I was a young priest of eight years’ experience when the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). At that time and in the years that followed, I felt no pressing need to oppose it, and neither did many other Christians.
It was believed then that priests had little business getting involved in politics, and the terrorism law was merely a political matter.
After more than four decades as a priest, I have shed the cocoon and see now that Christians have a calling to oppose this type of obnoxious legislation because it harms innocent people – especially the poor, who often do not understand the implications of such laws or how to respond when they are harassed or oppressed.
In March, authorities detained human rights activist Ruki Fernando and Oblate priest Fr Praveen in the Vanni area, where government forces finally defeated the Tamil Tigers in a bloody end to decades of civil war.
The activists were there to interview families that had been detained under the PTA, and this was interpreted as a criminal offense.
Both men were released within 48 hours, in the wake of widespread international criticism.
Rights activists have called on the government to repeal the act because it has been used to justify the arrest and detain them.
Hundreds of opposition political leaders, journalists and Tamil Tiger suspects have been punished under the provisions of the PTA, which was passed in 1978. In some cases, suspects have languished in prison for as many as 15 years without trial.
If a law intended to prevent terrorism has been for years used to target rights activists and others who disagree with the government, then I have to ask what exactly is terrorism?
Though there seems to be no universally acknowledged definition of terrorism, the term as we know it derives from the French terrorisme, which was applied to the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.
This in turn derives from the Latin verb terreo, meaning to frighten. So a more accurate definition of terrorism would be violent actions intended to create a climate of fear or terror.
But then, I would ask: Can you overcome terrorism with counter-terrorism?
The answer, it seems to me, is no. Violence begets violence, as every religious leader from Buddha to Jesus has taught. True peace cannot be achieved by the same means that shattered it.
Even the United Nations has so far failed to establish an international convention against terrorism because of a failure to reach a consensus on what the term actually means.
And yet, several countries have enacted legislation aimed at countering terrorism – Israel, Japan, the United States, to name only a few.
In 1978, Sri Lanka passed the PTA as a temporary measure to help defeat the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam. Its duration was intended to be only one year and the legislation passed without delay and with largely unanimous support among lawmakers and the general public.
The law, which was fast-tracked and not subject to the normal pre-enactment requirements and stipulations to ensure its constitutionality, was subsequently extended in 1981 and remains in effect.
Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war ended in May 2009, decades after the emergency provisions of the act were necessary. Now in the post-war era, it remains on the books and applicable not only in former war-torn areas but across the country.
Today, the PTA is used to crack down on any activities construed to be anti-government, and some of its provisions are clearly in violation of international laws, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Moreover, later revisions have further strengthened grounds for detention, while the PTA itself contains vague language that lends itself to abuse.
The PTA cites the concept of “unlawful activity”, though it does not specify the nature of such activities – meaning that anything could potentially be deemed unlawful, and indeed, many continue to languish in detention without indictment on those very grounds.
Sri Lanka’s present government currently uses the law to political advantage by targeting any opposition protests or activities, as we saw with the arrests of Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen.
Too few Christian leaders fully understand the dangers posed by the PTA five years after the conflict that prompted its passage.
As I emerged from my cocoon of ignorance about the dangers of this legislation, so too must they see it for what it is – an enduring threat to the freedom of innocent civilians and a means of further obliterating the rule of law in the country.
In short, they along with activists and lawyers must take a principled and aggressive stand on the rescinding of this dangerous and undemocratic legislation.
Fr Reid Shelton Fernando is an human rights activist and former Archdiocese of Colombo coordinator of the Christian Workers Movement.
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