Sri Lankan court grants bail to long-held rights lawyer in 2019 Easter bombings case

Spotlight on Sri Lanka’s controversial terrorism law that rights activists want repealed

February 07, 2022 02:05 pm | Updated 09:57 pm IST - Colombo

Hejaaz Hizbullah.

Hejaaz Hizbullah.

Sri Lanka’s Appeal Court on Monday granted bail to prominent Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, detained for nearly two years following his arrest under the much-dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in April 2020.

Named a ‘prisoner of conscience’ by rights watchdog Amnesty International, Mr. Hizbullah’s arrest and prolonged detention without charges drew wide local and international condemnation, while turning the spotlight on the country’s terrorism law that rights activists have repeatedly termed “draconian”, calling for its repeal.

The development comes two months after young Muslim poet Ahnaf Jazeem –also arrested under the PTA in May 2020 – was granted bail. Law enforcement authorities pitched both their arrests as part of their ongoing investigation of the Easter terror bombings of April 2019, providing no evidence of their alleged connection to the incident. They were detained without charges or lawyer access for several months.

‘PTA, a weapon’

Following news of Mr. Hizbullah’s bail, Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa said in a tweet: “Hejaaz’s release today after 20 months of detainment based on baseless charges, is proof that #PTA is not a tool but a weapon.”

While welcoming the bail, Amnesty International noted in a statement that “hundreds of others” remain in detention for charges related to ‘terrorism’, repeatedly used to target minority groups and state critics. “The Sri Lankan authorities must ensure that all those still detained under the PTA have access to fair bail hearings and release those who have not been charged with recognizable crimes under international law. They must also repeal the PTA and issue an immediate moratorium on its use, as repeated attempts to amend the law have proved futile.”

Sri Lanka enacted the PTA in 1979 under President J.R. Jayawardene, mainly to stifle the emerging armed struggle of Tamil youth opposing the state’s discriminatory policies. The PTA, which was modelled on South Africa’s apartheid-era legislation and laws used by the British to crush Irish militancy, became a permanent law in 1982 and has remained in force for over four decades, despite campaigns for its reform or repeal. Over time it has been used against dissidents among the Sinhala-majority, and more recently, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community that has been subjected to targeted attacks and discriminatory policy. In the past three years alone, authorities have arrested over 600 people under the PTA.

Proposal for amendment

Amid growing calls from the UN, international partners, and civil society groups, the government on January 27, 2002 gazetted a Bill to amend the PTA.

Acknowledging the need for reforming “draconian elements” of the PTA, the February 7 bail order of the Court of Appeal, the second highest court in Sri Lanka after the Supreme Court, noted: “Ultimately, it is up to the Legislature to ensure that the draconian elements of the law combating terrorism are dispensed with per modern day contexts. Until such time, it is the judiciary’s duty to employ existing legal provisions and constitutional powers to interpret the same elements in the interests of justice.”

However, the government’s proposed amendments have inspired little hope. “Very regrettably, it appears on a preliminary reading, that the minimal reforms proposed fail to address the most significant problems identified with the PTA,” Attorney-at-law Ermiza Tegal wrote in a recent commentary.

Highlighting the limitations of the proposed amendments, Human Rights Watch noted that they would not help prevent abuses such as those Mr. Jazeem, the poet, was subjected to, after being accused of “promoting religious extremism” through his verses that, in fact criticised, extremist views. Interrogators had threatened “to hang him from the roof and beat him”, he had earlier testified. Following his bail, Mr. Jazeem also told journalists that the police denied him proper food and access to a toilet, kept him in handcuffs, and refused him legal counsel initially.

Mr. Hizbullah’s bail on Monday comes ahead of the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva in March 2022, where Sri Lanka’s progress on commitments on human rights, accountability and reconciliation will be reviewed. It also comes amid growing pressure on the EU Commission to consider a temporary withdrawal of the GSP+ status given to Sri Lanka, citing failure to fulfil commitments on the rights front.

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