The prominent Sri Lankan Muslim lawyer, Hejaaz Hizbullah, is being described by human rights groups as the latest victim of Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act.
On April 14, Hizbullah, 40, got a call from the Ministry of Health saying they were worried he may have contracted COVID-19 and advised him to remain at home.
A day earlier he and others had written to the Sri Lankan president about his government’s decision to ban Muslims from burying their dead, forcing them to cremate their remains instead – a violation of their right to freedom of religion, as protected by Sri Lanka’s constitution and its international obligations.
Hejaaz Hizbullah was a lawyer at the Supreme Court and worked as a state counsel for the Attorney General’s department. Beyond his legal work, he was involved in interfaith and reconciliation work, tackling the rising tide of Islamophobia that is now a key concern for human rights groups when it comes to Sri Lanka.
The health officials never visited him after the call, but he did get a knock on the door from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police. They handcuffed him and placed him under arrest without explaining why. When Hizbullah’s relatives asked if the police had an arrest warrant, they were warned not to ask any questions.
Hejaaz Hizbullah is currently serving a detention order under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), where any “suspect” can be placed in detention without charge and without being produced before a judge. The detention order can continue to be renewed for up to 18 months.
The PTA has long been criticised as an abusive law that has been used to crush dissent and forcibly disappear people, along with other violations. The Sri Lankan authorities have even acknowledged the inherently abusive character of the PTA but have failed to repeal it as promised.
Amnesty International says the authorities have plunged Hizbullah in this predicament on the basis of nothing more than his legitimate associations with Mohamed Ibrahim, the father of the bombers who perpetrated attacks on churches in Sri Lanka over Easter 2019.
The authorities have publicly stated that the reason for his arrest were his interactions with the bombers and their family. Mohamed Ibrahim’s sons, Inshaf and Ilham, were two of the seven bombers who set off six explosions across Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019, striking three churches and three five-star hotels on Easter Sunday and killing more than 250 people.
The detention order says that Hejaaz Hizbullah is being investigated for allegedly “aiding and abetting” the Easter Sunday bombers and for engaging in activities deemed “detrimental to the religious harmony among communities.”
Amnesty says Hizbullah was connected to Mohamed Ibrahim in two ways. For the past five years, he had served as his lawyer, handling legal cases related to his business. He and Mohamed Ibrahim were also part of the “Save the Pearls” organisation, a charity that supports the education of underprivileged children, hoping to lure them away from criminal activities and drug abuse.
Amnesty International says it is extremely concerned that the case and evidence against Hejaaz Hizbullah may now be subject to fabrication.
“A new allegation has emerged that a school supported by the Save the Pearls charity was responsible for preaching extremism’ and even providing the children weapons training,’ Amnesty said. “These charges lack credibility because nearly three months since his arbitrary arrest, authorities have so far been unable to substantiate their claims with evidence…
“Hejaaz has been subject to an unfair character assassination in local media by the authorities in an environment where anti-Muslim sentiment is rife, and prominent Muslim professionals have been unfairly targeted in the recent past.
“The Sri Lankan government must immediately restore Hejaaz’s due process rights, including producing him before a judge, allowing him to challenge the grounds of his detention, ensuring that he has unfettered access to his family and lawyers, and, in the absence of any charges of credible evidence of a crime being committed, release him.”
Hizbullah’s brother, Hefraz, added: “Having been to a Christian school with a multicultural environment, he integrated well with people from all faiths, with no leanings towards extremism whatsoever. Hejaaz is someone with a spotless track record. He worked hard and excelled at what he did.
“Knowing how he was arrested and how he’s being portrayed as an extremist connected to the terror attacks under the allegation of apparently aiding one of the perpetrators and worse is an absolute shock… Hejaaz had a lot of plans for his family’s future together but right now all that is up in the air. Everyone is just praying and hoping for the best. And it pains me that we can’t do more than just proclaim his innocence and hope that justice, eventually, is served.”