07/21/2014, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Sri Lankan human rights activists tell government: Hands off NGOs

by Melani Manel Perera
More than 500 people demonstrated against a Ministry of Defence-issued notice to all non-governmental organisations. The warning prohibits associations from engaging in activities that transcend their specific tasks. Specifically, it bans activities related to freedom of the press, expression and assembly.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - "Hands off the civil society, hands off NGO," shouted more than 500 people, including human rights activists and Christian religious leaders who gathered in Colombo to protest against the Government of Sri Lanka.

At the heart of their criticism is a notice issued by the Ministry of Defence, which according to some protesters violates fundamental constitutional rights and is an attempt to muzzle critical voices.

In it, Defence Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (brother of the Sri Lankan president) warns NGOs and civil society organisations against engaging in activities that transcend their specific tasks.

In particular, he does not want them to hold press conferences, issue press releases, organise journalism courses and workshops for those working in the media. The note was sent to all NGOs.

"We say clearly to the government," Herman Kumara, activist and president of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, told AsiaNews," that we are not willing to stop any activity in which we are engaged [. . .] because we are not doing anything illegal, and are working according to the Constitution . No warning will scare us."

According Nimalka Fernando, human rights activist and co-chair of the Platform for Freedom, the notice is "a clear violation of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, which guarantees freedom of speech, expression and assembly. For this reason, we are burning the government's notice and urge the authorities to respect fundamental rights."

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), agrees. "The government has violated the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. This is an attempt to crack down on non-governmental organisations and silence public views that differ from the mainstream. Civil society plays a vital role in supporting the democratic process of any country, and should be able to operate free from government interference."

To emphasise their opposition to the warning, protesters burnt the letters their respective associations received.

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