Rights groups urge Sri Lanka not to use force on protesters

International human rights groups have urged Sri Lanka’s new president to immediately order security forces to cease all unlawful use of force against protesters, who have been demonstrating over the country’s economic meltdown.

Armed troops and police arrived in trucks and buses on Friday to clear the main protest camp near the president’s official residence in the capital, Colombo, a day after President Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in.

Even though protesters had announced they would vacate the site voluntarily after staging a sit-in for more than 100 days, the troops moved in and started attacking demonstrators with batons and removing tents and blocks along the roads leading to the President’s House.

Security forces arrested 11 people, including protesters and lawyers. Two journalists and two lawyers were also attacked by soldiers in the crackdown.

Human Rights Watch said the incident “sends a dangerous message to the Sri Lankan people that the new government intends to act through brute force rather than the rule of law”.

“Urgently needed measures to address the economic needs of Sri Lankans demand a government that respects fundamental rights,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Saturday.“Sri Lanka’s international partners should send the message loud and clear that they can’t support an administration that tramples on the rights of its people,” she added.

Amnesty International also condemned the use of force, saying “it is shameful that the new government resorted to such violent tactics within hours of coming to power”.

“The protesters have a right to demonstrate peacefully. Excessive use of force, intimidation and unlawful arrests seem to be an endlessly repetitive pattern in which the Sri Lankan authorities respond to dissent and peaceful assembly,” said Kyle Ward, the group’s deputy secretary general.

Protests likely to continue

Wickremesinghe, who previously served as prime minister six times, was sworn in as president a week after his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country as protesters stormed his residence. Rajapaksa later resigned while exiled in Singapore.

Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months to demand their leaders step down to take responsibility for the economic chaos that has left the nation’s 22 million people struggling with shortages of essentials, including medicine, fuel and food.

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