ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which temporarily cost the country the EU’s GSP Plus trade concession in 2010, is under scrutiny again after being used to arrest and detain protesters involved in the Aragalaya (struggle) protest movement which caused a sitting president to resign.
First introduced as a temporary law in 1978, the PTA has been used sporadically throughout Sri Lanka’s recent history.
It was used in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, after initial protests outside ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksha’s private residence in the suburbs of Colombo, and more recently to arrest three anti-government protesters.
The protesters, Inter-University Federation of Students (IUSF) President Wasantha Mudalige, Inter-University Federation President Bhikku Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, and Kelaniya University Student Union member Hashantha Jawantha Gunathilake, all received detention orders of 90 days by President and Minister of Defense Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The development came hours after the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, asked President Wickremesinghe not to sign the detention orders.
Top UN officials call on Sri Lankan president not to sign detention orders against IUSF official
Historically accused of being used against minorities, the PTA was drafted by Wickremesinghe’s uncle, then President JR Jayawardena, to suppress the activity of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).
Critics say the law’s vague language has allowed law enforcement to arrest civilians on the slightest suspicion of anti-state activity, including but not limited to the intimidation of a population , preventing governments or international organizations from functioning, or damaging any property, public or private.
After civilians took to the streets en masse in a march against rising costs and shortages amid Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence, protests have been largely peaceful.
The first demonstration in Mirihana ended with the burning of a bus. In May, mob violence in retaliation after supporters of then-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksha attacked peaceful protesters resulted in the burning and looting of MPs’ vehicles and homes, and the death of a government deputy.
In July, Wickremesinghe’s private residence was burned down. The protesters had taken over several official buildings, including the presidential secretariat, the prime minister’s office and the president’s official residence, causing damage to public property, all grounds for arrest under the PTA.
“It’s not just bringing in bombs or guns and killing people that can be construed as terrorism,” said an official speaking to EconomyNext asking not to be named.
“Intimidation, destroying or damaging public property, burning houses, all of this is terrorism.”
With the imposition of the Emergency Law – which has now lapsed – and the removal of the main protester occupation site at Galle Face Green in Colombo, protesters have become less outspoken, with many hiding for fear of arrest .
The arrests made under the PTA have reinforced this fear, and international agencies such as the European Union have already expressed concern.
EU fears Sri Lanka may apply counter-terrorism law to Democrat protesters
Amnesty International tweeted on Friday August 19: “Arbitrarily detaining protesters and charging them with serious criminal offenses that are not justified by their actions, such as terrorism-related charges, is against international law.
Protesters have been arrested for sitting in the president’s chair and taking selfies at the president’s official residence, while calls to investigate pro-government mobs who attacked protesters on May 09 have gone unheeded. response, according to activists.
Wickremesinghe effectively ended the occupation of Galle Face within 19 days of being sworn in, but dissent is still ongoing, with some protesters demanding an election.
As the state of emergency has effectively expired, the PTA’s arrests have made protesters both more suspicious and more determined to topple Wickremesinghe’s regime, they say. (Colombo/August 22, 2022)