COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — A leading human rights group is demanding the Sri Lankan authorities conduct a prompt and impartial probe into a police shooting that left one person dead and 13 others injured during protests over fuel price hike amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to probe the “apparent use of excessive force by police” in the incident and “take appropriate steps against any wrongdoing.”
Patricia Grossman, the group’s associate Asia director, said “the use of live ammunition” by police against demonstrators “appears to be a flagrant misuse of lethal force.”
“People protesting government policies that affect their lives and livelihoods shouldn’t have to fear for their lives,” she said in a statement released late Wednesday night, adding, “International law prohibits the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers unless there is an imminent threat to life.”
The group said Sri Lanka has a long history of failing to provide justice and redress to victims of human rights violations.
The statement comes hours after Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged an impartial and transparent inquiry into the shooting which was the first by security forces during weeks of protests and reignited widespread demonstrations across the Indian Ocean island nation.
The shooting occurred in Rambukkana, 90 kilometers (55 miles) northeast of the capital, Colombo.
Public Security Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said Wednesday that police had been patient but needed to use minimal force to stop the protests from escalating into major violence.
Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa responded by asking Parliament, “Does killing a protester mean the use of minimal force?”
“What this murderous and terrorist government does today is the suppression of the people,” he added.
Fifteen police officers were treated at a hospital for minor injuries after clashes with the protesters on Tuesday. Police said the demonstrators in Rambukkana blocked railway tracks and roads and ignored police warnings to disperse. Police also said protesters threw rocks at them.
Much of the anger expressed in weeks of growing protests has been directed at Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who head an influential clan that has been in power for most of the past two decades. Five other family members are lawmakers, three of whom resigned as Cabinet ministers two weeks ago.
Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy, with nearly $7 billion of its total $25 billion in foreign debt due for repayment this year. A severe shortage of foreign exchange means the country lacks money to buy imported goods.
Sri Lankans have endured months of shortages of essentials such as food, cooking gas, fuel and medicine, lining up for hours to buy the limited stocks available. Fuel prices have risen several times in recent months, resulting in sharp increases in transport costs and prices of other goods. There was another round of increases earlier this week.
Western Diplomats and U.N. officials voiced concern over the shooting and called for for an independent investigation while urging the right to peaceful protest be safeguarded.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has said the constitution will be changed to clip presidential powers and empower Parliament. The prime minister said the power shift is a quick step that can be taken to politically stabilize the country and help talks with the International Monetary Fund over an economic recovery plan.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa concentrated power in the presidency after being elected in 2019. Both the president and prime minister have refused to step down, resulting in a political impasse. Opposition parties have rejected the president’s proposal of a unity government but have been unable to put together a majority in Parliament and form a new government.
Bharatha Mallawarachi, The Associated Press