Sri Lanka continues forced COVID-19 cremations despite PM’s pledge to stop them

The Sri Lankan government has continued to forcibly cremate COVID-19 victims despite a pledge last week by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to stop the policy which has denied Muslims their religious rights. 

Following Rajapaksa’s announcement in Parliament last week, State Minister of Primary Health Services, Pandemics and COVID Prevention, Sudharshini Fernandopulle, said that a decision on the matter would be made by a technical committee that comes under the Ministry of Health.

“The Health Ministry does not take personal decisions on policy matter, but it is done through a technical committee. We have to present this to the technical committee, and we will have to act according to their decision,” Fernandopulle said, a day after Rajapaksa told the House that the Government would allow burials.

Following Fernandopulle’s comments Sri Lanka Muslim Congress MP Rauff Hakeem asked who in the “so-called” expert committee was blocking this.

“Yesterday the Prime Minister made a very categorical statement that burials will be permitted. I said this is a better late than never, mature decision by a mature leader. He understands not only the predicament of minorities but how it’s affecting reconciliation in the country. This is causing unnecessary racial tensions in the country and we are dragging the whole country into a total abyss by this conduct,” Hakeem said.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa

“The Justice Minister Ali Sabry knows that Muslims on both sides have been agitating for this, and finally the Prime Minister has given a solemn undertaking in this House. Who is better than the Prime Minister to decide on this for the government? The government must not drag its feet on this issue, which has now gone to Geneva – and none of us want this to happen. Please take a mature and considerate decision, and do not insult the Prime Minister for God’s sake.”

On February 11, the day after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s announcement supposedly ending the ban, Mohamed Kamaldeen Mohamed Sameem was cremated in Anamaduwa. Friends of the 40-year-old social activist say authorities initially claimed he committed suicide, but later changed the cause of death to COVID-19 and hastily cremated the body.

In another case, the family of a 26-year-old physiotherapist who reportedly died suddenly in his sleep have asked the Court of Appeal to prevent a cremation after hospital authorities announced he died with COVID-19.

The cremations policy has caused intense distress to Muslims since it was implemented in March 2020. Frequently, the authorities proceed with the cremation even while families question the diagnosis and request further checks.

World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines say there is no medical justification for insisting on cremation, and a committee of Sri Lankan medical experts have called for an end to the policy. It has been condemned by UN rights experts and by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Among those who applauded the initial announcement was Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is due to visit Sri Lanka on February 22. Sri Lanka is anxious to have the support of Pakistan, an OIC member, at  the upcoming session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which begins in Geneva the same day.

The council is expected to consider a new resolution responding to mounting rights concerns in Sri Lanka, including over the treatment of Muslims.

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