Sri Lankan authorities should uphold due process rights and ensure that recently detained Muslim figures have proper access to lawyers, Human Rights Watch said in a statement yesterday.

HRW made particular reference to the arrest of  Hejaaz Hizbullah under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

"He was one of six people, including the brother of a former minister and a customs official, whom police recently detained for their alleged involvement in the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings by an Islamist group, which killed over 250 people. Ramzy Razeek, a retired government official who has a following on Facebook, was arrested on April 9 after decrying religious discrimination in a social media post," HRW said.

The international human rights group also said that Sri Lankan authorities have a responsibility to prosecute those responsible for the horrific Easter Sunday attacks last year, but the arrests should be lawful, and not used to vilify an entire community. “The recent arrests of well-known Muslims, combined with biased government actions and rising anti-Muslim hate speech, raise concerns for the broader safety of the Muslim community.” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW's South Asia director.

The statement said Hizbullah has been legal counsel in a number of high-profile cases, including the challenge to the dissolution of parliament in 2018 and fundamental human rights cases.

The police allege that Hizbullah was arrested in connection with the Easter bombings. He has been held in apparent violation of basic due process rights. Although he is believed to be detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, no detention order has been served, and he was not taken before a magistrate within the required 72 hours. He has been denied regular access to a lawyer, except for brief meetings in the presence of the police on April 15 and 16.

HRW also said that the  government’s position on mandatory cremation is contrary to World Health Organization guidelines and has been criticized by four United Nations special rapporteurs as a violation of freedom of religion. The special rapporteurs noted that Sri Lankan Muslims have been stigmatized and targeted with hate speech during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The threat that the coronavirus poses to all Sri Lankans provides the government with an opportunity to improve communal relations in the country,” Ganguly said. “To promote public safety, it’s important for the authorities to be seen as acting against discrimination, not promoting it.”