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Licence to arrest and torture

Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorist Act (PTA), enacted in 1979, has through the years been strongly criticised by international human rights and constitutional freedom groups, including Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), as handing over excessive powers of arrest and detention to the security forces.

Sri Lankan law requires confessions to be admissible only if made to a magistrate - but the PTA permits confessions to police officer to be used in evidence.

“Admissibility of [such] confessions encourages the use of torture,” the ICJ says. “The defendants in PTA cases even have to prove that the confessions were made under coercion,” ICJ protests.

Amnesty International has consistently called for the PTA to be repealed or brought into line with international human rights standards.

“The PTA provides an incentive for interrogating [police] officers to obtain ‘confessions’ from detainees by any means, including torture,” Amnesty says.

Human Rights Watch noted in 2002: “The PTA has contributed to a climate of impunity in Sri Lanka where custodial abuse and thousands of "disappearances" have gone uninvestigated and unpunished.”

In the interests of peace, HRW said, “Critically important is the need to eliminate or reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act and to release the hundreds of detainees held without trial under its draconian provisions,”

“Most of these detainees are Tamils arrested on suspicion of links to the LTTE. Many were arrested months or even years ago pending investigation, with no evidence to support police suspicions beyond their own confessions - often extracted under torture,” HRW said.

Human rights lawyers say the PTA was used arbitrarily to arrest and hold individuals with the slightest contact with the LTTE, resulting in tens of thousands of people being detained.

In 2000 alone, up to 18,000 people were held under the PTA and Emergency Regulations, rights groups say.

When the UNF government began peace talks with the LTTE in 2002, the comprehensive Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed in February that year shelved the PTA.

Clause 2.12 of the CFA states: “The Parties agree that search operations and arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act shall not take place. Arrests shall be conducted under due process of law in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code.”

The PTA was thus effectively suspended and all those arrested under it, except for those directly implicated in attacks blamed on the LTTE, were released.

The number of PTA detentions thus dropped to a few dozen.

A reinstatement of the PTA will thus become a standing breach of the CFA.

Criticising the PTA and ER in 2002, one of Sri Lanka’s former Supreme Court judges, Mr. C. V. Vigneswaran, pointed out “such laws it must be noted are not conducive to the creation of an environment for peace.”

“Such laws are devious methods by which conformation to the International Covenants on Human Rights are avoided,” he said.