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Rehabilitation Bureau Amendment Bill: A sincere move or a hidden agenda?

4 months ago

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  • Concerns raised over legal definitions in Bill
  • Role and mandate of military involvement questioned
  • Secrecy clause to ensure privacy of drug victims: MOJ
By Skandha Gunasekara  The proposed Rehabilitation Bureau Amendment Bill has drawn strong criticism from civil society and politicians and is being challenged in the Supreme Court.   Many have questioned the Government’s motive behind the move to amend the Bill, expressing concern that an ulterior agenda may be afoot.  It is learnt that eight Special Determination petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the Bill, including by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), former Human Rights Commissioner and Attorney-at-Law Ambika Satkunanathan, and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP S.M. Marikkar.  According to the Bill, its objective is “to rehabilitate drug-dependent persons, ex-combatants, members of violent extremist groups, and any other group of persons who require treatments and rehabilitation by adopting various therapies in order to ensure effective reintegration and reconciliation, through developing socio-economic standards”.   Room for abuse   A former Human Rights Commissioner, Satkunanathan claimed that the lack of proper definition of who would fall under the purview of the bureau was problematic and subjective, allowing room for abuse. “The problems are that it does not have definitions, for instance, of members of violent extremist groups. There is no national or international definition of this as well. When there is no definition and the law does not provide a definition, the decision of who comes under these categories can be arbitrary, subjective, and not based on objective criteria. Also, in relation to drug-dependent persons, compulsory rehabilitation is counterproductive and there is ample evidence it does not work. It also violates human rights standards,” Satkunanathan opined.   Entrenching militarisation and legalising torture   She also questioned why there was involvement of the military. “There are also other problems like the military – which doesn’t have the mandate or authority – getting involved in the process. The Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and the IGP are a part of the governing council; hence this is just another way of entrenching militarisation.” Referring to Clause 26 of the Bill which states “Any person employed in a Centre for Rehabilitation who without reasonable cause strikes, wounds, ill-treats or wilfully neglects any person under rehabilitation…,” Satkunanathan alleged that it legalised torture. “Are there any reasonable causes for which you can wound or ill-treat or wilfully neglect a person? If they are talking about self-defence, then that is something that you can expressly provide for. This is far too broad,” she charged. Satkunanathan also noted that Clause 27 which states that “Any person who obstructs or attempts to obstruct any person employed in any Centre for Rehabilitation in the performance of his duties under this Act, commits an offence under this Act...” would make the acts of a drug-dependent individuals’ rehabilitation process itself a crime and the clause on secrecy (25) would effectively prevent any whistleblowing of possible abuse.  “It also says people who are drug dependent go through a withdrawal process, during which period their behaviour can constitute an offence under this Act. So, what they are doing is criminalising what is part of the normal process of someone dealing with or receiving treatment for a drug dependency. What they are doing is giving licence for the abuse of people who receive treatment by the staff of the centres.”   Against international human rights standards    She said the Bill went against international human rights standards and allowed the Executive to detain persons without a court order.  “The bottom line is that this is another way to militarise the process of rehabilitation. It is the Executive using its powers to detain persons without judicial process. This goes against all international human rights standards as well as Sri Lanka’s obligations under the various treaties and conventions it has ratified.”   Reintroducing legislation on deradicalisation ?   Meanwhile, Attorney-at-Law and CPA Senior Researcher Bhavani Fonseka questioned if the Government was attempting to implement a regulation brought under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 2021 that was subsequently stayed by the Supreme Court through this amendment bill.  “The other aspect we are concerned about is that there was a PTA regulation that was introduced last year on deradicalisation by the previous Government which was challenged in the Supreme Court and a stay order was issued so the Government cannot implement that. That was to send individuals for reintegration and rehabilitation into centres. Now our concern is that because that was stayed by the Supreme Court, the Government is trying to do the same thing through this authority.” Concerns abound over the Government’s true intentions in introducing the Bill, particularly in light of its heavy military involvement.  “It is now before the Supreme Court, so we will have to see what the Supreme Court says, but it can only look into the constitutional dimension; it can’t go into policy matters. And as a policy matter, the question is, what are the Government’s plans on rehabilitation? Why is there involvement of the military in rehabilitation? And why is there secrecy being proposed when there is a fundamental right to information in Sri Lanka now?”   Minister’s stance   Meanwhile, Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe asserted that the Bill was merely to enable those looking for rehabilitation to be able to receive treatment without having to go through the judicial process.  “The experts who formulated this have been considering this for the last couple of years. Their objective is just to accommodate those who want to come voluntarily for rehabilitation. That is the main purpose of the Bill. As it is, you can’t send anyone or go for rehabilitation unless there is a court order. This amendment is to make accommodations for those who want to go for rehabilitation without going through the courts. Of course, with the timing, the Aragalaya people may have thought that they also come within the meaning of extremist.” He said that the secrecy clause would ensure the privacy of those receiving treatment: “The secrecy clause is there because that is something they want. If I want to send my child who has been addicted to drugs for rehabilitation, do I want publicity for that?” When asked about the involvement of the military and the broad definitions of who could be rehabilitated, the Minster declined to comment and said that it would be up to the Judiciary to decide: “With regard to the military being involved and the concerns raised about the definitions in the Act, it is up to the Supreme Court to give a judgement.” The Supreme Court is to communicate its determination to the Speaker of Parliament by the end of the month at the latest.