amongst Tamils and Muslims and deepen fissures amongst communities.”
STATE SUPPRESSION OF DISSENT:
Last year, Shakthika Sathkumara, a neo-contemporary short story writer, was charged and arrested under the ICCPR Act over a short story titled “Ardha”, which he uploaded on Facebook. The story presents themes of sexual abuse against child monks and homosexuality in Buddhist monasteries/monastic life.
In 2014, Galagoda Atthe Gnanasara Thero, a Buddhist monk who is Secretary General to the hardline Sinhala Buddhist extremist group Bodhu Bala Sena, directed Sinhala mobs on Muslim houses, shops, and neighbourhoods. This event saw four people murdered and 80 left injured in three south-western towns in the Kalutara District. Gnanasara’s political party, Our Power of People Party, won a seat in the parliamentary election this August. The party has been in talks of positioning him in Parliament.
While Shakthika Sathkumara was imprisoned, Kusal Perera, a senior journalist, was investigated and threatened with arrest under the ICCPR Act. Perera had written an article titled “From Islamic terrorism to marauding Sinhala-Buddhist violence” about anti-Muslim riots instigated by Sinhala Buddhist extremists as a response to the Easter Sunday attacks and the state’s inability to take responsibility for inadvertently causing the riots.
In 2019, also during the charged climate that followed the Easter Sunday bombings, Dr. Segu Siyabdeen Mohomed Shafia, a Muslim gynaecologist, was unsubstantially accused and arrested over alleged claims of performing tubal ligation procedure (the tying of fallopian tubes) on Sinhala mothers. The hospital director and the court magistrate claimed he was attempting to incapacitate Sinhala women from bearing children, once again alluding to prevalent conspiracies around the ‘eradication of the Sinhala race’.
During the pandemic curfew, Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer who had been representing victims of human rights violations, was falsely implicated with involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks. He was arrested in April under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and remains in prison till today. Another lawyer, Achala Senevirathne, who represents the families of victims of enforced disappearances, has been receiving death threats for her work which implicates many senior officers of the Navy. Her substantiated concerns for her safety have gone unheeded. Kumaravadivel Guruparan, an eminent lawyer, was barred from practising law and forced to resign from his academic post as a senior lecturer and head of the Department of Law at the University of Jaffna following the army’s intervention with the University Grants Commission over his work representing the families of victims of enforced disappearances.
According to the Committee for Protecting Journalists, at least two journalists have fled the island in the past few months, even under the duress of travel restrictions and heightened health concerns. One of the journalists who fled is Dharisha Bastians, former editor of the Sunday Observer newspaper.
Events commemorating the massacres of Tamils were hastily banned by the government under the pretext of the pandemic. Despite this, many families of victims have courageously defied the police and military. The state has been refortifying its military presence in the north which increasingly bears semblance to the occupation it deployed in the province during the later stages of the Civil War.
A DANGEROUS NORMAL:
It is unclear if Ramzy’s bail application will be reviewed any time soon. What is starkly obvious is that his indefinite detention serves as a warning to those who dare to dissent. Although Sri Lanka is said to be treading its way through the “new normal”, the end which it is bound for is similar to one it was once headed towards – that of fascist rule. The speed with which the nation is being propelled towards authoritarianism is too frightening to encapsulate in words. Words which can and will be held against those who dare to use them.
NOTE: ALL TRANSLATIONS FROM SINHALA TO ENGLISH FOR RAMZY RAZEEK’S FACEBOOK POSTS ARE BY THE AUTHOR.
NETHMI RAJAWASAM is a freelance journalist based in Sri Lanka.