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Sri Lankan activists seek to torpedo anti-terror bill

Proposed Prevention of Terrorism Act is a more serious threat to democracy than existing law, they say
In this October 14, 2015 file photo, Tamil protesters hold placards demanding the release of activists being held under tough anti-terror laws in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. Religious leaders, trade unions, and activists are calling for the scrapping of a new anti-terrorism bill which they say is more draconian than the existing law

In this October 14, 2015 file photo, Tamil protesters hold placards demanding the release of activists being held under tough anti-terror laws in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. Religious leaders, trade unions, and activists are calling for the scrapping of a new anti-terrorism bill which they say is more draconian than the existing law. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 12, 2023 08:31 AM GMT
Updated: April 12, 2023 09:27 AM GMT

Religious leaders, trade unions, and activists in Sri Lanka have branded a proposed anti-terrorism law unwanted and urged diplomatic missions to intervene to roll it back.

Over 450 activists said that the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), which will replace the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), is a more serious threat to democracy in the bankrupt Indian Ocean nation.

There is no need for a special terror law as there are adequate provisions within the existing law, they said in a statement.

"The PTA has also been used to unjustly detain lawyers, religious leaders, journalists, student activists, opposition politicians and human rights activists from all ethnic communities. Many PTA detainees have been subjected to horrendous torture," said the activists, including 21 Christian, Buddhist religious leaders and Caritas Sri Lanka, the social arm of the Catholic Church, on April 11.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 was enacted to help the government tackle the 30-year-old civil war, waged by separatist Tamil groups, which ended in 2009 after the killing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

However, a fresh threat dented the country’s security after the Easter bomb blasts in 2019 that killed more than 290 people.

"Many clauses in the bill are anti-democratic"

Citing examples, the activists said many minority Tamil community members, who were detained under the PTA, had spent up to 16 years in detention before being acquitted by courts as not guilty.

The United States, and international rights group Amnesty International have called on Sri Lanka to repeal the existing draconian anti-terror law. The EU has been urging the government to repeal the PTA since 2016 and has linked its export tariff concessions to Sri Lanka modifying its counter terrorism law.

Sri Lanka is currently ruled by an interim government headed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe after angry protests removed former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year as the island nation of 22 million people went bankrupt.

The interim government has decided to delay presenting the new Anti-Terrorism Bill, published on March 22, in the country’s parliament. According to media reports, the new bill will be tabled in parliament in late April.

Interim Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, who drafted the bill, said it was developed after studying counter-terrorism laws in the US, the UK and neighboring India.

Many clauses in the bill are anti-democratic, the activists said in their statement, signed by Fathers Jeyabalan Croos, Nandana Manatunga, Sarath Iddamalgoda, F.C.J. Gnanaraj (Nehru), Jeevantha Peiris, and Terence Fernando, and Sisters Deepa Fernando, M.J. Vijaya, Nichola Emmanuel, Noel Christine Fernando, and Rasika Pieris and Caritas Sri Lanka.

"The law leaves wide open who can be arrested"

They said imposing the death penalty under the new law, overriding the moratorium on its use in the country since 1976, is a dangerous trend.

Nuwani Athalage, a rights activist from Colombo, said the ATA represents a new form of authoritarianism that will sweep the country.

"The PTA was aimed largely at the Tamil and Muslim minorities but the ATA will be its more sophisticated version," she said.

The National Peace Council (NPC), an independent and nonpartisan organization that works towards a negotiated political solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, urged the government to reconsider its presentation as it would impact negatively on the democratic space in the country.

"The law leaves wide open who can be arrested, by whom they can be arrested and for what purpose they are arrested," said the NPC.

"It brings legitimate activities, including protests, within the scope of terrorism,” the NPC observed.

Earlier, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo criticized the move to enact the new anti-terrorism law, saying it aims to silence critics and suppress people's protests.

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