PTA detainees: Interim report in two weeks

  • Govt. plans to expedite legal action on PTA suspects
  • Critics question the need for Advisory Board

By Asiri Fernando

The three-member Advisory Board appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to make recommendations regarding detainees being held under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA) will submit an interim report within two weeks, The Sunday Morning learnt.

Presidential Secretariat Director General – Legal Affairs Harigupta Rohanadeera confirmed to The Sunday Morning that the Advisory Board will submit an interim report in two weeks.

The report comes in the aftermath of PTA detainees at the Anuradhapura and Welikada Prisons being allegedly threatened at gunpoint by former State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Lohan Ratwatte.

This was amidst growing international pressure to repeal the PTA and offer relief for dozens of suspects held for prolonged periods – some more than 15 years. The Government also defended its approach to maintaining human rights and reconciliation at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva last week.

According to Department of Prisons Spokesman and Commissioner of Prisons (Administration and Rehabilitation) Chandana Ekanayake, a total of 267 PTA-related detainees were being held in the prisons system. Among them, 10 were women. The exact number of PTA detainees is disputed, with Inspector General of Police (IGP) C.D. Wickramaratne informing the press last month that 311 persons were being detained for questioning following the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019.

In June, President Rajapaksa pardoned 16 persons convicted under the PTA following pressure from the UN. The Advisory Board was appointed by the President as per Section 13 of the PTA No. 48 of 1979. In 2017, Sri Lanka regained the European Union’s (EU) Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) concessions on condition that the PTA will be repealed.

Responding to a query on what is in store for PTA detainees, Minister of Justice Ali Sabry told The Sunday Morning that the Government planned to expedite PTA-related cases where there was substantial evidence to prosecute the suspects or drop the charges, or move suspects to rehabilitation in instances where the cases did not have adequate evidence with which to proceed.

“If there is evidence, they (detainees) should be charged and have their cases heard. If there is no substantial evidence, they should either be released or subjected to rehabilitation,” Sabry said.

The Minister explained that following a discussion with the Chief Justice, the Attorney General, and the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), the JSC had sent out a circular to expedite such cases and conclude them as soon as possible.

When asked about repealing the PTA or updating the legislation to be in line with international best practices, the Justice Minister said the Government was trying to strike a balance between fundamental rights, liberty, and national security through judicial reforms.

The Advisory Board met last Friday (17), and was reviewing a number of cases relating to PTA detainees and those who were convicted under the law, a source close to the body told The Sunday Morning.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs circulated a note among diplomatic missions in a move to reassure them that there was progress regarding the PTA, among other issues highlighted by the UNHRC.

However, some critics questioned the Government’s resolve to repeal the PTA and viewed the appointment of the Advisory Board as a “Band-Aid” fix to a much larger problem.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, human rights lawyer and former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Ambika Satkunanathan questioned why an advisory board was needed to review PTA cases if the existing institutions had carried out their mandate effectively.

“The Advisory Board established under Section 13 of the PTA is a weak attempt to show progress in addressing the inherently abusive nature of the PTA. The Board is not an independent body that has power to make decisions; rather, it is appointed by the President and can only make recommendations which can be accepted or rejected by the President. Its establishment also raises questions about the efficiency and competence of institutions, such as the Police Department and AGD (Attorney General’s Department), because if they had fulfilled their mandate, why would an advisory board have to be established to make decisions regarding persons held under the PTA?” Satkunanathan questioned.

Opposition parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran also questioned the motives behind appointing the Advisory Board. Sumanthiran stressed that the Government must take robust action regarding the PTA and release all “political prisoners” held behind bars. He said that he was not confident of the Government repealing the PTA.

“The security sector is keen to retain the PTA as is. This should have been done during the previous regime. I don’t think this Government is keen on repealing it or getting rid of most of the obnoxious provisions in it,” Sumanthiran opined.