by Kumarathasan Rasingam, Secretary, Tamil Canadian Elders for Human Rights Org. June 23, 2022
[Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister GL Pieris told the UNHRC on June 13 that the PTA has been amended & there is a moratorium on arrests.1 There is no evidence of either action being taken. — Editor]
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was introduced in 1978 by then-President J.R. Jayawardena and has been disproportionately used to target Tamils in the island.
The Sri Lankan government has failed to fulfill its pledge to abolish the abusive PTA for decades. The PTA has been used to arbitrarily detain suspects for months and often years – some as long as 20 — without charge or trial, facilitating torture, disappearance and other abuse.
The PTA was enacted to counter separatist insurgencies, notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the law was widely used to detain hundreds of people during the country’s 26-year-long civil war. Yet while other emergency regulations have lapsed since the conflict ended in May 2009, the PTA remains in effect.
“The Sri Lankan government has been all talk and no action on repealing the PTA,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Replacing this draconian counterterrorism law with one that meets international standards should be an urgent priority if the government is serious about protecting human rights.”
Hundreds of people have been arbitrarily detained in Sri Lanka under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which was enacted in 1979 to counter separatist insurgencies, notably the LTTE. The law allows arrests for unspecified “unlawful activities” without warrant, and permits detention for up to 18 months without the authorities producing the suspect before a court pre-trial.
Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been used for over 40 years to enable prolonged arbitrary detention, to extract false confessions through torture, and to target minority communities and civil society groups. After years of domestic and international criticism of the law, the Sri Lankan government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on January 27, 2022, published a bill to amend the act. However, the proposed amendments leave the most often abused provisions of the law intact, and if enacted, will do little to bring the PTA into compliance with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations.
The PTA has predominantly targeted men belonging to ethnic and religious minorities (Tamils and Muslims), and their arrests leave the women and families vulnerable. The women have to bear the brunt of the socio-economic impact of these arrests.
In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday Attacks of 21st April, 2019, hundreds of Muslims were rounded up and arrested under the PTA and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act of 2007. According to lawyers working on PTA cases, at least 500 Muslims, between the ages of 18 and 49, were arrested and detained under the PTA,
Arbitrary arrests under the PTA are often ‘witch hunts’ targeting a minority community or dissidents, or it is a means of collecting evidence. This is a rampant violation of fundamental human rights.
The PTA has attracted universal condemnation ever since it was enacted (as the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979, as amended by Act Nos. 10 of 1982 and 22 of 1988), as a measure that is wholly inconsistent with contemporary human rights standards and which not merely permits, but also encourages the pervasive violation of fundamental rights otherwise protected by the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Compounded by Sri Lanka’s endemic law’s delays, it has been deployed to deprive the basic civil liberties and inflict physical harm and mental distress on thousands of Sri Lankan citizens of all communities.
The provisions of the PTA fly in the face of almost every conceivable human rights norm pertaining to the liberty of the person, including most prominently, detention without charge for extended periods of time at irregular places of detention, the broad denial of detainees’ rights, admissibility of confessions in judicial proceedings subject only to the most tenuous of safeguards, the shifting of the evidential burden of proof to the defendant, and disproportionate penalties. The unchecked detention powers, special trial procedures and absence of meaningful judicial review in the PTA facilitate arbitrary and capricious official conduct, including torture. The PTA also makes serious incursions into the freedom of expression and the media by requiring in certain circumstances governmental approval for printing, publishing and distributing publications and newspapers. For these reasons, the PTA represents an aberration of the rule of law upon which the constitutional order of Sri Lanka is ostensibly based, and has been the gateway to systematic abuse of human rights, giving rise especially to gross ethnic discrimination in its implementation.
“The Sri Lankan government announced that the state of emergency is over, but it is holding on to the same draconian powers it had during the war,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments that have called for the repeal of the emergency powers should not be fooled by this cynical ‘bait and switch.’”
PTA allows for arrests for unspecified “unlawful activities” without warrant and permits detention for up to 18 months without producing the suspect before a court. The government need not charge the person with an offense. The act also provides immunity from prosecution for government officials who may commit wrongful acts, such as torture, under the legislation. Legal proceedings are prohibited if an official acted “in good faith,” or in “pursuance of any order made or direction given under this Act.”
The United Nations, UNHRC and the International Community must force Sri Lanka to repeal of the PTA in its present form, and its replacement, if necessary, with legislation that is consistent with international anti-terrorism standards reflected in relevant United Nations instruments and comparative constitutional practice.