PTA: Terrorising Sri Lanka for 42 Years

Socio-economic and psychological impact on families of PTA detainees following
the Easter Sunday Attacks

by Marisa de Silva, Law & Society Trust, Colombo, November 2020


“When I was in prison, I met and spoke with other Tamil PTA prisoners, some who had been
there for 10 years, with their files not even taken up yet. I was terrified wondering if the same
thing would happen to me…”
– L.T. Jesmin, one of five men from Horowpothana arrested under false charges in 2019

Biting the Bullet – Ilankai Tamil SangamThis research was undertaken to highlight the socio-economic impacts faced by the families of
those arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).The PTA has
predominately 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.

Women are left to care for the elderly and their children, and generate an income in order to
survive. They also have to liaise with lawyers and visit the arrested men. An increase in poverty
levels and indebtedness, is an additional consequence of the arbitrary arrest and detention of
primary income earners. Thus, this indirectly places an additional burden on the State. Further,
as society tends to buy into the government narrative and stigmatise such families as “terrorist
families”, these families also face social ostracism and psychological trauma.

Guilt by Association
In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday Attacks of 21stApril, 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,1 at least
500 Muslims, between the ages of 18 and 49, were arrested and detained under the PTA,
following the attacks. Of those arrested, 98 were from Kattankudy, Batticaloa, the hometown of
Zahran. To date, 92 of the 98 detainees from Kattankudy remain in remand custody, with 6
persons having been released on bail. In one particular instance, 65 Muslim youth and men
were arrested under one charge. The arbitrary and sweeping use of the PTA follows the pattern
of its over-use and abuse against the Tamil community during the three decades of ethnic
conflict. It has contributed greatly to further polarizing communities and deepening the divides.
Whilst it is recognised that those involved in violent terrorist activities must be held accountable
under the law, arresting and detaining a number of family members under the PTA, purely
based on suspicion is deeply problematic. These blanket arrests deny the presumption of
innocence, create an environment of guilt by association, further polarises society, intensifies
the spread of Islamophobia and creates a deep resentment among the largely peaceful Muslim
community. 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.

These cases exemplify the urgent need to repeal the PTA, a long-standing call by victim families
and local and international activists and rights groups. Furthermore, the sweeping arrests under
the PTA and the treatment of detainees expose the deeply ingrained prejudice towards ethnic/religious minorities, failures of the law enforcement and prison systems, and the need for
urgent reform.

Historical Context
The PTA is a draconian law introduced in 1978 to legitimize the State’s use of brutal force and
inhumane ‘counter terror’ tactics to quash the Tamil insurgency spearheaded by the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).Since then the PTA has been used disproportionately against
people of Tamil ethnicity, subjecting them to arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without
charges, inhumane detention conditions, torture, forced confessions, post-release harassment
and restrictions, including re-arrests. Currently, at least 146 PTA detainees 2
(including 6 women and a 1½ year old infant with a heart ailment), continue to languish in prisons around the country.

As at 2015, the actual number detained under the PTA was unknown, but a list of 182 persons
detained under the PTA, and remanded at 11 official remand prisons, was compiled and
released by the Department of Prisons. However, the list did not include those being held at
detention centres such as Boosa and the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) in Colombo,
and this indicated that the actual number of persons arrested and detained under the PTA at the
time, would have been far higher.4

Some of the types of cases flagged at that time by the Watchdog Collective5
• Persons who had been in remand for 18-19 years without having their cases concluded;
• Persons in remand for 15 years prior to charges being filed;
• Persons in detention for 15 months prior to being produced before a Magistrate and
being remanded;
• Persons who were brought for 400-500 court hearings whilst in detention, without seeing
a conclusion to the case,
• An instance of 15 cases filed against one person at 6 courts across 4 districts; and
• Instances of persons who were released as innocent and discharged from all charges
after 5-6 years in detention, only to be subjected to post release harassment, including

To the Judiciary
• Fast-track and bring to a speedy close all cases of those persons who are:
– Under the age of 18 held at probation centres,
– Falsely charged under the PTA, ER or ICCPR, and currently released on bail,
– In prolonged detention without charge,
– Who have spent 5-10 years in prison prior to being sentenced.
• Order the proportionate payment of compensation (that also takes into consideration
reimbursement for the expenses already incurred by detainees,) by the State, to all
those who have been falsely charged, discharged of all charges after multiple years in
prison/detention, subject to torture/inhumane treatment, and forced confession
• Authorise/permit regular prison visits by family members, including probation and
detention centres, and
• Ensure as far as possible, that prisoners are held at prisons closest to their homes, so
as to minimise the time and funds that families must incur on travel.
• Enable all families to access court hearings, as it is their right to know and understand
the status of the case.

To the Media
• Empower media regulatory bodies to take strict legal action against media institutions
and hold them accountable for fueling ethnic violence through fake news and racist
propaganda and fabricating news and supporting disinformation.
• Media regulatory bodies must ensure that media institutions accused of defamation and
fabrication of false news, publish a prominently placed retraction and apology to the
victims and their families, and be made to pay punitive damages for the destruction of
lives and reputations.

To the Government
• Provide support to all families of PTA detainees similar to the support offered to families
of regular prisoners, including livelihood and educational support for children
• Support families by clearing their debt on their behalf, and offering a no-interest
Government issued loan repayment scheme that they are able to pay off gradually over
a long period of time.
• Ensure that all minors/students arrested and detained under the PTA, are entitled to
pursue an education, by way of access to text books, extra tuition classes) and
• Provide special provisions for pregnant women and women arrested with
infants/children, such as house arrest or protective custody, particularly in instances
where the woman has no family support/guardian for the child, or is breastfeeding, so
that the child does not have to grow up inside prison.
• To carry out urgent reform and a reassessment of the effectiveness of the prison
system, and standardize resources and humanize regulations practiced by prisons,
including increasing the duration of visitation, removing all screens and enable physical
contact between inmates and their families during visitation, keep inmates at prisons,
ideally in their home district or at the closest possible prison, as families must incur huge
costs, and often travel for almost a full day, across districts, to visit their detained family
member/s for a mere 5-10 minutes.

To Non-Government Organisations
• Provide livelihood support and technical expertise, including a practical
business/marketing plan to women left with the burden of fending for their families, so
that livelihood initiatives are sustainable and lucrative.
• Provide free legal aid and adequate travel allowance for prison visits, so as to minimise
expenses incurred by detainee families.

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