Hundreds of rights activists including Catholic priests and sympathizers of the erstwhile Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group have been arrested and detained under Sri Lanka's draconian terrorism law that allow police powers to arrest, detain and justify detention. Ruki Fernando, an activist and Oblate Father Praveen Mahesan were detained under the anti-terrorism law in March 2014 as part of an ongoing campaign of harassment that saw them slapped with travel restrictions. They are just two of hundreds of activists, journalists and religious leaders who have been detained under the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act. Some have been behind bars for 15 years without trial. Now, the Sri Lankan governments plans to scrap the Prevention of Terrorism law in favor of the new Counter Terrorism Act but critics say is even worse. The new act is currently awaiting cabinet approval. "The Prevention of Terrorism Act served as a license for enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and suppressing dissent. The Counter Terrorism Act framework seeks to extend that license with a new label and face," said Ruki Fernando, a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission within the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka.
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"Why was the Counter Terrorism Act drafted in such secrecy with absolutely no public consultations?" he said. Fernando and Father Mahesan were arrested when they were investigating the arrest of Balendran Jeyakumari, who had been collecting testimonies from people who had lost relatives during the war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers that ended 2009. There was no evidence against Fernando and Father Mahesan and they were eventually released after an international outcry. Outspoken Tamil rights activist Balendran Jeyakumari was also arrested and detained for nearly a year under the Prevention of Terrorism Act from March 2014. She was campaigning against enforced disappearance in former warzones when she was threatened and intimidated. No charges were ever filed against her. "Like the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the draft policy and legal framework of the Counter Terrorism Act contains many draconian clauses. It has vague and broad definitions that may infringe on free expression and human rights," Fernando told ucanews.com
. "It takes away due protection during arrests and detention, grants excessive power to the police to detain people for long periods without the supervision of the judiciary and delays supervision by the human rights commission," said Fernando. The British Foreign Offices' Human Rights Priority Country Update report in 2016 said that around 250 detainees are believed to be still held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It urged Sri Lanka to repeal the law and focus on strengthening the existing legal system to meet international standards. Around the same time, the Sri Lankan government promised the UN Human Rights Council to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and enact a law to meet international best practices. But the new Counter Terrorism Act is doing the opposite, according to S. Selvakunapalan, attorney-at-law and visiting lecturer at Sri Lanka Law College. "The magistrate shall, on an application made by a police officer, make an order that such a person be remanded for a period of one year without inquires. It may be extended for a further year. That means two years," said Selvakunapalan. "Police can use the Counter Terrorism Act against irksome citizens like trade union leaders, demonstrators, rights activists and even employees who take trade union actions, it's a red light for human rights," he added. Anglican Father Marimuthu Sakthivel, Convener of the National Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners said that the government frequently employs anti-terrorism laws to justify the detention of human rights defenders, political prisoners and minorities. The priest said that hundreds of Tamils, activists and journalists have been punished over the years and some were imprisoned for a decade without trial. "Political prisoners were attacked in Anuradhapura prison, two of them died and many have been injured but there has been no justice for them," he added. Fernando urged the government to focus on strengthening existing legal and institutional frameworks to combat crime and terrorism while ensuring protection from abusive officials. "The spirit and purpose of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the leaked version of the Counter Terrorism Act seem similar: giving extreme powers to the military and police in the name of preventing and countering terrorism. It disregards the life, liberty and dignity of human beings," he said.