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Sri Lanka: Media smear campaign, threats and intimidation against human rights defender Mr Herman Kumara
Since February 2012, Mr Herman Kumara has been subjected to a media smear campaign, repeated threats, surveillance and intimidation following rounds of protests by fisher people in the Chilaw and Negombo areas.
The protests were against an increase in fuel prices by the Government. Herman Kumara was the Secretary General of the World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP) and is the head of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) in Sri Lanka.
In February 2012, during the protests against the increase in fuel prices, several fisher people were injured when police opened fire, and on 15 February 2012 a fisherman was killed.
Although Herman Kumara and his organisation NAFSO were reportedly not involved in the protests, he has been subjected to verbal attacks by government ministers and to a media smear campaign alleging that he and his organisation instigated the protests.
On 26 February 2012, state-controlled weekend newspapers The Sunday Observer and Silumina published articles accusing NGOs and groups with vested interests of mobilising the fishermen’s protests. On 23 February 2012, a group of cabinet ministers described the recent protests against the fuel price increase as an “NGO-funded conspiracy” supported by the West. On 21 February, Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, Dr Rajitha Senarathne, in a statement to Parliament, directly accused Herman Kumara of organising the fishermen’s protests, referring to him as murderer and underworld thug. On 20 and 21 February, state-controlled newspapers The Dinamina and The Daily reported a statement made by Minister of Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities, Mr Wimal Weerawansa, alleging that “a Non-Governmental Organisation is behind the recent fishermen's protests in Chilaw.”
Herman Kumara has also been subjected to surveillance and intimidation as a result of his campaigning for fishermen's rights. On 25 February 2012, he spoke at a meeting of civil society organisations and trade unions in Negombo where he told the public and the press of the threats and surveillance against him. At the event, a person believed to be an intelligence officer tried to obtain information about Herman Kumara from one of his colleagues. On his way home from the meeting he was followed by a motorbike.
The previous day, on 24 February 2012, as he was returning home from an international conference in Rome, he was stopped at immigration for an unusually long time and followed by two officers to the baggage collection area. On the way home from the airport he noticed that he was being followed by a green car and, although he managed to lose the car, he decided not to return home that day for security reasons. Later that day, the same car reportedly parked near his home and three officers asked the human rights defender's neighbours for details about his work, his family members and the car he drives.
On 2 March 2012, Herman Kumara submitted a written complaint dated 28 February 2012 to the Inspector General of Police by registered post detailing the threats and surveillance against him. On 24 February 2012, his wife had filed a complaint with the Pannala Police Station regarding the threats and surveillance against her husband. To date no significant action has been taken to investigate the threats and intimidation against Herman Kumara or to grant him adequate protection.
Front Line Defenders believes that the media smear campaign, stigmatisation, threats and intimidation against Herman Kumara are directly related to his human rights work and in particular his campaigning for fishermen's rights in Sri Lanka.