Counter-terror law triggers old fears

pta-actEven as Sri Lanka drafts a new law to counter terrorism, human rights activists and lawyers here fear it might be worse than the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) they want repealed and replaced.

One of the key demands around regime change in Sri Lanka in January 2015 — when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unseated —was to repeal the PTA. “After the new government came to power, all of us expected a shift, but now people are disappointed,” says senior human rights lawyer K.S. Ratnavale. The government, he observes, was not willing to dismantle the security apparatus. “They seem unwilling to release political prisoners as well. They are about 160 now.”

The PTA was enacted in 1979, under President J.R. Jayawardene, primarily to crush the emerging armed struggle of Tamil youth protesting the state’s apparently discriminatory policies. Modelled on South Africa’s apartheid-era legislation and laws that the British used against Irish militancy, the PTA became a permanent law in 1982.

Call for repeal

Ever since Sri Lankan armed forces defeated the rebel Tigers in May 2009, bringing a nearly-three decade-long war to an end, civil society groups have been campaigning for repealing the PTA. “The government has eliminated the LTTE. Why do we still need the PTA?” asks Mr. Ratnavale, who has appeared for many arrested under the Act.

It was this question and mounting international criticism that pushed the government to consider a new law to replace the PTA with, but the draft of the proposed legislation has only reinforced old fears.

“The preamble itself is worrying,” says Mr. Ratnavale, pointing to a provision that calls for protection of other countries and areas from the “scourge of terrorism”. “This goes far beyond the legal framework. It means that it is left to political institutions to eradicate the scourge of terrorism.”

‘Extremely troubling’

An aspect of particular concern, according to lawyers, is with regard to confessions and the right to counsel. Lawyer and columnist Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena says it is extremely troubling that according to the draft policy framework, confessions made to police officers were admissible in the court of law. “This, despite overwhelming evidence that similar latitude under the PTA encouraged the brutal torture of detainees in the north and south, across all ethnicities,” she adds.

According to human rights activist Ruki Fernando, the draft policy and legal framework of the counter-terror law, much like the PTA, have broad definitions that may infringe on free expression and human rights activism. “Like the PTA, it [the new law] can serve as a licence for enforced disappearances and torture, taking away life-saving protections when it is most needed — within the first few hours and days of a person being arrested,” says Mr. Fernando, who was in March 2014 arrested under the PTA and released on bail after two days of interrogation.

Commenting on a section regarding “new offences”, Ms. Jayawardena says “causing serious harm to the economy and environment” is also swept up within the ambit of what constitutes a terrorist act. “Taken in conjunction with the prohibition on ‘illegally’ or ‘unlawfully’ attempting to change policy, this may infringe constitutional rights and upturn decades of progressive judgements by the Supreme Court.”

Unpleasant memories

For hundreds of families in the north, the PTA evokes unpleasant memories. The Act was used indiscriminately during Sri Lanka’s war years—then the army would round up Tamil-majority villages in the north and arrest large groups of people using the Act, says Mr. Ratnavale. Some never returned.

One of the few times that the Sri Lankan state evoked the Act in the south was during the second JVP insurrection from 1987-89, to arrest revolting Sinhalese youth.

Political parties in opposition have periodically demanded the repeal of the PTA. In the post-war context, the Leftist nationalist JVP called for its abolition, to quell foreign interference in Sri Lanka’s domestic matters, and the Tamil National Alliance — the main political grouping representing the island’s northern Tamils — has also voiced concern over “the draconian law” and the apparent influence that the security establishment has on the government.

The draft of the new legislation is to be submitted to an oversight committee on National Security, government sources said. Concerns would also be presented to the committee which, in turn, would submit it to Parliament.

However, lawyers like Mr. Ratnavale appear sceptical. “The government anticipates political opposition even to its economic policies. In the guise of tackling terrorism, it might use the [counter terrorism] law to curb all dissent.” (The Hindu)

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