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Legalising torture centres with the Rehabilitation Bill

4 months ago

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BY Swasthika Arulingam and Pasan Jayasinghe Parliament will be debating a Bill called the Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill in the weeks to come. This Bill aims to create “Rehabilitation Centres” to rehabilitate “misguided combatants, individuals engaged in extreme or destructive acts of sabotage, and those who have become drug-dependent persons”. The Bill is a terrifying piece of legislation that creates legalised torture centres. This may seem alarmist, but a reading of the Bill reveals provision after provision enabling widespread abuses amounting to torture.   A legal scheme for ‘rehabilitation’ that allows torture   To begin with, the “Rehabilitation Centres” created by the Bill are meant to house and rehabilitate persons with drug dependency alongside “ex-combatants, members of violent extremist groups, and any other group of persons who require treatment and rehabilitation”. There is already a legal regime for rehabilitating drug-dependent persons under the Drug Dependent Persons (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act, No. 54 of 2007, which makes the Rehabilitation Bill’s inclusion of such persons confusing and worrying. Rehabilitation Centres are managed by a Bureau of Rehabilitation that is headed by a Council and a Chief Executive Officer recommended by the Minister of Defence (Clause 15). What competence the Minister of Defence has to make these recommendations on rehabilitation policy remains a baffling question. The President can also call on the armed forces to at any point carry out the functions of the Bureau and Rehabilitation Centres (Clause 17).  It is on this foundation that the Bill creates the legal basis for torture in these Rehabilitation Centres. It does this first by making it an offence for Rehabilitation Centre employees to “without reasonable cause, to strike, wound, ill-treat, or wilfully neglect any person under rehabilitation” (Clause 26). This implies that there is indeed “reasonable cause” to actually inflict such abuse. Similarly, the Bill authorises Rehabilitation Centre employees to use “minimum force” to “compel obedience” in Clause 28(2). Finally, the Bill creates room for the “authorised” introduction of narcotics, dangerous drugs, and psychotropic substances to be administered to persons (Clause 24); and for subjecting inmates to forced labour in Clause 4(d). The flipside to these provisions authorising torture and abuse are provisions where leaving a Rehabilitation Centre is termed “escape”. “Escaping” inmates can be forcibly returned to the centre by any member of the Armed Forces or the Police (Clause 28). This makes self-defence against torture and abuse a crime, and ensures that inmates are trapped in the centres. In addition, the Bill proposes declarations of secrecy to be signed by bureau members and staff. The secrecy clause makes inmate records including treatment that they have received completely confidential and makes it an offence to divulge information (Clause 25).  Rehabilitation centres can therefore be understood as militarised camps where various persons who are accused of being drug dependent, ex-combatants, members of violent extremist groups, and so on can be interned for indefinite periods. Torture and abuse will be rampant in these camps which will operate under secrecy and allow no escape for inmates.   The real motives for ‘rehabilitation’   The Bill’s haphazard approach to rehabilitation makes it clear that the Government is not seriously committed to actually rehabilitating persons who need it. Instead, the Rehabilitation Bill must be called out for what it is: A woefully transparent attempt to target, detain, and torture those who are seen as opposed to the Government.  Since his appointment as President, Ranil Wickremesinghe has embarked on a singular crusade to crush the “aragalaya” (struggle) by arbitrarily arresting, detaining, and harassing thousands of protestors, and by stifling ongoing protests through State force. The Rehabilitation Bill lends itself to this crusade of repression by creating a new mechanism for detaining people en masse.  Sri Lanka traces a long history of sites of torture, all operating either beyond the law or in legal grey zones. The Bill is an explicit attempt to authorise and sanction such atrocity under the full extent of the law. This is despite the fact that the right to not be tortured is an absolute right in the Constitution itself. The fact that this is happening under the direction of a President who has in the past been credibly linked to operating sites of mass torture such as the Batalanda Detention Centre is no small irony.  Twenty men sitting as the Cabinet of Ministers have approved the passing of a law to arbitrarily detain people and torture them. It is now up to the people of Sri Lanka to oppose this horrific Bill, which will erode our fundamental rights and the protections afforded to people in our criminal justice system even further. (Swasthika Arulingam is an Attorney-at-Law while Pasan Jayasinghe is a doctoral candidate in political science) …………….. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.