(New York) – Sri Lanka’s requirement to cremate anyone who dies from Covid-19 goes against public health guidance and discriminates against the Muslim community, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s spurious argument that burial in accordance with Islamic tradition poses a public health risk stigmatizes, oppresses, and causes immense distress to a vulnerable minority.
The Sri Lankan government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has claimed that burying people who died of Covid-19 complications may “contaminate ground water.” It has not changed the policy, first codified in a March 31, 2020 regulation, despite World Health Organization guidelines that burial is safe, and growing opposition from United Nations experts, medical professionals in Sri Lanka, and religious leaders of all major faiths in the country. Among those cremated against the wishes of their family have been a 20-day-old infant and a woman whom the authorities later acknowledged did not have Covid-19.
“For families already grieving the loss of a loved one, the Rajapaksa government’s forced disposal of remains in a manner contrary to their beliefs is an outrageous and offensive assault on religious rights and basic dignity,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This policy only serves to cultivate intolerance and social division.”
In recent weeks the policy has sparked protests around the country. Authorities removed strips of white cloth that activists tied to the fence of the Borella crematorium in Colombo to protest the forced cremation of the baby.
Several Muslim families have decided to leave the body of their loved ones who died of Covid-19 complications in hospital mortuaries rather than to permit cremation. Others say they have been coerced into allowing the cremation, or that it occurred without their knowledge.
“My friends and family asked the authorities how they can go ahead with the cremation when neither of the parents had signed any document giving consent,” Mohamed Fahim, the father of the baby, named Shaykh, told reporters. “It is as if they rushed to cremate our baby. When we asked questions, they didn’t have any proper answer.”
Sri Lankan civil society groups, in a joint statement after the ban was introduced, warned that there were already “outpourings of vitriol, and hate speech against Muslims” and that it was “important to ensure that decisions regarding matters of public health do not result in the persecution or marginalization of the Muslim population.”
The government has done little to combat incitement against Muslims, such as false rumors that the community deliberately spread the coronavirus, which are often shared by government supporters and in pro-government media. A Muslim social media user, Ramzy Razeek, was arrested and detained for five months after opposing the burial ban and calling for religious tolerance on Facebook.
Opposition to the policy has grown in recent weeks. The Sri Lanka Medical Association on January 1, 2021, said that the novel coronavirus cannot be transmitted by dead bodies. The College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka said on December 31 that there is “no solid evidence” supporting the regulation. Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders wrote in a joint letter on December 26 that religious rights are protected by the Sri Lankan constitution. A Health Ministry expert panel recommended on December 29 that disposal of bodies could include burial as well as cremation.
In April, four United Nations special rapporteurs wrote to the government stating that the regulation violated the right to freedom of religion, and that the government should combat attempts to instigate religious hatred and violence.
In November the Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the policy as a violation of religious rights guaranteed by international law.
Several fundamental rights petitions were filed against the regulation at the Supreme Court, which dismissed the cases on December 1 without explanation. The court’s independence has been undermined by parliament’s adoption, in October, of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which gives the president control over Supreme Court appointments.
President Rajapaksa, whose 2019 election campaign courted Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority, said in a November 2020 speech that there are “legitimate fears that the Sinhala race, our religion, national resources and the heritage would be threatened with destruction in the face of various local and foreign forces and ideologies that support separatism, extremism and terrorism.”
In December, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives wrote on Twitter that President Rajapaksa had asked the Maldives to allow Sri Lankan Muslims to be buried in the Maldives, a majority Muslim country. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said that the proposal “could end up enabling the further marginalization of Muslim communities in Sri Lanka.”
“We want to be buried on our own soil,” said Ali Zahir Moulana, a Sri Lankan Muslim and former member of parliament.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government has adopted various policies and practices that have a discriminatory impact on Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Tamil minorities in particular. During Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war which ended in 2009, Rajapaksa, as defense secretary during the government of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, was implicated in war crimes and human rights abuses against Tamil civilians. After becoming president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa renounced Sri Lanka’s earlier commitments to justice and accountability made to the UN Human Rights Council.
Michele Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has warned that “continuing impunity risks fuelling communal or inter-ethnic violence, and instability.” The UN Human Rights Council, at its session beginning in February, will consider a resolution to uphold international law in Sri Lanka and to seek to protect vulnerable minorities from further abuses.
“Denying Sri Lankan Muslims the right to bury their dead is causing intense distress, stoking communal hatred, and is without any scientific basis,” Ganguly said. “Foreign governments need to recognize Sri Lanka’s dangerous downturn and act before the situation deteriorates further.”