Protesters take part in a demonstration in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 9, 2022 ( AFP / ISHARA S. KODIKARA)

Posts exaggerate human rights restrictions during Sri Lanka's state of emergency, lawyers say

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After Sri Lanka's president declared a state of emergency to quell anti-government protests, Facebook posts claimed the legislation stripped citizens of fundamental rights and allowed the military to shoot demonstrators who failed to obey orders. However, lawyers told AFP the claim is misleading, as while the state of emergency gave security forces sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects, it did not take away fundamental rights or give the military the power to shoot civilians.

"Multiple human rights including the right to equality, freedom from arbitrary arrest and illegal detention are negated when the state of emergency is imposed in Sri Lanka," reads a lengthy Sinhala-language Facebook post published on April 2, 2022.

It was shared on a page with more than 200,000 followers.

The post goes on to claim the state of emergency removes; citizens' rights to resort to legal action to challenge any violations of their fundamental rights, and gives the military power to shoot people who fail to follow orders.

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency on April 1 after protesters attempted to storm his house in anger over an economic crisis crippling the island.

Mass demonstrations have swept Sri Lanka, which has seen acute shortages of food, fuel, and other essentials, along with sharp price rises and power cuts.

The state of emergency was lifted on April 5. 

Screenshot of the Facebook post captured on April 7, 2022

The same text was shared in multiple Facebook posts, including here, here, here, and here

However, legal experts said the posts were misleading.

Military cannot shoot protesters

Sri Lankan attorney-at-law Prabodha Rathnayake said while the state of emergency placed temporary restrictions on some rights -- including freedom of speech and peaceful assembly -- it did not take them away.

This allowed citizens to exercise restricted rights as long as they did not impede factors such as national security, public security, and racial and religious harmony, he said.

He pointed to protests that were permitted during the state of emergency.

"The protesters clearly demonstrated that their actions were peaceful and non-violent and they were allowed to continue and were not placed under arrest or disrupted," he told AFP.

He also said the state of emergency did not allow the military to shoot people who failed to follow orders.

Ambika Satkunanathan, the former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, pointed to Article 15 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, which refers to "restrictions on fundamental rights" but not deprivation or denial. 

"In times of emergency, certain rights such as freedom of assembly can be restricted, but emergency regulations cannot deprive citizens of their fundamental rights. Furthermore, the government cannot restrict certain rights such as the protection from torture," she told AFP. 

She also dismissed the Facebook posts' claim that citizens "lose the right to file fundamental rights petitions before the Supreme Court in the event their rights are violated during a state of emergency".

"There are several Supreme Court judgments in relation to violation freedom of expression, assembly as well as arrest and detention committed during a state of emergency," she told AFP.  

AFP previously debunked social media posts falsely claiming that protesters who carried the Sri Lankan national flag were given special protection from military aggression.