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Prisoners’ rights group writes to European Union and United Nations on Prevention of Terrorism Act 

By Pamodi Waravita

The Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) has written to the Delegation of the European Union (EU) to Sri Lanka and to the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, to support the calls for the immediate repeal of the “repressive” Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1978.

The UNHRC is due to hear the oral update by Bachelet on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka at its upcoming session, which will begin on 13 September.

In the letter, CPRP has alleged that the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has ignored the recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) for Appraisal of the Findings of Previous Commissions and Committees on Human Rights and the Way Forward on PTA reforms.

“The PCoI had proposed to expedite the hearing of cases of those who are being detained for a minimum of three months or longer period under Provision 9 of the PTA by filing indictments against them, to confine the detainees to their own home or the residential area under special security instead of detaining them in prisons in line with Provision 11 of the PTA, and to establish an Advisory Board consisting of not less than three persons representing all ethnic groups, to advise the President or the Minister of Defense under Provision 13 of the PTA. As far as we know, the three recommendations of the interim report have been ignored. On 25 August, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed the advisory board without considering the ethnic composition, with all three members being from the majority Sinhalese ethnic community,” claimed the CPRP.

The CPRP further alleged that the Advisory Board’s Chair, retired Chief Justice Asoka De Silva had, upon retirement, made a declaration of support in favour of current President Rajapaksa in a court case in the US.

“To our knowledge, the retired Chief Justice had not followed the constitutional procedure in Article 110 (3) of the Constitution that compels a retired judge of the Supreme Court to obtain presidential approval, before appearing, pleading, acting, or practicing before any court, tribunal, or institution,” stated the CPRP.

According to the CPRP, the PTA bypasses judicial supervision and discretion, international human rights standards, and principles of natural justice, and results in the mental and physical wellbeing of detainees being affected due to torture.

“Earlier this year, Kulathunga Hettiarchchige Malcom Tiron (prisoner no. 5329) was released due to lack of evidence, after about 13 years in detention (arrested in 2008) and a trial of approximately nine years (indicted in 2012). There have been other reports of persons being released as not guilty after up to 15 years in detention. We welcome the recent presidential pardon for 16 Tamil PTA detainees, but we note that they are detainees who had been sentenced for a few years and were due to complete their sentences in a few weeks or months, while others who are serving longer sentences appear not to have been considered for pardons,” said the CPRP.

Thus, the CPRP has highlighted current prominent and controversial cases of PTA detainees, including minority rights advocate and Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, young Muslim poet Ahnaf Jazeem, Tamil journalist Kokulathasan, and Sinhalese journalist Keerthi Ratnayake.

The EU Parliament, earlier this year, called on the GoSL to repeal the PTA, and on the EU Commission to consider the temporary withdrawal of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) from Sri Lanka unless this is done.

Against this backdrop, the CPRP has accused the GoSL of making “some new promises, which also appear to be attempts to hoodwink survivors, victim’s families, human rights defenders, and international community”.

Thus, the CPRP has requested the EU to pay close attention to the PTA, in light of the review of the GSP+ facility. Furthermore, it has requested the UNHRC to refer to the adverse effects of the PTA during the oral update.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed resolution A/HRC/46/L.1, which recognises the importance of preserving evidence relating to violations of human rights in Sri Lanka to advance accountability, and as such a call has been made to implement an “evidence-preserving” mechanism in the country. It was adopted on 23 March at the UNHRC with 22 votes in favour of it and 11 votes in opposition while 14 member states abstained from voting.

The Third Cycle of Review of Sri Lanka in the GSP+ Monitoring Process for 2020-2021 is currently underway and a GSP+ Monitoring Mission for the Third Cycle is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka on mutually convenient dates in September or October of 2021. The 24th session of the EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission in the first quarter of 2022 will witness the review of all aspects of bilateral co-operation.