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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has declared a national state of emergency amid growing protests over the rising cost of living, fuel and gas shortages and prolonged power cuts.
The state of emergency, which officials said went into effect on Saturday, gives the president broader security powers and widens the power of the armed forces to arrest and detain people.
The declaration came after a public protest was held outside president’s private residence, about 14 kilometres south of the capital.
The demonstration which started on Thursday evening turned violent as protesters pelted stones at the police and set fire to five vehicles; police responded with tear gas.
More than 30 civilians and 24 police officers were injured in the clashes. Fifty-three protesters were arrested.
More demonstrations are being organized throughout the country on Sunday as discontent grows over the shortages and rising cost of living.
Sri Lanka has sought help from India and China to purchase food and fuel and has also sought financial help from the International Monetary Fund.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to impose a state of emergency has come as a shock to many.
One of the most draconian pieces of legislation in Sri Lanka, it is meant to be deployed in situations of “exceptional threat, danger or disaster”.
One of the last times it was invoked, for instance, was in the aftermath of the deadly Easter Sunday bombings in 2019.
The law allows for the detention of people without proof or the presumption of innocence, and severely restricts fundamental rights such as the freedom of movement and expression.
It also allows the police and military to arrest and detain people without warrants.
This has given rise to fears that the government is going to resort to a brutal crackdown on protesters, who are angry about the toll taken on their lives by the ongoing economic crisis.
Civil protesters and journalists have already reported being tortured by police for simply being present at the protests outside Mr Rajapaksa’s home, and one of the organisers was taken in for questioning late on Friday night. The imposition of the law cannot be challenged in the courts, although parliament will need to ratify it within 14 days of its declaration.
President Rajapaksa said the decision to declare a state of emergency was taken in the interests of public security, the protection of public order, and to ensure the maintenance of supplies and essential services.
The demonstrations mark a massive turnaround in popularity for Mr Rajapaksa, who swept into power with a majority win in 2019, promising stability and a “strong hand” to rule the country.
The government has the majority in parliament to pass it. Thereafter it will need to be extended on a monthly basis.
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