By Quintus Colombage
Rights activists and journalists have condemned the Sri Lankan government’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and planned Counter Terrorism Act (CTA).
They claim that all terror laws are generally used against journalists, rights activists, union leaders and opposition politicians as tools of oppression.
Under the PTA, hundreds of Tamils have remained in jail without trial since 2009 when the military defeated Tamil rebels in the 26-year civil war from 1983 to 2009.
Human rights defender Ruki Fernando said that even organizing a demonstration could be defined as terrorism by a repressive government under the CTA.
“We need to repeal the very oppressive PTA and we should not bring similarly oppressive laws such as the CTA,” Fernando told journalists and human rights defenders at the Sri Lanka Press Institute on Feb. 28 in Colombo. “For nearly five years, a case against me on terror charges is still pending, restrictions on my freedom of expression are still in force and my confiscated electronic equipment has yet to be returned.”
He was speaking at an event titled “Free Expression and Terror Laws” that was organized by the Free Media Movement.
Ruki Fernando and Oblate Father Praveen Mahesan, director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation, were arrested and detained as suspected terrorists under the PTA in 2014.
“The draft CTA has broad definitions that can infringe on rights activism and independent journalism,” said Fernando. “A minister can proscribe an organization, the armed forces or police can enter, search, confiscate anything, police can seek an order from a magistrate to stop a gathering, meeting or rally without allowing the affected party to be heard.”
Fernando told ucanews.com that the PTA has also been used to arrest many minority Tamils on flimsy grounds and subject them to prolonged detention and trials, with many facing torture and sexual violence.
“It creates a militarized and repressive environment instead of allowing democratic dissent,” he said.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Tilak Marapana presented the CTA draft bill to parliament in 2018. The CTA is meant to be a replacement and improvement of the PTA, which was enacted in 1978.
The CTA will go before parliament soon. Under the PTA, suspects were detained for 10-15 years before being released as not guilty in recent years. The act resulted in serious human rights violations such as arbitrary arrests, detention and torture without charges.
Fernando said the PTA has disproportionately affected Tamils in the north and east, while its CTA may do the same, though its reach can be any person in any part of the country.
“The PTA must be repealed as promised by the government three and half years ago and the CTA must not be linked to that. The government should then withdraw the CTA or lawmakers should defeat it in parliament,” said Fernando.
“It’s very important that the main political party representing the north and east — the Tamil National Alliance — takes a principled and clear position against both the PTA and the CTA.” Rights activists have been calling on the government to repeal the PTA for years, staging numerous demonstrations.
Lawyer Ermiza Tegal said the police and army have been given more powers to arrest under the CTA. “Even the president has been given law-making powers under the CTA,” she told activists.
Rights defenders including Christian priests organized a demonstration in Batticaloa on Feb. 23 to protest the PTA and CTA, demanding that state terror and a permanent state of emergency should not be legalized.