Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, after visiting union activist Joseph Stalin in police custody, urged President Ranil Wickremesinghe to end harassment of opposition political activists, human rights defenders and trade unionists,

“We must stop the violence. People have the freedom to protest. No one has the right to engage in violence, but Stalin was not involved in any violence. There is no evidence for this. Stalin was arrested for exercising his constitutional rights. Stalin was arrested for organizing a protest in May in violation of a court order. These arbitrary arrests are a disgrace,” he said.

Premadasa said the country was facing hitherto unknown economic and political conflicts. It should be a time when the president and government leaders reach out to everyone, he said.

“I urge the government to unite everyone to rebuild the country. Don’t play political games because people are tired. Don’t be lulled into complacency as the protests have lost momentum. We need the government to stop this witch hunt, this state terrorism. Unleashing repression is not how you gain legitimacy,” he said.

Premadasa said that when Ranil Wickremesinghe was an opposition MP, he condemned Stalin’s arrest. At this time, Wickremesinghe declared that Stalin was an internationally known trade unionist and that his arrest would have devastating international consequences.

“Wickremesinghe said Sri Lanka might lose the GSP+ concession because Stalin was arrested. What has changed now? The government cannot solve this problem through violence, it can only be done through discussion,” he said.

The opposition leader said Sri Lanka was stuck in a spiral of violence and it was former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who sparked it by attacking peaceful protesters on May 9 on Galle Face. Since then there have been cycles of violence and counter-violence and now everyone lives in fear, he said.

“Mahinda started. What happened to him ? Has he been arrested? No, he’s fine. He is having fun at home. But Stalin is in jail for protesting. The law is applied differently and it is too visible. These arrests are not a show of force. People just get angry. We are all walking blindly towards another cycle of violence,” he said. Stalin is the longest-serving activist to be arrested in a crackdown on protesters who forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee last month.