News

Hizbullah’s human rights work conflated with terrorism: Mary Lawlor

  • UN Special Rapporteur on HR defenders concerned
  • Claims no GoSL response to multiple written queries

BY Pamodi Waravita

The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights (HR) defenders Mary Lawlor stated on 7 September that they believe that the human rights related work of Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, who is presently detained over his alleged involvement in the Easter Sunday terror attacks, has been erroneously conflated with terrorism.

“We expressed concern on the reported irregularities in due process, partly facilitated by the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 48 of 1979 as amended (PTA), which allowed Hizbullah to be held without charge for almost a year with severely restricted access to lawyers. We believe that his previous human rights work and the practice of his legal profession may have been wrongly conflated with terrorism. We reiterated our recommendation to review the PTA to bring it in line with international human rights standards,” Lawlor said in an online statement.

She also publicised a letter that seven UN Special Rapporteurs had sent to the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) in July 2021, expressing their concern about the “the changing focus of the investigation into Hizbullah and allegations that minors and clerics have been pressured to give false statements”.

In their communication to the GoSL, the Special Rapporteurs had requested the GoSL for detailed information on the factual grounds for the arrest and detention of Hizbullah, to clarify the charges against him in line with the definition of terrorism under international legal norms, the rationale to previously prevent Hizbullah from confidentially accessing his lawyers, to explain how Hizbullah’s conditions in prison follow the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and for information about measures in place to ensure that witness statements are taken freely.

The letter explained that the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) initially arrested Hizbullah on 14 April 2020, on allegations that Hizbullah has made 14 phone calls to a suicide bomber of the Easter Sunday terror attacks over a period of five years, as he had been his legal representative in civil property dispute cases.

“Hizbullah later faced accusations that he radicalised children at the ‘Save the Pearls’ charity. He is the only member of the organisation that has been arrested in this regard. Since his arrest, leading figures of the organisation have tendered sworn affidavits attesting to the falsity of the rumours that children were radicalised,” Lawlor noted.

She also noted that during the first nine months of his arrest, Hizbullah had only been permitted four visits from his legal counsel, all of which had been supervised by the authorities.

“His lawyers filed a petition in the Court of Appeal, after which an order was granted on 15 December 2020, allowing him to speak with his lawyers confidentially for the first time since his arrest. His access to lawyers is still reportedly limited and he can speak only occasionally to his family over the phone,” she added.

Lawlor raised further concerns about allegations that some children whom the said charity had helped, along with members of the clergy, had been forced to falsely testify against Hizbullah. A total of four children and two teachers have petitioned the Supreme Court that they were coerced into making false statements against Hizbullah.

Hizbullah was charged in March 2021, under the PTA for “inciting communal disharmony”.

“A few days later, on 9 March 2021, the Government issued a regulation expanding the application of the PTA. According to the text of the regulation – The Prevention of Terrorism (de-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations, No. 1 of 2021 – persons suspected of acts of, or incitement to violence or religious, racial, or communal disharmony, would be held in custody and undergo a process of ‘rehabilitation’ at an undefined ‘centre’ for a maximum period of two years, instead of having the relevant authorities instituting the established judicial procedures against them,” noted Lawlor.

She further noted with concern, reports that Hizbullah is being held in an unventilated cell, measuring only six feet long, three feet wide, and seven feet high, which does not hold a bed, and that he is only permitted to leave the cell to use the bathroom.

Although the Special Rapporteurs had sent a letter regarding the same to the GoSL in June 2020 as well, they had received no response. A total of 60 days have lapsed since the latest communication, and they said they are yet to receive a response to that either.