Hasalaka, Sri Lanka – On May 17, police in central Sri Lanka arrested Abdul Raheem Mazahina, a soft-spoken 47-year-old grandmother, because of the pattern on her dress.
The dress’s motifs look like ship wheels, but police told Mazahina, a Muslim, they were arresting her because the pattern resembled the dharmachakra, a Buddhist symbol.
Mazahina, who has asthma and hypertension, had worn the dress many times before and no one had taken notice.
“If it was a dharmachakra, someone would have pointed it out to me,” she said.
Sri Lanka’s Department of Buddhist Religious Affairs later told authorities that they were unable to determine whether the symbol on the dress was in fact a dharmachakra.
Police in Hasalaka – which lies 130km east of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo – charged Mazahina under a hate speech law, as well as another law that prohibits insulting religions with the “malicious intention of outraging religious feelings”, said her lawyer Fathima Nushra Zarook.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara told Al Jazeera Mazahina is one of 2,289 people – including 1,820 Muslims – who were arrested “in connection to the Easter bombings or related incidents”, though he confirmed that the charges against Mazahina only pertain to her dress.
Over 250 people died and 500 were wounded on April 21 in a coordinated series of bombings on churches and luxury hotels across the country. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
While 1,655 of those arrested have been released on bail, 634 are still in custody, either because they have been remanded or they are under investigation, Gunasekara said.
Of the 423 who have been remanded, 358 are Muslims.
“At the police station, the officer in charge made me remove my headscarf and put on the dress while other officers took photographs of me,” Mazahina said, fighting back tears.
During the 17 days that she spent behind bars, guards repeatedly referred to Mazahina as a “terrorist”, she said.
On June 3, a magistrate court released Mazahina on bail, but she has to return to court in November. If convicted, she could face up to two years in prison.
EU ‘deeply concerned’
Three quarters of Sri Lanka’s population is Buddhist, while less than 10 percent are Muslim. Hindus and Christians make up the remainder of the population.
Mazahina’s blood pressure increased while she was in prison and she has been ill since returning home. Her husband, Munaf, took leave from his job as a day labourer to care for her. As a result, the family has no source of income.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), a government body, has received several complaints regarding arbitrary arrests of Muslims, according to its chairperson Deepika Udugama.
“We are deeply concerned and will write to the acting inspector general of police … with examples of such arrests and the recommendations,” she said.
In a 2017 report, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions said it “identified systemic problems within [Sri Lanka’s] criminal justice system which placed defendants at a high risk of arbitrary detention”.
However, before the Easter attacks, arbitrary detentions targeted ethnic Tamils, who are Hindu and Christian.
Sri Lanka fought a 26-year-long civil war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who fought for an independent Tamil homeland.
When asked if police had any concerns about arbitrary arrests of Muslims, police spokesperson Gunasekara said: “How can I say this? If anyone has an objection, they can complain to police headquarters or the HRCSL.”
He claimed that the police headquarters had yet to receive any such complaints.
On Wednesday, the European Union issued a statement saying that they are “deeply concerned by the political and religious pressure being directed at Sri Lanka’s Muslim community which is undermining peace and reconciliation in the country”.