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Death threat against activist sign of ongoing post-war repression

Last week, a popular Sri Lankan human rights activist received a death threat that is emblematic of the continuing clampdown on dissent in Sri Lanka during supposed reconstruction and peacetime, say ARTICLE 19 and Freedom House.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a leading human rights Sri Lankan think-tank and partner of ARTICLE 19 often quoted in the international media.

The anonymous letter, sent to his home in Colombo, claims that Saravanamuttu supplied information that may cause the European Union to suspend preferential trading benefits for Sri Lanka this fall.

"You cannot deny us of our livelihood and expect to live - you understand? When you are killed there will no doubt be a huge Ho Ha - but in this instance the government would NOT be involved and they will never be able to track us down," it says.

"In reality, his organisation has consistently urged that the benefits be renewed and that Sri Lanka use the opportunity to bring its human rights record in line with international standards," said Freedom House.

The death threat also appears to be aimed at pressuring the EU, says the "Guardian" newspaper. "The EU decision on trade benefits is considered... important, and will be feted by the government as proof of international support if it is positive. But the decision could go against Sri Lanka, since many European states have been troubled by Colombo's recent actions."

Saravanamuttu is now out of the country but he told the "Guardian" he had requested police protection. "It's possible they will give it when I get back. This is the first time a threat has been directed at me specifically."

Journalists and activists who criticise the state face verbal and physical attacks, both from official sources and nationalist vigilantes, says Freedom House. Top-ranking officials, including Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, are known to equate criticism of government policies with treason.

"This sort of threat, which is far from an isolated incident in Sri Lanka, strikes a hammer blow to freedom of expression and the open debate which is essential for democracy," said ARTICLE 19. "The space for social dialogue continues to close down in Sri Lanka, just at a time when robust debate about the country's future is most essential."

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