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FORUM-ASIA Condemns Arrest of Printing Workers in Sri Lanka

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The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) condemns the arrest of Mr. Jayampathy Bulathsinhala, and eleven other persons related to the printing trade in Sri Lanka. They were all arrested under the broad powers of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1982 for printing a poster related to an opposition party’s campaign against Sri Lanka’s controversial 18th Constitutional amendment.

FORUM-ASIA regards Mr. Jayampathy Bulathsinhala as a human rights defender, and his arrest a violation of his rights as such protected by the the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights  and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Mr. Jayampathy Bulathsinhala, owner of the J and J Printing Press, is known to be a strong supporter of civil society initiatives against the civil war, the curtailment of freedom of expression, and attacks and intimidation on media persons. The arrest of Mr. Jayampathy Bulathsinhala and eleven other persons related to the printing trade is a clear indication of the growing threat to the work of human rights defenders in Sri Lanka to promote and protect human rights and in the right to freedom of expression in the country.

In the evening of 7 September 2010, police arrested eight persons from the Sarala Graphics, a printing press located in Nugegoda town, including Mr. Galagoda Ranjith Perera, the owner. A police team from the Special Investigations Unit forcibly entered the offices of Sarala Graphics and sought Mr. Bulathsinhala and posters ordered printed by the opposition United National Party (UNP). These posters which featured images of the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksha were a part of campaign against the controversial 18th amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Civil society groups in the country believe that the 18th amendment undermined checks and balances instilled in the Constitution.

Unable to find Mr. Bulathsinhala, police then went to his home at around 3.a.m. and arrested his wife, Kumudu Wijeyawardena, and her two younger brothers, Nimal and Kelum Wijeyawardena. These three persons were later released and produced before the Magistrate, after Mr. Bulathsinhala reported to the police and was subsequently arrested.

All of the 12 persons arrested were charged under the sweeping powers of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1982.

FORUM-ASIA strongly condemns the practice of Sri Lankan authorities of criminalizing and restricting legitimate and peaceful freedom of expression as well as the activities of human rights defenders and women human rights defenders by using these broad and vaguely-defined offences in the PTA. This is similar to other states use of such anti-terrorism laws that give vague definitions of ‚Äúacts of terrorism‚ÄĚ, in order to stifle legitimate dissent of persons who criticise state policies and to restrict the work of human rights defenders.

By arresting and detaining the printing workers, police have also denied to their right to work by continuing to detain them and preventing them to perform their jobs and earning their wages. Authorities have in effect punished them for doing their work which was only incidental to the political issue.

However, the more insidious threat arising from these arrests is the violation of the right to freedom of expression. By arresting workers in the printing trade, Sri Lankan authorities are sending a message of indirect intimidation of the political opposition and the public. It must be stressed that these are persons arrested whose work was an essentially neutral desk. However, the work of printers is vital to the practice of the right to freedom of expression, since mass distribution of opinion and expression materials require the contribution of printing workers. By arresting persons related to printing, authorities are sending the message that printers ought to follow the wishes of state authorities on what to print or not.

In reality, the responsibility of the contents of printed materials rests on those who contract the services of printers, in this case the United National Party (UNP). This responsibility over contents is fully protected within the right of freedom of expression and opinion, as long as it is within the bounds of democratic principles. UNP is a legitimate opposition party, and their act of criticism of the 18th amendment a part of their duty as an opposition party in a democratic political arena. Indeed, there is a bigger cause for concern in this event since, the issue of the 18th amendment being criticised through the poster has been perceived as a threat to the check and balance system of the Sri Lankan government.

FORUM-ASIA calls on the government of Sri Lanka to take serious heed of the rights of human rights defenders and women human rights defenders in the country under the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Article 6, par. b provides that everyone has the right, individually and in association with others ‚Äúfreely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms.‚ÄĚ Furthermore, Article 12, par.2 of the Declaration provides that the state shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.‚ÄĚ

FORUM ‚Äď ASIA strongly urges the government of Sri Lanka to:

1.    Immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Jayampathy Bulathsinhala and eight printing workers of the Sarala Graphics as their arrest appears to be solely on the grounds of doing their legitimate work;

2.    Guarantee in all circumstances that human rights defenders and women human rights defenders in Sri Lanka are able to carry out their legitimate human rights works without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment, in line with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; and,

3.    Protect the rights of freedom of expression and opinion in the spirit of democratic debate, by refraining from arresting persons working in the printing trade and allowing the publication of political materials within the bounds defined by international and regional human rights instruments.

– END OF STATEMENT –

 

Background information on the arrest of 9 printing workers and three others in Sri Lanka
(Updated as of 13 September 2010)

In the evening of September 7, 2010, Sarala Graphics, a printing press located at 43/43, Walauwatta Road, Nugegoda town,  was raided by a Police team from the Special Investigations Unit located at the Mirihana police station. Authorities were looking for a poster of the President printed by the United National Party (UNP). The owner of the press and 7 workers present there, including one woman, were arrested.

At about 3 a.m. on the 8th September, Police went to the house of the person who had brought the print order to Sarala Graphics, Jayampathy Bulathsinhala, on Kandewatta Road, Nugegoda. He was not at home. They arrested his wife, Kumudu Wijeyawardena (34), and her two younger brothers, Nimal (30) and Kelum Wijeyawardena (26), who were in the house at the time. The three of them were also asked for the posters. They said they knew nothing. They were taken to the Mirihana police station, and at about 9 a.m. were taken to the premises of the New Vidyadara Bookshop in Maradana, which is where the office of J and J printers, the name of Bulathsinhala’s printing press, is located. The premises were searched. No posters were found.

At about 1 p.m. Jayampathy Bulathsinhala went to the Mirihana Police Station and handed himself over to the Police.

In the afternoon, UNP MPs, Mangala Samaraweera, Jayalath Jayawardena and Dayasiri Jayasekera, went to the Mirihana Police Station and informed the Police that Jayampathy had been executing a printing order for them and that they would take full responsibility for the poster. However, the Police asked them too to hand over the poster if they wanted Jayampathy to be released.

Detention Orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) were subsequently issued on 9 persons.

1.    Jayampathy Bulathsinhala, Sinhala, male, owner of J and J Printers;
2.    Galagoda Ranjith Perera, 50, Sinhala, male, owner of Sarala Graphics;
3.    Sirinatha Kumaradasa Jayasundera, 39, Sinhala, male, Manager of Sarala Graphics;
4.    Narahenpitage Anushka Sandaruwan Costa, 22, Sinhala, male, Machine Minder, Sarala Graphics;
5.    Narahenpitage Asanka Sandaruwan Costa, 26, Sinhala, male, Machine Minder, Sarala Graphics;
6.    Adikarige Thilanka Chaturanga Perera, 18, Sinhala, male, Printers’ Assistant, Sarala Graphics;
7.    Lalinda Pradeep Alahapperuma, Sinhala, male, Machine Minder, Sarala Graphics;
8.    Dorairaj, 45, Tamil, male, watcher, Sarala Graphics;
9.    Ramaiah Rameshwary, wife of Dorairaj, 33, Tamil, female, office assistant, Sarala Graphics;

Updates:

A representative of the UNP is yet to make a formal statement to the Police, claiming responsibility for the posters. In the absence of such a statement, the printer and the employees of the press remain in detention.

Kumudu, Nimal and Kelum Wijeyawardena were produced before the Magistrate on the night of the 8th and released on bail. All three are noticed to appear in Court on September 13.

The 9 detainees are allowed to receive visitors and have made no complaints of any form of abuse or intimidation.

-ends-

 

For inquiries, please contact:

Ms. Emerlynne Gil of the Human Rights Defenders Department of FORUM-ASIA or tel. no. +66 8 40923575