by Alan Keenan
London School of Economics and Political Science, GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub
The original version of this essay was delivered as a presentation to a webinar organised by Le Conseil Universel des Droits de L’Homme (UHRC), ‘Undermining Democracy in the Name of Prevention of Terrorism in Sri Lanka’, on 2 March 2022.
Why does Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) matter? What do we know about how the current Sri Lankan government is using the PTA as a tool to maintain its hold on power? In this short article, I examine the political, rather than the legal, aspects of the PTA, and attempt to situate the struggle to repeal the PTA as an essential part of a broader defence – carried out by domestic and international actors alike – of democracy and inter-religious coexistence in Sri Lanka.
We know that the PTA is not just a threat to individual human rights, understood as a moral issue or as an obligation under international law. It has been and remains a threat both to democratic politics and to peaceful inter-ethnic and inter-religious coexistence.
On the one hand, the PTA is being actively used by the current government – as by virtually all governments over the past forty years – to weaken and politically marginalise Tamils and Muslims. It is thus a threat to inter-ethnic and inter-religious peace. The past two years have seen, for example, the PTA used to arrest Tamils commemorating the end of war in Batticaloa as well as the Muslim poet Ahnaf Jazeem. We saw thousands of Muslims rounded up on little or no evidence after the 2019 Easter bombings – hundreds of them remain in detention.
On the other hand, the government is regularly deploying the PTA to repress dissent and weaken the political opposition. We have seen numerous arrests of social media activists and journalists who raise questions the government finds awkward, and even the arrest of the father of a Catholic activist on highly questionable grounds.
Often these two agendas come together, as we have seen in the PTA arrests of the prominent Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah and the Muslim parliamentarian Rishad Bathiudeen, both on what appear to be manufactured connections to the Easter bombings. Former MP Azath Salley has also been jailed under the PTA on two separate occasions (in 2013 and 2021).
For more information on the use of the PTA by the current government, read our latest report: Jailing Activists and Pardoning Murderers: Monitoring Ten Issues of Concern in Sri Lanka in 2021
A new and improved PTA?
The amendments to the PTA, approved by cabinet on 24 January and trumpeted by the government at all available opportunities, will, unfortunately, do nothing to prevent these abuses.
We have already seen excellent legal analyses of the government’s PTA amendments from legal scholars and human rights defenders in Sri Lanka, who make clear that the improvements are marginal and do not reduce the central harms and sources of abuse in the PTA. The over broad – and therefore politically useful — definition of terrorism; the ability to hold suspects for extended periods without charge or meaningful judicial oversight; and the admissibility of confessions extorted through torture – all these key features remain unchanged.
It has been encouraging to see recent statements from both the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Union that make clear the proposed changes are not enough and that much more is needed for the Sri Lankan state to be in compliance with its human rights obligations.