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Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe

Colombo: The Sri Lankan government on Monday defended its decision to declare several key locations in Colombo as high-security zones, saying the move is aimed at ensuring stability and not curbing freedom of expression, amid mounting criticism from rights groups.

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday declared several locations, including Parliament, the Supreme Court complex and the President’s Secretariat among others, as high-security zones (HSZs), banning any kind of protest or agitation in their vicinity.

HSZs are nothing new. We saw how the Presidential Secretariat came to be surrounded by groups recently. They blocked officials from functioning. If the main place where key decisions are made is blocked, we have to take decisions to prevent it, said Kamal Gunaratne, the secretary to the ministry of defence.

Sri Lanka’s Presidential Secretariat was stormed in July by a sea of anti-government protesters who had been demanding former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation for the country’s economic mismanagement.

The Secretariate resumed operations 100 days after the building’s entry gate was blocked by security officials.

In an extraordinary gazette notification issued on Friday, the President’s Secretariat said areas around Parliament, Supreme Court Complex, High Court Complex in Colombo, Magistrate Court Complex in Colombo and Attorney General’s Department, Presidential Secretariat, President’s House, Sri Lanka Navy Headquarters and Police Headquarters have been declared as HSZs.

The Ministry of Defence and Sri Lanka Army headquarters, the Sri Lanka Air Force headquarters, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Temple Trees prime minister’s residence and the Official Residences of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and the Commanders of the Tri Forces are also HSZs, it said.

According to the notification, protests and public gatherings in the areas declared as HSZ are banned while vehicle parking won’t be allowed in the vicinity of any of the designated locations.

Human rights groups have condemned the move as part of the government’s repression to crack down on peaceful protests against it.

Gunaratne denied that the government intended to impede freedom of expression through the order.

Anyone can protest, hold rallies, but must take prior approval from the police. The police would allow those so as to create minimum disturbance to public life, the senior official said, adding that the move was aimed at ensuring stability in the country.

Gunaratne said a picture of instability indicated by street protests did not help the country in seeking international cooperation.

On Saturday, a day after the declaration of HSZs, the police broke up a street protest by the Socialist Youth Movement.

Some 84 activists were arrested and later granted bail.

Reacting to the government’s move, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) said that it will be carefully studying the provisions of the order issued by the president and will take appropriate legal action to ensure that the fundamental rights of the people are secured.

Calling the provision of the order “draconian,” BASL said that such orders violate the freedom of expression, the freedom of peaceful assembly and the freedom of movement.

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