Sri Lanka detains student leaders under anti-terrorism law

They were arrested after joining a protest rally in Colombo

August 22, 2022 10:38 pm | Updated 11:47 pm IST - Colombo

Sri Lankan university students taking part in a demonstration in Colombo on August 18, 2022.

Sri Lankan university students taking part in a demonstration in Colombo on August 18, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

The Sri Lankan police on Monday confirmed the detention of three student activists under a dreaded anti-terrorism law, four days after arresting them at a protest held in capital Colombo.

Local and international rights advocates have slammed the move, accusing the government of construing dissent as terrorism, even as Sri Lanka’s controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act comes under sharp focus yet again.

Sri Lankan civic activists concerned over ‘witch-hunt’ by state

On August 18, the police arrested nearly 20 protesters at a march held in Colombo, organised by the Inter University Students’ Federation, where participants highlighted many issues, including “state repression” and the spiralling cost of living.

While a majority of those arrested were soon granted bail, Federation convener Wasantha Mudalige, student activists Hashan Jeewantha and Galwewa Siridhamma — who leads the universities’ monk federation — were in police custody for over 72 hours, amid reports of their detention under the PTA. As lawyers struggled to obtain information on the students’ whereabouts, rights activists, members of the political opposition, and international human rights watchdogs were quick to condemn the move.

Mr. Mudalige was a prominent voice during the ‘Janatha Aragalaya’ [people’s struggle] that spanned four months and dramatically dislodged former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July. The IUSF and other student groups played a key role in sustaining the peaceful anti-government agitations demanding “Gota go home”, and seeking “system change”, often braving water cannons and tear gas unleashed by the police. 

“It was the protest [Aragalaya] that prompted President Gotabaya to resign; it was the protest that paved way for Ranil [Wickremesinghe]’s presidency. They recognised the protest as constitutional when it suited them,” Joseph Stalin, general secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, told The Hindu.  “How did the protesters suddenly become terrorists now? If President Wickremesinghe terms the students’ resistance as terrorism now, doesn’t that mean he too came to power using terrorist means?” contended Mr. Stalin, who is out on bail following his recent arrest for participating in a protest that allegedly violated a court order.

Amid the spate of arrests in recent weeks, government critics and rights advocates have accused authorities of pursuing a “witch hunt” targeting dissidents.

Spotlight on PTA again

Sri Lanka’s PTA, which rights activists term “draconian” and want repealed, was enacted in 1979 under President J.R. Jayawardene, primarily to crush Tamil youth’s armed struggle against state discrimination. It became a permanent law in 1982. Modelled largely on South Africa’s Apartheid-era legislation and British laws used against Irish militancy, the PTA was also used against insurgent Sinhala youth during the second JVP uprising in the late 1980s, and more recently against Muslims, following the Easter Sunday terror attacks of 2019.

According to human rights defenders, over 100 Tamils are in detention under the PTA on charges of belonging to or helping the LTTE. More than 200 Muslims were arrested after the 2019 serial bombings. Some 30 PTA detainees were granted bail in recent months.

In a letter to the Inspector General of Police on Monday, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka said it was “deeply concerned about the resurrection of the PTA by the police on suspects who do not fall within the definition of the Act.” “It has been brought to the notice of the HRCSL that the recent iteration of the PTA has been grossly manipulated to exert tyranny through undemocratic methods and justify the wrongful arrest of protesters,” the Commission noted.

Amnesty International’s South Asia Director Yamini Mishra said: “Using a draconian anti-terror law to crackdown on protesters is a new low for the Sri Lankan government. This weaponising of an already highly criticized law, which should be repealed immediately, is a testament to how the authorities are unwilling to withstand any form of criticism and are systematically stifling dissenting voices.”

The PTA allows for detention of suspects for up to a year without charge, which is “in violation of international law”, she pointed out in a statement issued on Monday, hours after police confirmed that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Defence Minister, signed the student leaders’ detention order for 90 days, effectively approving their detention without judicial oversight for the period

“When the next generation is silenced for protesting for basic needs, we threaten democracy. We must protect those that exercise this right instead of persecuting them by weaponising the PTA,” Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa said in a tweet on Saturday. In a meeting with President Wickremesinghe on Monday, he “stressed grave reservations” on the use of the legislation, he said in tweet.

In February this year, the UN Human Rights Chief reiterated her call for a moratorium on the use of the PTA in Sri Lanka until it is replaced by legislation that “fully complies with the country’s international human rights obligations”. A month later, the Rajapaksa administration amended some provisions of the PTA. Briefing the UN Human Rights Council in June, then Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris claimed the amendments would make a “substantial improvement of, and a profound impact upon”, the existing law, besides “furthering” human rights and democratic freedoms. Law enforcement authorities, he assured, would henceforth use the legislation only in instances of “extreme necessity”, as there was a “de facto moratorium” on arrests being made under the PTA.

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