Let the cat out of the bag | Daily News

Let the cat out of the bag

For some time the government has been mulling a draft Counter-Terrorism Act (CTA) to replace the Prevention of Terrorism (Special Provisions) Act, commonly known as the PTA. It was a sequel to a pledge given by Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. In addition civil society activists, academics and other intellectuals too have been long agitating for the repeal of the PTA. The draft, in fact, was presented to Parliament but was referred back to the Cabinet for revision.

Unfortunately the government has been totally secretive in dealing with the matter and was rather keen on preventing a public debate on the pros and cons of such legislation. To be more exact the domestic demand was for the abolition of the PTA and some Emergency Regulations (ER) made under the Public Security Act which were used concurrently or in parallel with the PTA.

National question

While there is no opposition to framing legislation against terrorism or updating the domestic law to meet international standards there is much ambiguity in defining what terrorism is.

Moreover, experience of the application of the PTA and ER during the past four decades raises serious apprehensions concerning their possible use for acts of political vendetta against activists of the Opposition. The provisions of the PTA and ER were so broadly defined that they often transgressed on the freedom of the citizens. For example it would be an offence for any person to campaign for a revision of government policy on matters relating to “defense, national security, territorial integrity, sovereignty of Sri Lanka”.

This would make it an offence to campaign for going beyond the 13th Amendment as a solution to the national question or to campaign for a separate state as the later repealed Sixth Amendment to the Constitution did.

It would also criminalize any agitation by the dispossessed for return of their original land held by the State or the Security Forces. Any agitation for a new policy on education or health too would be no different.

According to information leaked to the media the draft Act not only retains most obnoxious features of the PTA and has even strengthened their repressive nature. One serious drawback in the PTA was the admissibility of confessions made before the police as evidence against the accused. In the context of third degree methods used by law enforcement officials such confessions are often under duress or even torture.

Moreover, under the PTA it is the defendant that has to prove his innocence and the state need not prove the accused guilty. Once a victim is under detention for long periods without access to lawyers and information proving one’s innocence is not so easy, especially since one’s own statements are taken as evidence against him or her.

Under the PTA the Minister in charge could detain a suspect in any place at his discretion. It need not be a prison or any other recognized detention centre. Suspects were kept in police lock-ups at police stations, security forces camps or other places which resembled dungeons rather than a living space for humans. Some remained chained for months. The CTA has retained this provision.

PTA and the ER

As a result of continuous extension of the period of detention, suspects were kept in detention for years and years.

The alternate application of the provisions of the PTA and the ER resulted in suspects being detained for years and years. The same facility is also retained in the CTA.

It is not only a travesty of justice but a serious breach of human rights.

The language of the CTA is so vague and general that it many legitimate actions of the public would fall into the category of offences.

For example “illegally or unlawfully compelling the Government of Sri Lanka or the government of any other sovereign nation, to reverse, vary or change a policy decision or to do or abstain from doing any act relating to the defence, national security, territorial integrity, sovereignty of Sri Lanka or any other sovereign nation (as the case may be), and the protection of the people of Sri Lanka or the people of any other sovereign nation (as the case may be)…” is an offence under the draft CTA. Thus the media could fall a victim if it criticizes any policy of any government, e.g. the United States Government policy of overt and covert support for Israel’s expansionist drive.

Knowingly or unknowingly Sri Lanka would then be a bulwark of defence not against but for imperialism, and colonialism despite the rhetoric to the contrary. Also academic discussions on such policies local or foreign would qualify for punishment under the CTA. Even a cartoon in the media could be an offence.

Similarly legitimate trade union activities could become offences under another clause which says “causing obstruction or damage to essential services or supplies.” This would make any trade union action in spheres which the government may consider essential. In effect it would undermine the people’s right of association and expression.

Some of these provisions actually contravene the Right to Information (RTI) Act and fundamental freedoms entrenched in the Constitution.

The irony of the situation stands clear when we consider the reasons for the enactment of the PTA. The PTA was named the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 78 of 1979 and was the successor to the Proscribing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Other Similar Organizations Law, No 16 of 1978. The Act was enacted temporary for three years and was later its validity extended in 1982.

This shows that even the architects of the PTA were aware of its repressive nature and enacted it in view of the threat from the LTTE, amidst opposition from the Opposition including the SLFP.

It was a developing war situation that existed then. Now that the war is over and there are no definitive signs of a possible resurgence of the LTTE it is ironic that present rulers who are “committed” to peace and reconciliation should resort to even more repressive legislation in the guise of the CTA.

The draft CTA should be made public and open for public discussion. It should no longer be kept as a secret and thrust upon the people like stabbing them in the back. That is the democratic way, the yahaplana way. Sorry to remind the powers that be of their own prophesied policies and practices. 



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