CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, urges the government of Sri Lanka to immediately release youth activist and stand-up comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and drop the charges against her unconditionally. Her arrest and detention go against the country’s international human rights obligations to protect fundamental freedoms.

Nathasha Edirisooriya was arrested on 27 May 2023, accused of insulting Buddhism and hate speech for two jokes made during a comedy performance published on YouTube three days earlier. An edited clip of the performance was circulated, resulting in severe social media backlash. She retracted the video the same day and publicly apologized.

On the night of 27 May 2023, Nathasha was prevented from travelling and subsequently arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at the Bandaranaike International Airport. The police initially refused access to lawyers or her partner.

Despite her apology, online harassment and threats against her escalated, and the location of her residence was shared online. She faced trolling, serious threats of violence, and rape.

On 28 May, she was charged under Section 3 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No. 56 of 2007, Section 291A (deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person) and 291B (deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons) of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka and the Computer Crimes Act. She was denied bail on the basis that her release would result in ‘public disturbance’ and was remanded until 7 June 2023. Her bail was then extended until 21 June.

“The arrest of Nathasha Edirisooriya highlights the increasing intolerance in Sri Lanka towards freedom of expression, including satire. Her detention is a clear attack on artistic expression and a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The charges against her must be dropped immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

Nathasha Edirisooriya is one of the few practicing women stand-up comedians in Sri Lanka. She has actively created and defined a space for herself as a feminist who addresses issues of gender, sex, chauvinism and misogyny, moral and religious hypocrisy, education, family life and mental health through her stand-up comedy.

She has also been part of the CIVICUS Youth Action Lab for grassroots Global South youth activists building resilient and sustainable movements for a more equitable world. In 2021 she conducted a piece of research titled ‘Decoding Sexual Harassment’ to understand the instigation of sexual harassment in Sri Lanka.

CIVICUS is also concerned about the use of ICCPR Act against Natasha Edirisooriya, which among other provisions, criminalises the advocacy of “national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. No credible evidence has been presented to substantiate the charges. Further, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented how the law has been misused over the years to criminalise activists, stifle freedom of expression and detain and silence poets, writers and others.

“This is another example of the authorities’ blatant misuse of the ICCPR Act. It has been systematically misused to silence free speech and to keep individuals behind bars for long periods. The law must be amended so that it is not used to deter or discourage individuals from freely expressing their opinions,” added Kode.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has pointed out that the present Act is not fully compatible with Article 19 of the ICCPR. Instead of being used to protect minorities against incitement, it has been invoked to protect religions or beliefs against criticism or perceived insult. The UN Human Rights Committee also raised concerns on the misuse of the law and stated in March 2023 that the authorities have failed to grant bail in a timely manner to individuals charged under the Act.