The K section of the historic Bogambara prison in Kandy is now informally called something else by jailers: The ISIS ward. It is here that Muslims detained in those regions after the Easter Sunday bombings await their fate as the justice system trundles along. Their visitors often tarry hours at a time to see them. [...]


“Arrest first, ask later” policy has chilling effect on Muslim community


The K section of the historic Bogambara prison in Kandy is now informally called something else by jailers: The ISIS ward.

It is here that Muslims detained in those regions after the Easter Sunday bombings await their fate as the justice system trundles along. Their visitors often tarry hours at a time to see them. And when they are called forward, these outsiders are also occasionally called “ISIS”.

Muslims at prayer at a mosque in Colombo. Pic by Ishanka Sunimal

Predictably, not all those locked up have connections with the bombers or their network. In the struggle to compose an accurate profile of this new breed of terrorists in Sri Lanka, the policy has been one of “arrest first, ask later”. As some Muslims have discovered, a single phone call by a suspicious bystander could land them in prison. And this has had a chilling effect on the community.

On Friday, 17-year-old Zavahir Rimasha got bail after three weeks in the Negombo remand prison. She is eight months pregnant with her first child. On May 15, wearing a hijab (head cover) and black abaya, she went to a studio to have a photo taken for her national identity card.

Inside the studio, she was overcome by a wave of nausea and covered her nose and mouth with her handkerchief. A customer in the studio demanded that she unmask her face as the law mandates. Her husband, who had accompanied her, argued that she was using the handkerchief because she was pregnant and feeling ill.

The spat culminated in the customer calling the police hotline. Rimasha was taken in under Emergency Regulations and remanded for placing a handkerchief over her nose and mouth.

Powers are currently being exercised under Emergency Regulations (ER), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act (ICCPR) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Suspects taken in under these laws cannot receive bail from a Magistrate (in the case of the ICCPR, it is the High Court that can grant bail) unless the Attorney General or Defence Secretary allows for the offences to be downgraded.

This takes a while. In heavily-pregnant Rimasha’s case–despite being supported by a team of senior lawyers who are supporting people in similar predicaments–it was 24 days before she got out. She still faces charges under ER and the case continues.

The police said this week that 2289 suspects were arrested over the bombings, during search operations and over the mob violence targeting Muslims. The ethnic breakdown was given as 330 Sinhalese, 139 Tamils and 1820 Muslims. Of the 423 suspects in remand, 52 are Sinhalese, 13 are Tamil and 358 are Muslim.

Dilshan Mohamed, 41, was also at the Negombo remand prison till Friday. He received bail after 34 days. Ironically, the activist and social worker from Norochcholai is known for his consistent opposition to ISIS ideology and radicalisation since 2014.

In 2011, Dilshan completed a Masters in international relations from the University of Colombo. He focused on West Asia and related developments. He frequently posted political opinions on Facebook (FB), predominantly in Tamil.

“Right from the beginning, I was against ISIS,” Dilshan, who has three children under the age of 10, told the Sunday Times. “ISIS claimed to be formed on the basis of ‘true Islam’ but soon after that they declared a caliphate. They tried to fool the youth. Since I had knowledge of international affairs and global terrorism, I wrote against them to educate and encourage young people not to cooperate with them; to tell them it’s not factually Islam or politics.”

The posts are still on Dilshan’s FB page. To supplement his knowledge on Islam, he searched the internet widely for references.

“In 2017, I realised there were people in Sri Lanka starting to support ISIS,” Dilshan related. “Those FB profiles started opposing my posts, scolding me and telling me I’m not a Muslim. But I continued to write them till February 2019, when their caliphate was defeated. That month, I declared that a violent ideology has ended.”

After the Easter Sunday bombings, Dilshan wrote again. He treated the incident almost as a personal failure. He had been trying for years to educate young people about the dangers of radicalism but it had graduated to violence in his own country. “At this juncture,” he said, “we must cooperate with the security forces to completely eliminate this scourge from Sri Lanka.”

On May 4, he was working in his home backyard when officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) visited. Their headquarters wanted him arrested for supporting ISIS on FB, they said. He could not believe his ears. Despite offering his phone so they could read for themselves whether the allegation was true, he was taken in.

“They were not in the mood to listen,” Dilshan said. “I told them that if they could find even one word supporting ISIS, they can take action against me.”

At the Norochcholai police station, the officers started to read his posts but alleged that he might have deleted the incriminatory” ones. He was charged under the PTA and the section of the ICCPR which states that nobody “shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

The police have now dropped the charges under ICCPR but the case continues. Dilshan was one of the members of the Muslim community who had, from his limited knowledge, compiled a list of those whom he suspected were actively backing the ISIS ideology and handed them over to intelligence. One of the names he had zeroed in on was Zahran Hashim, the Shangri-La bomber.

The experiences can sometimes be nothing short of frightening. A member of an established Muslim family in the Central province was aggressively questioned by military intelligence wearing black hoods–“like paper bags with holes cut out”.

The prevailing situation has affected Muslims in multiple other ways. Apart from the mob attacks in the North Western province, some Muslims have been told to vacate homes and office spaces. “My cousin is married and living on rent in Dehiwala with two children,” a Muslim woman said. “The eldest is in kindergarten and the youngest is just three. Her husband works in a hotel.”

“They were asked to vacate by their landlord who specifically said he had no issues with them staying but that ‘ape pansale hamuduruwo’ said not to rent out places to any Muslims,” she said.

A staff member of a State university said they have had trouble getting internship placements for Muslim students. “We find internships in private for-profit institutions. “The places were generally involved in manufacturing and marketing and we try to match student interests. Even a Muslim establishment refused. They seemed scared. Finally, a well-established place agreed.”

The boycott of businesses is also affecting the Muslims badly. On the flip side, a Sinhalese fish trader in Beruwala said Muslims did not buy his fish anymore. “Muslims shops will survive,” said Hilmy Ahmed, Vice President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “But the poorest segments, daily labourers, are badly hit. We have reports that Muslims cannot sell their wares in the local markets in areas like Kuliyapitiya.”

“In the beginning, we focused a lot on areas that needed reform within our community and how to get the Muslims back on track and on what went wrong,” said Ali Sabry, President’s Counsel. “But as of late, it is no longer about reform. It’s all about how to survive, how to get out of and keep away from prison and how to face this situation.”

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