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Sri Lankan court rejects notification targeting minorities

The 2021 order by the Rajapaksa regime allowed the detention of people without trial for causing 'religious disharmony'

Former President Gotabaya Rajapakse issued the controversial notification in 2021.

Former President Gotabaya Rajapakse issued the controversial notification in 2021. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 14, 2023 12:28 PM GMT

Updated: November 15, 2023 03:52 AM GMT

Church leaders and rights activists have hailed Sri Lanka's top court for rejecting a government move to expand an abusive anti-terrorism law under the guise of curbing extremist religious ideology.

The Supreme Court on Nov. 13 declared “null and void” a gazette notification issued in 2021 to widen the scope of the country’s anti-terrorism law to cover government effort to de-radicalize extremist religious ideology.

According to human rights activists, the expansion amounted to “pre-trial punishment” which is banned under the island nation’s constitution.

Rights activists say the extraordinary notification widened the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and enabled the state to easily target religious and racial minorities, in violation of their basic rights.

The notification imposed without parliament’s intervention allowed detention of people without trial, accused of using words or signs that cause religious violence or spreading hate and disharmony among religions.

"The order provided government officials an opportunity to interpret any ideology, speech or activity of a minority group as extremist religious ideologies if the notification was passed," said Nalini Bopage, a human rights activist based in the capital Colombo.

Bopage appreciated the Supreme Court decision as it upheld the country's constitution, which, she said “clearly states that an arrested person has a fundamental right to a fair trial.”

"Many activists, including the clergy, would have been sent to detention camps if the notification was passed," said a Catholic priest who did not want to be named.

The priest called the decision of the Supreme Court “important” as it set free the Catholics from being unnecessarily victimized by the government.

“It will pave the way for Catholics to seek justice for the victims of Easter Sunday bombings which left more than 350 dead in 2019,” he said.

The Center for Alternative Policy (CPA), an advocacy group, along with several others pointed out that the notification, issued by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's government, could be used to target minority religions and ethnic communities.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of CPA, said that the extraordinary gazette notification has violated several fundamental rights.

It was described by Human Rights Watch as the Sri Lankan government’s attempt to add “a new weapon to its arsenal of abusive laws, putting religious and racial minorities at greater risk of torture and prolonged detention without trial.”

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, had said that the Rajapaksa administration “instead of addressing the UN’s concerns by repealing the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act, was embracing it with a vengeance.”

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