Photo courtesy of France 24

After a number of protestors were arrested in Colombo, three student activists have been detained under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) despite expressions of concern from the international community. Amid an economic crisis caused largely by mismanagement by those in charge, top politicians risk further alienating not only the people of Sri Lanka but also the wider world at a critical time, jeopardising chances of recovery.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe approved the detention and interrogation of the Wasantha Mudalige, convener of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), along with Hashantha Jeewantha Gunathilake and Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, under the discredited PTA. Most others arrested with them at an IUSF protest on August 18 were released on bail but they are to be held for 90 days although lengthy periods in custody without judicial oversight increases the risk of mistreatment.

Local human rights organisations and activists roundly condemned the move. “Recognising violations under PTA, #SriLanka officials told EU and UN that there is an informal moratorium. Student protesters now held under a law that apparently exists to counter terrorism. These were protests over corruption, poor governance, economic shortages, rights abuses,” tweeted Human Rights Watch’s South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has asked the IGP to clarify how the protesters could be arrested under the PTA. “The Commission is deeply concerned about the resurrection of the PTA by the police on suspects who do not fall within the definition of the Act. And informs IGP to inform the facts and circumstances under which these suspects have been dealt with under the PTA,” it said in a letter to the IGP, adding that, “The reports received by the Commission so far only reiterate that these persons now arrested and detained by the Police under PTA were merely exercising their fundamental rights of protest.”

For years, some members of minority communities and dissidents have been challenging abuses by the state after a civil war in which both government forces and LTTE fighters violated human rights. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and other bodies endorsed these concerns and called for change to ensure safety and justice for all. In recent months, protests spread amid anger at the hardship caused by the economic situation. After Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned as president, MPs selected as his successor the prime minister he had appointed. Regrettably President Wickremesinghe has chosen to stick to the authoritarian approach that has already alienated huge swathes of the population, enabled corruption to go unchecked, increased the risk of dangerous mistakes and damaged relationships with international partners.

IUSF remained outspokenly critical and continued to document government abuses, as well as demonstrating against a regime it believes has seriously failed Sri Lankans. Its report on assault, abduction, imprisonment and intimidation of peaceful protestors claimed that “Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has no peoples’ base, and the followers of the Rajapaksa gang, which still has a parliamentary majority, are currently unleashing massive repression on the people. Repressive incidents such as illegal arbitrary arrests, beatings, abductions, character assassinations, social media campaigns, threats, sudden raids on homes and offices of activists of student organizations, trade unions, and mass organizations are becoming common in this country. They are running a regime that treats the people like terrorists and is spreading fear throughout the society.” It detailed attacks on peaceful protesters and journalists and wider repression. While governments may dislike being criticised, this is inevitable if democracy is to survive and flourish.

Earlier in August, UN human rights experts had warned that “National security cannot be used as a pretext to shut down expressions of dissent, and detention purely due to peaceful exercise of rights is arbitrary. We wish to recall that protesters, including civil society representatives, journalists and human rights defenders, should be protected in the context of peaceful protests and not face criminal liability for their participation.” Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, tweeted that she was deeply concerned that the three human rights defenders had been arrested under the PTA and called on the president not to sign their detention order, in vain.

“Using laws that don’t conform with international human rights standards – like the PTA – erodes democracy in Sri Lanka. We encourage the government to uphold the rights of the people to express their views,” tweeted US Ambassador Julie Chung. The Delegation of the European Union EU) to Sri Lanka was “Concerned about reports on the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in recent arrests as we refer to information given by #GoSL to the International Community about the de-facto moratorium of the use of #PTA.”

“This weaponizing of an already highly-criticized law, which should be repealed immediately, is a testament to how the authorities are unwilling to withstand any form of criticism and are systematically stifling dissenting voices. This is against Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, especially the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director. “Charges of terrorism do not commensurate with any offenses the protesters are alleged to have committed…The PTA has a long history of abuse in Sri Lanka, and this development shows precisely why both local and international actors have been calling for its repeal.” The International Commission of Jurists also expressed dismay at the arrests.

The timing of this latest attempt to crack down on protest is highly damaging. An International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation is due to visit Sri Lanka this week. The organisation stated that it will need “adequate assurances” from Sri Lanka’s creditors for a new programme while the goal of the visit is to make progress on a staff level agreement for an aid package “in the near term.” The current regime’s behaviour hardly conveys commitment to good governance while any attempt to bypass consensus and force through unpopular measures that worsen poverty and malnutrition will ignite widespread anger.

Then comes the 51st session of the UNHRC from 12 September to 7 October with a report on Sri Lanka scheduled for the first day. If President Wickremesinghe and his cabinet continue to show contempt for basic human rights, the findings are unlikely to be favourable, which will have knock on effects elsewhere.

In a press release, the EU had made clear “The need of upholding freedom of opinion and expression and individual rights of Sri Lankan citizens in the process of a democratic, peaceful and orderly transition. In the light of reports of unnecessary violence against protestors, the EU stresses the importance of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and condemns the unwarranted use of force against peaceful demonstrators.” With regard to the trade advantages offered by the Generalised Scheme of Preferences with special incentives, the point was made that “Over the years, the EU and its member states have provided more than EUR 1billion in assistance to the Sri Lankan people. The re-introduction in 2017 of preferential access to the European Single Market under the GSP+ scheme has been essential for Sri Lanka’s economic development. The EU expects the new Government to work in full compliance with its GSP+ commitments.”

Key figures within the dominant Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna are aware of possible consequences, not least the party’s Chairman, Professor G.L. Peiris. As former foreign affairs minister he spent much time and energy trying to persuade international partners to give the government yet more time to mend its ways and offer decent treatment to the people over whom it ruled. He questioned the arrest of IUSF activists on terrorism charges, defending their right to campaign, and cautioned that the ongoing crackdown could place the country in an extremely difficult situation at the forthcoming UNHRC session and jeopardise talks with the IMF and access to GSP+.

If warnings continue to go unheeded and evidence mounts of ongoing abuses against ordinary Sri Lankans, the consequences will be grave at home and internationally.

To read more on the PTA, click here.


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