Arrests using ‘draconian’ anti-terrorism law spark concern in Sri Lanka 

The arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act over the last few days have triggered much concern, especially among rights advocates and the international community

December 01, 2023 10:37 pm | Updated December 02, 2023 08:55 am IST - COLOMBO

Police personnel stand guard in Colombo. File.

Police personnel stand guard in Colombo. File. | Photo Credit: AFP

Recent arrests made by Sri Lanka police using a controversial anti-terrorism law, whose repeal remains a key demand of rights defenders in the island nation, has sparked concern among Tamil legislators, activists, and international agencies including the UN.

In a post on social media platform ‘X’ on Friday, Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian Shanakiyan Rasamanickam said: “Govt is not genuine in its reconciliation efforts. So far 10 individuals have been arrested under the PTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act] in Batticaloa this week. Amongst the arrested is a woman, student and a politician. The most ridiculous arrest is of a bakery employee for selling a cake. #repealPTA”.

He was referring to the arrests made around ‘Maaveerar Naal’ [Heroes’ Day], marked earlier this week, by Tamil families to remember Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadre who died in the country’s civil war. Tamil media reported that the police, in districts across the Tamil-majority north and east, tried to obtain a ban on the remembrance events, in the run-up to the scheduled commemorations. In its editorial on November 28, 2023, Tamil daily Virakesari noted that government authorities’ attempt to seek a ban on ‘Maveerar Day’ commemorations was “wrong”. “Families have a right to remember those who died in the war…preventing that is a violation of a basic human right,” it said. Reports pointed to disruption by the police, although there was no ban on the events.  

Mr. Rasamanickam, who represents Batticaloa district in Parliament, pointed to the government’s “double standards” in allowing commemorations. “If the JVP [Janatha Vimukthi Peramana, which led two armed insurrections against the State] can commemorate its leader and members at public events in Colombo, why can’t families in the north and east remember their sons or daughters who were part of the LTTE? Regardless of whether we agree with someone’s political ideology or not, we must respect everyone’s right to remember their loved one,” he told The Hindu, adding that “memorialisation is part of the healing process.”

Meanwhile, the arrests under the PTA over the last few days have triggered much concern, especially among rights advocates and the international community.

The PTA was enacted in 1979, during President J.R. Jayawardene’s time in office, mainly to crush Tamil youth’s armed struggle against state discrimination. It became a permanent law in 1982. Modelled on South Africa’s Apartheid-era legislation and British laws against Irish militancy, the PTA’s provisions are considered “draconian” by human rights defenders. The law was also used against insurgent Sinhala youth during the second JVP uprising in the late 1980s, and more recently, against Muslims, in the wake of the Easter Sunday terror attacks of 2019.

In a post on ‘X’, the office of the UN Human Rights chief said: “We are concerned by recent arrests in Northern & Eastern Provinces under Prevention of Terrorism Act, which runs counter to Govt’s promised moratorium on use of the law that violates human rights obligations & should be repealed.” Colombo-based missions of the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Canada, too voiced concern. The Sri Lankan government attempted to draft a new terrorism law that, it said, would be in line with international standards. However, legal experts and rights defenders have termed the draft regressive.

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