Student activists in Lanka detained under draconian anti-terrorism law

The three activists were arrested from a student rally in Colombo on August 18 under a 72-hour detention order, while the police awaited approval for a 90-day detention order that was approved by President Ranil Wickremesinghe on August 22.

The Sri Lankan government detained three student activists under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) on August 22. The police and the Defense Ministry confirmed the detention of the three activists – Wasantha Mudalige, convenor of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, convenor of the Bhikku (Monks) Federation, and Hashantha Jawantha Gunathilake, a member of the Kelaniya University Students’ Union. The three were arrested from a student rally in Colombo on August 18, under a 72-hour detention order while the police awaited approval for a 90-day detention order. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Defense Minister, approved the 90-day detention on August 22.

The activists were picked up from a protest held by the IUSF on August 18, the first day after the emergency imposed from July 17 was lifted. Nearly 2,000 protesters at the rally raised slogans against the ‘Ranil-Rajapaksa Junta’ and the ongoing economic crisis in the country. A key demand of the students was the immediate release of anti-government protestors who were arrested under emergency measures by the state authorities in recent weeks.

Soon after the march began, students were confronted by a massive contingent of police including riot control officers. The students were brutally assaulted with water cannons and tear gas.

While most of the arrested students have now been released on bail, the detention of the three student activists under the PTA is being decried as a new low for the Wickremesinghe government, coming after a month-long series of arrests of citizens for participating in peaceful protests.

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The PTA was enacted in 1979 under President J.R. Jayawardene. The controversial law has a history of use by consecutive governments to scuttle dissent, especially during the civil war. It was introduced as an urgent temporary bill, and was used to suppress the Tamil population and target those associated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). More recently, hundreds of Muslim youth were targeted and charged under the draconian law following the 2019 Easter bomb attacks.

The PTA has been the most debated of Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism laws due to its controversial provisions that give unfettered, extensive power to the police. Talking to NewsFirst Sri Lanka, Ambika Satkunathan explained that the law enables human rights violations like torture and arrest without warrant. She says, “Once detained under PTA, the accused can be detained for 90 days without being produced in front of the magistrate. Moreover, a confession made to to a police officer is admissible which leaves room for using torture to extract confessions.”

A 2020 study conducted by the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission on prisons highlighted that prisoners under the PTA category are more vulnerable than others. In January this year, former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa published a bill to amend the PTA. However, according to several experts, the bill left out crucial elements that were undemocratic. In its February 2022 report on the PTA, Human Rights Watch highlighted the Sri Lankan government’s prolonged use of the law to carry out arbitrary detentions and torture.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka also criticized the arrests of the student activists, saying that “The recent iteration of the PTA has been grossly manipulated to exert tyranny through undemocratic methods and to justify the wrongful arrest of protestors.”

The Commission firmly informs that no suspect exercising their fundamental rights under the Constitution should be wrongly treated as a terrorist.”

Source- peoplesdispatch.org, August 25, 2022

By Shriya Singh

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