Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the government of Sri Lanka to follow through on its obligation to replace what it called “the abusive” Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with legislation that respects international legal standards.
The New York-based human rights watchdog accused the Sri Lankan government of turning its back on its international obligations in announcing on Jan. 4 it would withdraw a replacement law for the controversial PTA.
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and senior appointees linked to wartime abuses are wasting no time dismantling the human rights gains of recent years,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director.
“The EU, which offers Sri Lanka preferential trading terms in return for human rights guarantees, should demand the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act,” he said.
The PTA was first enacted in 1979, giving the police wide latitude in searching arresting, and detaining suspects. The law was made permanent in 1982, one year before civil war engulfed the country for 26 years.
HRW said the law has “resulted in countless arbitrary detentions and facilitated torture of detainees.”
The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in 2017 found the act has “fostered the endemic and systematic use of torture,” leading entire communities to be “stigmatized and targeted for arbitrary harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention.”
After former Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 joined a unanimous U.N. Human Rights Council resolution committing the country to replacing the PTA with legislation in line with international legal standards, in 2018 the replacement Counter-Terrorism Act (CTA) was submitted to parliament.
While HRW said that the amended legislation was imperfect, it “would have replaced many of the most abused provisions of the PTA.”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defense secretary from 2005 to 2015, under the administration of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was appointed prime minister in November. The U.N., Human Rights Watch, and other human rights groups, and the media, found that under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, the Sri Lankan army shelled civilians and hospitals, and raped and executed prisoners during the final months of the civil war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The U.N. found repeatedly in its reports that some military abuses during the conflict amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Following the Jan. 4 reversal, cabinet spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardena said the CTA “would have stopped the armed forces and police from dealing effectively with the threat of terrorism, and instead curbed the rights guaranteed to the people by the Constitution, such as political trade union rights, and their freedom of expression,” Sri Lanka’s Daily FT reported.
While HRW said it respected Sri Lanka’s obligation to protection “everyone on its territory,” the group said “any counterterrorism measures should reflect international best practice and uphold basic principles of the rule of law.”
Ganguly said the PTA had for decades provided “a legal fig leaf for grotesque human rights abuses and the suppression of peaceful dissent.”
“The new Rajapaksa government’s embrace of this abusive law is just one of many signs that the rights of Sri Lankans are at grave risk,” she said.