Feb 22 (Amnesty) Baby Shaykh was only 20 days old when his life came to a tragic end last December out of a sudden illness. Born in a Muslim family in Sri Lanka, his last rites would be a burial followed by a funeral but instead, authorities cremated his body against the wishes of his parents.
A rapid test for COVID-19 (an antigen test) returned positive, yet his parents, including his mother who was breast feeding him, tested negative. This has created doubts in his parents’ mind about the credibility of the test. The authorities had no sympathy for the desperate pleas and protests of Baby Shaykh’s parents. The bodies of Muslims who die or are suspected of having died of COVID-19 are resigned to the same fate across Sri Lanka.
Muslims, who make up nine per cent of the population of Sri Lanka, have historically faced violence, harassment, and discrimination, especially since 2012. This anti-Muslim sentiment in the country has now manifested itself in an arbitrary government policy which orders the cremation of anyone who has died of COVID-19 or are suspected to have died of COVID-19. This has caused great distress to Muslims, as the act of cremation is explicitly forbidden in Islam. With the human rights situation of Sri Lanka coming under review at the 46th UN Human Rights Council session, beginning on 22 February 2021, it is imperative that the government of Bangladesh, as a member of the council, stands in solidarity with the minority Muslim community in Sri Lanka who are being denied dignity in their final moments.
While it is becoming increasingly difficult for Muslims in Sri Lanka to live in peace, with the constant fear of further threats, discrimination and violence hanging over the community, the government seems to have used COVID-19 as an excuse to ensure Muslims in Sri Lanka cannot even die in peace.
Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world which has a forced cremations policy to dispose of COVID-19 victims. Guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health in 2020 originally permitted both burials and cremations. However, the health ministry amended the guidelines to make cremations mandatory after the body of the first Muslim to succumb to the virus was forcibly cremated, against the wishes of the victim’s family, and in spite of vehement protests from religious leaders, politicians and the wider Muslim community