Sri Lankan police arrest dissenting student leader inside flight

Crackdowns on activists, protestors intensify as Wickremesinghe extends state of emergency



By Qadijah Irshad

Published: Thu 28 Jul 2022, 2:36 PM

Sri Lankan police arrested the student leader of the Aragalaya (The Struggle) movement on Wednesday evening inside a flight, raising concerns amongst lawmakers and the general public.

Dhaniz Ali, a leader of the peaceful protest movement that swelled into a nationwide cry to rid corruption on the island, was arrested inside a Sri Lankan flight minutes before it took off.

Ali was one of the two protesters who entered the state-owned Rupavahini broadcasting corporation and aired a message imploring the people to “hear our voice”. The entry and exit of the two protesters were called “peaceful” by the staff of Rupavahini.

Police said in a separate statement on Wednesday that they had also arrested protest leaders Kusal Sandaruwan and Weranga Pushpika on “unlawful assembly” charges.

Social media footage shows Ali resisting arrest under the state of emergency law imposed by the newly elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe.

A tense situation was reported outside the flight when other travellers tried to stop him from being arrested.

“This is my right. Why are you arresting me? Have I stolen? Have I killed? You have no right,” shouted Ali while plainclothes officers dragged him out of the flight.

Other passengers on the flight demanded the arresting officers let him go.

“Where’s his arrest warrant?” asked one passenger. “Do you see what’s happening? There’s no democracy in Sri Lanka.”

Under the emergency law, which was extended on Wednesday, the Sri Lankan police and military are given sweeping powers to arrest without warrant, and detain for long periods of time. In the past, people who have been arrested under the state of emergency have been held for up to five years.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe imposed the state of emergency in July as acting president when more than 100,000 protesters stormed into the capital Colombo.

The protesters took over several government buildings and set fire to part of Wickremesinghe’s private residence.

The emergency law, which was passed by the ruling majority of the Parliament, voted Wickremesinghe in as president last week. The vote passed by 120 to 63 in the 225-member Parliament, while the remaining legislators abstained.

Opposition members criticised the continuation of the state of emergency, calling it a government move to “smother dissent.”

“These arrests are unjust and show that our new president is going on the same violent and corrupt path as the Rajapaksas. They just want to silence anyone who stands up for truth and justice,” said Mervin Jayasekara, a protester who has been with the movement since its inception in April. Wickremesinghe has a history of squashing youth protests in the past in his 45 years in politics.

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But members of the Parliament who voted in favour said that the violent nature of protests, which started as a peaceful one, needs to be controlled.

Hours after Wickremesinghe was sworn in as president, he ordered the military to raid the 100-day protest site and remove tents within the vicinity of the presidential secretariat. The violent take-over by the security forces was condemned by the international community. The presidential secretariat was under the control of the protesters at the time of the military raid.

Sri Lankans blame the Rajapaksa clan for the unprecedented economic crisis the nation is facing. Protesters demanded the Rajapaksas as well as Wickremesinghe’s resignation, accusing him of protecting the Rajapaksas who are facing serious corruption and human rights violation charges.

The Sri Lankan economy has crumbled under a debt burden of $51 billion, holding foreign reserves of just $1.7 billion. The country cannot afford to import oil, resulting in acute fuel shortages; and other essentials, including food and medicine, while hyperinflation has rendered the nation hungry.


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