By Susitha Fernando
Colombo, Nov 16 (IANS): Muslim voters in northern Sri Lanka who faced gun attacks on their way to cast votes in Saturday's presidential polls were harassed and detained for hours, activists have complained.
Over 200 busses, carrying voters who left Western coastal town of Putlam in early hours of Saturday to neighbouring district of Mannar, where their votes are registered, were shot at and pelted with stones at Tantirimale, about 240 km from Colombo. No casualties were reported. However they were prevented from leaving Mannar until 4 pm by the police.
"After they cast their votes, they were detained in Mannar for more than two hours without food and water," human rights activist Shreen Saroor told IANS.
"The police has said the buses were held on the orders of Election Commission to prevent them from voting again in Putlam, in case they have votes there as well," Saroor said. "If these voters are registered both in Mannar and Putlam, it is an administrative blunder. People should not be allowed to suffer for that," Saroor said.
When the buses were allowed to go back after more than two hours, they were stopped at Anuradhapura town by the police. The police in Anuradhapura said the security of the buses could not be guaranteed and they wanted to keep the passengers until 4 p.m. to get an escort. The Election Commission had to intervene before the buses were released.
Election Commission member Prof. Ranajeevan Hoole, who spoke to people held up in buses, told IANS that the area police chief wanted to provide escort to the buses as they apprehended another attack.
"I made it clear to the police that they are a free people and if they insisted on going, the police cannot stop them," he said. "They seem to be detained without authority and had protested to Election Commission officials," he added.
Prof. Hoole admitted that this was a mistake by the Election Commission as arrangements could have been made for the people to cast their votes at their areas of residence. During three decades of civil war, a large number of Muslims from Mannar who were forced to leave, settled in Puttlam.
Minority Tamils and Muslims are seen as the deciding factor in a close contest between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, the two main contenders. Both majority Tamil and Muslim political parties have pledged their support to Premedasa.
Meanwhile, in another incident of election law violation, police directed the army remove roadblocks in certain part of Northern Sri Lanka.
Police media spokesperson SSP Ruwan Gunasekara stated that senior military officials were informed to remove the roadblock and not deploy military personnel on the roads today or tomorrow without permission from the Election Commission. On Saturday morning several roadblocks were set up in the areas of Palai and Palali.