The recent arrest of former Colombo Deputy Mayor Azath Salley under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) sent shockwaves in the political arena reminding most people of the prevalent uneasy environment in the country during and after the war.
The government had removed the emergency regulations after the war, but the PTA remained in force as the government claims that the LTTE once again may attempt to raise its head.
However opposition political parties, civil society and human rights groups feel that it is now needless to keep PTA in force and are demanding that it be repealed.
The National Peace Council says the PTA is itself not the issue but the abuse of its powers by the authorities is where the problem arises.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader Executive Director of the National Peace Council, Dr. Jehan Perera said that many democratic countries have equivalents of the PTA including the US, the UK and India.
He says even though international human rights organisations have criticised these laws saying they can lead to human rights violations, the anti-terrorism laws still remain in many countries.
However, he says the US, the UK and India have strong systems of checks and balances. They have independent institutions of partisan political control. They have independent police, public services and judiciaries. Even their heads of governments would hesitate to try and interfere with them.
“In Sri Lanka, however, the situation is entirely different. Over the past few decades, ruling politicians have humbled our once independent institutions to which the best of our educated people aspired to join. The repeal of the 17th amendment that sought to improve the independence and integrity of the most important institutions of state has been an enormous tragedy. There is a general feeling that every important event is dictated by politics, and not by merit or legal right,” he said.
Dr. Perera says in these circumstances, laws such as the PTA are prone to be abused. There is no effective check on the government’s discretion to do as it pleases. He notes that the sudden arrest of Azath Salley under the PTA and his equally sudden release on president’s orders show how the laws can be abused.
“Therefore, in the absence of a system of checks and balances, and institutions that are free from the whims and fancies of the ruling politicians, I would advocate the repeal of the PTA,” he said.
His views are shared by a well known think-tank and advocacy group, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).
The CPA is deeply concerned about the use of the PTA when the Government’s own National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) in 2011, pledged to review its application and amend provisions to conform with human rights norms within a period of one year.
It also notes that a number of emergency regulations that would have lapsed when the state of emergency was terminated have been continued in force by the convenient expedient of re-promulgation under the PTA, illustrating how emergency measures can be continued in perpetuity without the need for the declaration of a formal state of emergency, and the attendant checks and balances that follow such a declaration.
“CPA has consistently maintained that the PTA in its current form has no place in a democratic society. CPA strongly reiterates this call in the present context in which the terrorist threat against which the PTA was officially justified for three decades has now been eliminated,” the CPA said in a statement. It is the view of the CPA that 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,” CPA said.
With the government however saying it cannot and will not repeal the PTA now, the London based Amnesty International has written to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) highlighting its concerns over the issue.
UNHRC is meeting next week for its 23rd session and Amnesty International has in a letter to the Council ahead of its meeting, alleged that the Government of Sri Lanka continues to employ the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to detain critics.
Amnesty says the PTA restricts freedom of expression and association, permits extended administrative detention, and reverses the burden of proof where torture or other ill-treatment of detainees is alleged.
“HRC Resolution 19/2 of 2012 called on Sri Lanka to ensure accountability for alleged violations under international law; Resolution 22/1 of 2013 reiterated this call and expressed concern over reports of continuing violations of human rights. It noted the call of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for an “independent and credible international investigation into alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” in Sri Lanka.
Amnesty International believes international action to secure accountability in Sri Lanka remains essential,” the letter said.
Amnesty International feels the Sri Lankan government’s alleged “intolerance of criticism” combined with an ‘unwillingness’ to rein in its supporters who use violence against their political opponents, threatens to unravel the rule of law in Sri Lanka.
“As long as impunity reigns, and dissent is stifled, the Sri Lankan government’s promises of reconciliation following the conflict are empty,” Amnesty International said.
During Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Reviews in 2008 and 2012, in reporting to the UN Committee against Torture and the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and in addressing the Human Rights Council (HRC), the government had claimed to protect human rights. (Courtesy The Sunday Leader)