Sri Lanka arrests protest leaders, extends emergency laws

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Two activists who helped lead mass demonstrations that toppled Sri Lanka's president were arrested Wednesday, police said, as parliament extended tough emergency laws imposed to restore order.

Anti-government protesters (R) speaks with the members of Sri Lankan security forces at the site of protest camp in front of the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on July 22, 2022. Hundreds of Sri Lankan soldiers and police raided the main anti-government protest camp in the capital early on July 22 and began tearing down tents of unarmed activists, an AFP reporter said. Arun SANKAR / AFP

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to flee when tens of thousands of protesters, incensed by the island nation's unprecedented economic crisis, stormed his residence in the capital Colombo.

He later flew to Singapore and tendered his resignation while his successor Ranil Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency and vowed a tough line against "trouble-makers".

Police said in separate Wednesday statements that they had arrested activists Kusal Sandaruwan and Weranga Pushpika on unlawful assembly charges.

After Rajapaksa fled, Sandaruwan was seen in social media footage counting a large cache of banknotes found in the president's home.

Police have also released photographs of 14 suspects wanted in connection with an arson attack on Wickremesinghe's home on the same day the president's office and residence were overrun.

The arrests of the two activists come a day after student leader Dhaniz Ali was nabbed when he boarded a Dubai-bound flight at the country's main airport in the evening.

Police said there was a warrant for his arrest in connection with a magistrate's court case, without giving further details.

Lawmakers also voted Wednesday to formalise the state of emergency imposed by Wickremesinghe until mid-August.

The emergency ordinance, which empowers troops to arrest and detain suspects for long periods, would have lapsed on Wednesday if it had not been ratified by parliament.

Police last week demolished the capital's main anti-government protest camp in a pre-dawn assault that raised alarm among foreign diplomats and rights groups.

Public anger simmered for months in Sri Lanka before the huge demonstration on July 9 that brought an end to Rajapaksa's rule.

He had been blamed for mismanaging the nation's finances and steering the economy into a tailspin after the country ran out of foreign currency needed to import vital goods.

Sri Lanka's 22 million people have endured months of lengthy blackouts, record inflation and shortages of food, fuel and petrol.

Protesters had also demanded the resignation of Wickremesinghe and accused him of protecting the Rajapaksa clan, who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for much of the last two decades.