SRI LANKA: Arrest and arbitrary detention of prominent lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah
Hejaaz Hizbullah is a politically committed lawyer, former prosecutor and advocate at the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, he has repeatedly challenged the government on minority rights. The lawyer was also involved in a contestation of the dissolution of Parliament in 2018. In the Covid-19 crisis, he also criticized the government for failing to respect the rights of Muslim minorities when dealing with the situation.
Hejaaz Hizbullah, who was the victim of a deception by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), was arrested on April 14th, 2020 without being informed of the reason for his arrest. He remained unaware of the reason for his arrest until 11 days later, on April 25th, 2020. Posing as doctors visiting his home to discuss possible exposure to covid-19, police officers went to his home. On site, these police officers handcuffed him and seized all his files, thus violating the attorney-client privilege. Afterwards, Hejaaz Hizbullah was taken to the headquarters of the CID for questioning. He has been detained there ever since.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) claims that the arrest was based on events that lawyer Hizbullah had attended in a professional capacity. The President of the BASL stated “we have been informed that the arrest is based on certain functions attended to by Mr. Hizbullah in his professional capacity as a member of the Bar”. His family is equally convinced that he was arrested in connection with his work. After filing a complaint with the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, the lawyer’s family issued a statement on May 14th condemning the misinformation campaign against him.
Mr Hizbullah’s lawyer was only allowed three short visits, supervised by police officers. Moreover, according to the habeas corpus application filed by his family on April 17th, he was not presented before a judge within the 72 hours required by Sri Lankan law. According to the police spokesperson, he is being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for his alleged involvement in the Easter attacks of 2019. The attacks on Sunday, April 21st, 2019, cost the lives of 250 people.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which, among other things, allows entry without a warrant and the search of premises, is highly criticized. Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, himself noted in 2017 that “The Prevention of Terrorism Act had been used to commit some of the worst human rights violations, including widespread torture and arbitrary detention […] particularly to target minorities and suppress dissent”. Similarly, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) recently shared its concern about the situation of Hejaaz Hizbullah and reiterated its call for the amendment of the PTA to bring it into conformity with Sri Lanka’s international obligations.
The arrest of Hejaaz Hizbullah comes at a time when discrimination against the Muslim community and political dissidents has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic as highlighted by several UN Special Rapporteurs. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) condemned the lawyer’s arrest in an open letter to the Sri Lankan Minister of Justice. The IBAHRI also recalled on this occasion the problem of the “long-standing official hostility” and regular acts of intimidation by the government against human rights lawyers.
The ICJ Director for Asia-Pacific stated that “not serving Hizbullah a remand order as required by law, and denying him full and confidential access to legal counsel is unacceptable and in violation of international standards on the right to liberty”.
In addition, since the election last November of Sri Lanka’s new president, ultra-nationalist Gotabay Rajapasksa, the investigation into the Easter Sunday attack and other high-profile cases has been handed over to a new team of CID officers who are tasked with developing a new approach.
Although the need to bring the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks to justice cannot be doubted, the investigation must be carried out properly and in accordance with the national and international instruments, in particular regarding the right to a fair trial and the defence’s rights.
The OIAD condemns the arbitrary arrest of the lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah and the violations of his defence rights.
The OIAD would like to remind the Sri Lankan authorities that under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (1990):
“All arrested, detained or imprisoned persons shall be provided with adequate opportunities, time and facilities to be visited by and to communicate and consult with a lawyer, without delay, interception or censorship and in full confidentiality. Such consultations may be within sight, but not within the hearing, of law enforcement officials” (Principle No 8).
“Lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly. In particular, they shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights […]” (Principle No 23).
The OIAD urges the Sri Lankan authorities to immediately release Hejaaz Hizbullah.