COLOMBO: Sri Lanka could “either repeal or revise” a controversial anti-terror law based on a detailed review amid pressure from the EU and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) over concerns it violates human rights, a top official said on Wednesday.
Enacted in 1979, the powerful Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which a previous government promised to scrap but did not, allows authorities to make warrantless arrests and searches if a person is suspected of involvement in a “terrorist activity.”
Under the law, suspects have the right to trial but not by a jury, while the country’s defense minister can order detentions of up to three months at a time for a maximum of 18 months.
“The PTA will be either revised or repealed depending on a report by two committees appointed by the Cabinet,” Justice Minister Ali Sabry told Arab News on Wednesday.
“The first will be a ministerial committee, while the second will be a technical group of experts. We will give them three months to submit their findings, and action will be taken based on that,” he added.
Modifications to the PTA on March 9 allow for two years of detention without trial for anyone “who surrenders or is taken into custody on suspicion” of causing or intending to cause “religious, racial or communal disharmony.”
On June 8, the European Parliament passed a motion for a resolution demanding that the PTA be scrapped as it “breaches human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”
“The impunity and lack of accountability for past human rights violations by various agents and the excessive application of the PTA (do) not adhere to international practices and human rights principles,” it said.
The EU urged Sri Lanka to “amend the PTA … immediately” and threatened to withdraw its Generalized System of Preferences — a preferential tariff system that provides tariff reduction on various products — plus tax concessions amounting to $2 billion if the act was not amended.
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s government told parliament that the PTA would be revised “without compromising the country’s security.”
On what prompted the government to initiate the move now, Sabry said that the PTA “needed to be adjusted with changing times and factor in internet crimes, a high incidence of money laundering and an increasing need to ensure human rights.”
“We want a balanced act now to meet human rights requirements in keeping with local interests and international obligations,” he added.
However, lawmaker and former Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem, who is also the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, told Arab News that the government “stands exposed” for its “abuse of the PTA for political gains” in recent years.
Sri Lanka has been marred by a protracted 37-year-long civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers.
The UN believes 80,000-100,000 people died in the conflict when the rebels sought to carve out a separate state for the Tamil minority and accused both sides of war crimes. In March, the UNHRC passed a resolution in Geneva censuring Colombo over its treatment of minorities and alleged failure to investigate atrocities during the civil war.
Hakeem said several people had been arrested under the PTA since 2009, in addition to “some 200 people who had been taken into custody” after the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, which killed 269 people and injured more than 500 in separate locations in Sri Lanka.
Human rights groups, for their part, say the PTA is a “draconian” weapon targeting dissidents and minorities in the country: Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of its total population of 22 million, while Buddhists account for 70 percent of the census.
“The recent EU resolution clearly states that the PTA must be repealed, not revised,” Shreen Saroor, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Women’s Action Network, told Arab News.
“It is a draconian piece of legislation that has been aggressively used against Muslims and to curb any form of dissent. It must be repealed fully, not revised,” Saroor added.
International lobbyist and human rights activist Muheed Jeeran agrees, adding that international pressure had “brought this government down to its knees to end this act.” “The PTA is a monster that blatantly and grossly violates the universal declaration of human rights,” he told Arab News.
“It was introduced in 1979 as a temporary measure when the government did not have tools such as mobile phones and investigators had to work at a snail’s speed. But, today, we are in a technological era, and these investigators still detain a suspect for 540 days without any charges. The PTA must be repealed rather than reformed,” he added.