On 8 July 2021, I wrote a letter with seven other UN Human Rights experts regarding the continued detention of human rights defender Mr. Hejaaz Omer Hizbullah, who has been charged with terrorism- related offences.
Mr. Hejaaz Omer Hizbullah is a prominent lawyer and a human rights defender, and member of the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka. Mr. Hizbullah is a strong advocate against hate speech in the country and has been involved in a number of high- profile cases, including with regard to violence and discrimination towards the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Hizbullah was the subject of one previous communication sent on 22 June 2020 (LKA 4/2020). In this communication we expressed concern over the arrest and detention of Mr. Hizbullah on 14 April 2020 and his lack of access to legal counsel. Mr. Hizbullah was initially under investigation for his alleged involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019, before the focus of the investigation was changed to his involvement with the Save the Pearls charity. The Government did not respond.
On 19 August 2020, the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) filed a report regarding an ongoing investigation into Mr. Hizbullah’s activities. The report allegedly claimed that Mr. Hizbullah had acted as counsel on several occasions for individuals involved in terrorism and unlawful activity, and that he had been collecting data and information on various attacks on Muslims.
As previously communicated, the evidence allegedly incriminating Mr. Hizbullah was related to phone calls he made with a suicide bomber at the Easter Sunday attacks. It has been alleged that Mr. Hizbullah made 14 phone calls to this individual over a period of five years, being his legal representative in civil property dispute cases.
Mr. Hizbullah later faced accusations that he radicalised children at the charity, Save the Pearls. He is the only member of the organisation that has been arrested. Since his arrest, leading figures of the organisation have sworn affidavits attesting to the falsity of rumours that children were radicalised. And The former Head of Counter- Terrorism at the Sate Intelligence Services of Sri Lanka, who is also a member of the organisation, has sworn an affidavit attesting to the fact that the activities of the charity were entirely legitimate, in housing and educating vulnerable children.
During the first nine months of his arrest and detention that took place on 14 April 2020, Mr. Hizbullah was permitted just four visits from his legal counsel, all of which were supervised by the authorities. His lawyers filed a petition to the Court of Appeal, which was granted on 15 December 2020, allowing him to speak with his lawyers confidentially for the first time since his arrest. His access to lawyers is still reportedly limited and he can speak only occasionally to his family over the phone.
On 8 January 2021, at 2pm, Mr. Hizbullah was due to make his first appearance before the Colombo Fort Magistrate. At 1:55pm, Mr. Hizbullah’s lawyer was informed that Mr. Hizbullah had contracted COVID-19 and would be taken to a quarantine centre. No further information was given about Mr.
Hizbullah’s condition or recovery. On 18 January 2021, Mr. Hizbullah was returned to his original cell.
On 18 February 2021, Mr. Hejaaz Hizbullah was produced before the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court. The court decided the extension of his custody until 3 March 2021.
On 3 March 2021, Mr. Hizbullah was charged with “inciting communal disharmony” under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act section 2(1)(h). A few days later, on 9 March 2021, the Government issued a regulation expanding the application of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. According to
the text of the regulation – The Prevention of Terrorism (De- radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No. 1 of 2021 – persons suspected of acts of, or incitement to violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony, would be held in custody and undergo a process of “ rehabilitation ” at an undefined “ Centre ” for a maximum period of two years, instead of having the relevant authorities instituting the established judicial procedures against them.