The Sri Lankan government should abide by National Human Rights Commission guidelines on arrest and detention while taking urgent steps to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), Human Rights Watch said. Sri Lankan authorities have continued to use the PTA to detain individuals without charge, despite pledging to revoke the law at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in October 2015.
The PTA was used widely during the country’s decades-long civil war, primarily against those suspected of involvement with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Exact numbers of those still held under the PTA are unknown, with estimates ranging from 120 to 162 detainees. Since April 2016, the government has arrested at least 11 people under the PTA for alleged terrorist activities instead of using appropriate provisions under the criminal code.
“It is encouraging that the government has taken preliminary steps to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act, but the process is moving too slowly,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Until it is repealed, the government should announce a moratorium on the use of the PTA and instead rely on the criminal code, which does not allow indefinite detention without charge or trial.”
The 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. People detained under the PTA have been held without charge for years. The law also provides immunity for government officials responsible for abuses if deemed acting in good faith or fulfilling an order under the act. Although the government has been more transparent about recent PTA arrests, the tremendous powers given to the security forces under the PTA facilitate abuses.
Following a scathing report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2015, the government agreed to a resolution at the Human Rights Council in which it made many pledges toward accountability and justice. Paragraph 12 of the resolution committed the government to review and repeal the PTA and enact a law in line with international best practices. The government is working on a new bill to replace the PTA but there is no sign that this will be passed soon, and little transparency or consultation about the process.
Recent arrests under the PTA in Chavakachcheri in the Northern Province prompted Sri Lanka’s National Human Rights Commission to issue Directives on Arrest and Detention under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979 on May 18, 2016. This comprehensive list of directives is intended to protect detainees against the security forces’ broad powers under the PTA, particularly at the time of arrest and ensuing detention. These include guarantees of medical and legal assistance, registration of arrest, right to language of the detainee’s choice, security from torture and other ill-treatment, and special protection for women and children. The directives also reassert the commission’s mandate to be promptly informed of all PTA arrests, to access any person arrested or detained under the PTA, and to access any place of detention at any time.
The government has made substantial progress on many cases of prior PTA detainees. The authorities have released some PTA detainees on bail, “rehabilitated” others, and promised to charge and prosecute the remainder. However, the government has still not put forward a plan to provide redress for those unjustly detained under the PTA, or addressed the issue of detainees charged and prosecuted solely on the basis of coerced confessions obtained during detention.
“So long as the PTA is in place and being used, the Sri Lankan government will have a hard time convincing the Human Rights Council that it is keeping its commitments,” Adams said. “Revoking the PTA is absolutely crucial for ensuring respect for the basic rights of criminal suspects and the rule of law in Sri Lanka.”