COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan police said Wednesday that they have released two prominent human rights activists whose arrests over the weekend drew international criticism.
Ruki Fernando of Colombo-based INFORM and the Rev. Praveen Mahesan, a Catholic priest, were released late Tuesday, said police spokesman Ajith Rohana.
Their arrests Sunday drew wide criticism from international rights groups who said the detentions were arbitrary and an attempt to silence critics.
Rohana said police had not yet decided whether to charge the two activists, but were "ascertaining the collaborative evidence."
Earlier, police said Fernando and Mahesan were arrested and detained under the powerful Prevention of Terrorism Act for trying to create communal disharmony and disturbance.
The anti-terrorism act has been widely criticized in Sri Lanka and by United Nations bodies, which say it has resulted in arbitrary detentions, contravened the right to a fair trial and due process, and even led to torture and disappearances.
A joint statement issued Monday by Amnesty International, Forum Asia, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the International Commission of Jurists called the arrests of Fernando and Mahesan "arbitrary" and an attempt to silence criticism in the country.
Sri Lanka faces criticism for cracking down on rights activists and has rejected calls for an international inquiry into the conduct of the final months of the country's decades-long civil war, which ended in 2009. Government forces defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, but have been accused of causing large numbers of civilian deaths during the last few months of the war.
Fernando, an adviser on documenting human rights issues, and Mahesan, from the Center for Peace and Reconciliation, have been prominent in promoting human rights and media freedom in northern Sri Lanka, where the main fighting took place in the civil war.
Last week, authorities in the northern town of Kilinochchi arrested an outspoken activist, Balendran Jeyakumari, and her 13-year-old daughter, who were campaigning for the release of relatives missing from the war. The military said they were arrested for harboring a former rebel who shot at police. Fernando and Mahesan were arrested when they visited Kilinochchi to investigate Jeyakumari's case.
Also Wednesday, a group of human rights and trade union activists protested in Colombo, demanding the government ensure the protection of rights defenders.