Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's latest attempt to legalize state terror

Replacing one act that tramples on human rights with another that makes potential suspects of us all is no solution

Ruki Fernando, Colombo

Updated: March 25, 2019 03:18 AM GMT

Students in Sri Lanka hurl tear gas back at police in Colombo on Feb. 26. The clashes broke out during a protest march when they demanded better conditions at state-run universities. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

Five years ago on the night of March 16, a Catholic priest called Father Praveen and I were arrested in Kilinochchi, the former capital of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka's Northern Province.

We were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and subjected to intense interrogation. The reasons given for my arrest included causing discomfort to the government and sending information overseas to earn money.

Unlike many other PTA detainees, we were released after 51 hours — probably due to intense national and international campaigns. But the agony continued after our release.

I was almost abducted by armed men in civilian clothes who raided the office of a human rights organization where I was doing some work.

Later, the chief of the unit that arrested us told me they were his men, and they had been searching for a different terror suspect.

The overseas travel restriction on me has been lifted, but my electronic equipment that was confiscated has not been returned, and the restrictions on my freedom of expression remain in place.

In 2009, Shantha Fernando, an activist working for the Commission for Justice and Peace of the National Christian Council, was also arrested and detained under the PTA. His crime? Carrying photos through the airport depicting the humanitarian crisis that unfolded during the last phase of the 26-year civil war, during which time the military stands accused of conducting war crimes.

The PTA has led to the prolonged detention of innocents. In 2015, a court reportedly acquitted a Tamil mother after finding her not guilty of the charges leveled against her — after she had already spent 15 years in detention.

The PTA has served as a license for reprisals against dissent, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and prolonged detention.

The cabinet formally approved and presented the bill to parliament last year. It is known as the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA).

Sri Lankan police commandos patrol a suburb of Kandy on March 6, 2018, following anti-Muslim riots that prompted the government to declare a state of emergency. The new Counter Terrorism Act (ATC) is seen as giving security officials too much leeway to abuse people's rights. (Photo by AFP) 


Problems with the CTA

The CTA uses broad definitions that could make almost anyone a terrorist, and any act of dissent a terrorist act, with intention a key factor. Acts associated with terrorism can include gathering information, and distributing or making information available to a person or the public.

Journalists could be penalized for not revealing sources. Participating in or organizing a protest, or a trade union strike, could also make one a terrorist suspect.

There is no compulsion to protect an arrested person from physical harm, or to convey the information about their arrest in their own language at the time they are apprehended.

What needs to be done is for the government to withdraw the CTA. Failing that, parliament must defeat it. The PTA must be repealed separately.

There is no need to link the two laws together.

Meanwhile, opposition to the two acts is increasing.

But barring some disapproving comments by the bishop of Batticaloa and a few priests, the church leadership, including Caritas, have stayed quiet on the CTA.

It is time to stand up and say no to both the PTA and the CTA. Any delay could have dire consequences for people's human rights, dignity and democracy.

Ruki Fernando, a local human rights activist, was detained and then released under the PTA. He remains under investigation, with a court order restricting his freedom of expression. Fernando is a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors, and was a member of the Asia Pacific Chaplaincy team of the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS). He is also a member of a watchdog collective and an adviser to the INFORM Human Rights Documentation Center.

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