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HRW demands Sri Lanka repeal proposed counterterrorism bill

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Sri Lankan government to repeal its proposed replacement to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and urged international partners that a failure to comply with international human rights standards may risk trade benefits.

The Anti-Terrorism Bill, published on 22 March 2023, “appears designed to give the president, police, and military broad powers to detain people without evidence, to make vaguely defined forms of speech a criminal offense, and to arbitrarily ban gatherings and organizations without meaningful judicial oversight” warn HRW.

Their concern has been shared by the European Union Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Denis Chaibi. Speaking to Economy Next, he highlighted issues of transparency within the bill and the centralisation of power within the Presidency. In February, Germany’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Holger Seubert, warned:

"This phase of GSP+ is coming to an end and there is a risk that Sri Lanka might lose it. Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose it at this juncture". 

Despite the concerns raised, Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has maintained his satisfaction with the legislation and told journalists that “we won’t make any major change to the current version.”


Empowerment of the military

A concern raised by HRW is the sweeping powers given to Sri Lanka’s police and military “to stop, question, search, and arrest anyone, or seize any document or object without a warrant, if they believe they have ‘reasonable grounds’”.

They highlight that the military will have 24 hours to transfer a detainee to police custody, placing detainees at greater risk of abuse.

HRW further notes that Sri Lanka’s President would be authorised to declare any location a “prohibited place,” with up to three years in prison for violations. This follows from the declaration of ““high security zones” under the Official Secrets Act”, during the mass protests of last year. High Security Zones have been deployed by the state for years to seize and occupy vast swathes of land across the North-East. Many areas remain under military occupation.

The bill is also so loosely defined as to “include crimes such as property damage, theft, or robbery, and restrict the rights to freedom of assembly and speech”.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, has described the legislation as a means “to continue to use draconian measures to silence peaceful critics and target minorities”.

HRW also highlights that the proposed review bodies which would hear appeals under the Sri Lankan justice system “would not be independent by law”.


Targeting of Tamils

HRW also details how specific aspects of the proposed bill have been used against Tamils on the island. Their statement highlights that the president will be able to issue regulations for rehabilitation programs and that the attorney general could then “impose” “voluntary” rehabilitation on a person who has not been convicted of any crime.

“The Sri Lankan government’s proposed ‘rehabilitation’ efforts appear to be nothing more than a new form of abusive detention without charge,” said Meenakshi Ganguly.

Following the end of the armed conflict, the Sri Lankan government used coercive “rehabilitation” centers to enable arbitrary detention, torture and sexual abuse of Tamils.

HRW also notes how the government has used the PTA to detain Tamil survivor communities for engaging in commemoration activities.

The statement further details that how Tamil diaspora organisations which have been “advocating for human rights and accountability” have been proscribed as “terrorist organisations”. Similarly, other human rights organisations have “faced government interference in their banking and finances on the pretext of countering ‘terrorist financing’”.

HRW’s statement concludes maintaining that “the United States, EU, Japan, India, and others should press for genuine reforms to ensure this bill meets Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations”

They add that the EU “should make it clear that replacing the present counterterrorism law with similarly abusive legislation does not address its concerns and could affect Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status”.

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