Sri Lanka drug crackdown leads to more than 40,000 arrests, drawing criticism from UN

  • Sri Lankan authorities have conducted a monthlong crackdown on drugs, resulting in the arrest of tens of thousands of people.
  • More than 40,000 people have been arrested and questioned, with 5,000 being ordered detained by the courts, according to police.
  • Sri Lanka, known as a drug trafficking hub, has intensified its efforts against narcotics due to an increase in drug use among children and rising drug-related crimes.

Sri Lankan authorities have arrested tens of thousands of people in a monthlong crackdown on drugs, and vowed to continue despite U.N. criticism of possible human rights violations during the “heavy-handed” operation.

Since the operation began in December, heavily armed police and military personnel with sniffer dogs have made regular nighttimes raids on homes and search buses, seizing narcotics and arresting suspects who include drug users, local dealers and distributors, and people with records of drug-related arrests.

Acting police chief Deshabandu Tennakoon told The Associated Press on Thursday that more than 40,000 people have arrested and questioned during operations conducted jointly by the police and security forces, and 5,000 were ordered detained by the courts.

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The country of 21 million has long been known as a hub for drug trafficking, but authorities have stepped up action against narcotics amid complaints that more schoolchildren are using drugs that drug-related crimes are on the rise.

Sri Lankan police

Sri Lankan police officers detain and question a suspected drug offender during a search operation against narcotics in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 18, 2024. Authorities say they have arrested tens of thousands of people in a crackdown on drugs and are vowing to continue despite U.N. criticism of possible human rights violations. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Tennakoon said 65% of Sri Lanka’s narcotics distribution network has been dismantled over the past month and police hope to eliminate it fully by the end of this month.

He added that intelligence operations are being conducted to identify people who import drugs into the country and those who may be planning to start dealing drugs.

The U.N. human rights council expressed concern last week over reports of unauthorized searches, arbitrary arrests, torture and even strip searches in public during the operations, code-named “yukthiya,” or justice.

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“While drug use presents a serious challenge to society, a heavy-handed law enforcement approach is not the solution. Abuse of drugs and the factors that lead to it are first and foremost public health and social issues,” the U.N. body said.

But Public Security Minister Tiran Alles insisted that the searches will continue, saying the human rights body should identify specific instances of abuse.

“We will not stop this operation. We will go ahead and and we will do it the same way because we know that we are doing something good for the children of this country, for the women of this county and that is why the general public is whole-heartedly with us in these operations,” Alles said.

Tennakoon said police have been ordered follow the law, and any violations can be reported to the police commission.

Shakya Nanayakkara, head of the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board said there are about 100,000 known heroin addicts in Sri Lanka, and another 50,000 people are known to be addicted to methamphetamines.

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