Colombo: Sri Lanka has pledged to sustain its anti-drug operation — in which some 40,000 people have been arrested over the last month — despite serious concern expressed by the UN and international rights groups. 

“They can issue statements, but I will not stop this operation,” Sri Lanka’s Public Security Minister Tiran Alles told a media conference in Colombo on Thursday. Rather than issuing “general statements”, the UN must come up with specific incidents, he said, amid growing concern over rapid arrests and detention, particularly of youth.

The Minister’s remarks came days after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk urged the Sri Lankan government to review the ongoing “Yukthiya” [Justice] operation, while expressing concern over authorities opting for a “heavily security-based response” to the country’s drugs problem, “instead of public health policies grounded in human rights.”

“During and after these operations, people are reported to have been subjected to a number of violations, including unauthorised searches, arbitrary arrests and detention, ill-treatment, torture, and strip searches in public,” the High Commissioner’s office said in a statement last week. Lawyers acting for those detained have alleged that they have faced intimidation from police officers, it said.

Justifying the government’s move, Alles said law enforcement agencies were mainly going after the distribution network, while intelligence agencies and the Navy were monitoring those engaged in the import of drugs. “For the moment, we are not going after drug users,” he said, however adding that some users, too, were at times arrested in the special operation. Authorities have so far seized drugs worth LKR 4.7 billion, he said.

Source of drugs

On the source of the drug consignments entering Sri Lanka, Acting Inspector General of Police Deshabandu Tennakoon, who was also present at the media conference, said Pakistan, Afghanistan and Myanmar were the three main countries from where the drug consignments originated . “Ice” or methamphetamine often came from cottage industries in south India, he added.  

Contrary to prevalent claims that Sri Lanka is a transit hubs for narcotics, the Sri Lankan officials said much of the drugs coming into Sri Lanka was for consumption. There are over 1 lakh drug users in the island, and the aim of the special operation was to bring down both supply of drugs and the demand for it within the country, according to Shakya Nanayakkara, Chairman of the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board. 

Of the nearly 40,000 individuals arrested since the operation commenced in December, about 5,000 remain in custody while the rest had been released on bail, officials said.

Last week, Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission said it received several complaints of “torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and arbitrary arrests and detention” in connection with the anti-drug operation.

Further, 33 international organisations, including rights watchdog Amnesty International, have urged the Sri Lankan government to stop the “abusive” anti-drug operation that, they said, was leading to leading to “significant human rights violations”. 

“A punitive and militarised approach to drug control contravenes recognised international human rights standards and guidelines, is ineffective to protect individual and public health, and ultimately fails to make communities safer,” they noted in a joint statement.

(Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu correspondent in Colombo)