RECONCILIATION is easy to talk about but hard to implement mainly because addressing sensitive issues requires both sides to change attitudes and compromise. This was evident in the recent efforts by the Government to find ways to resolve unfair treatment of people arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) during and after the war.
Around 200 Tamil prisoners at the main prison in Colombo earlier this month launched a hunger strike demanding their release, which was later joined by prisoners in other jails. The prisoners went on a six-day protest hunger strike demanding swift procedural action including a common amnesty.
The protesting inmates ended the strike following an assurance from President Maithripala Sirisena that action would be in place to grant them some form of relief by 7 November. Subsequent discussions with Tamil political party representatives and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reached a compromise where the granting of a common amnesty was ruled out but space was created for providing bail.
As many as 217 Tamil prisoners have been accused of involvement in terrorist activities and held under the draconian PTA and Emergency laws. Tamil political party representatives have put the total numbers of prisoners closer to 300.
Under the new arrangement prisoners with existing cases can seek bail when their cases are taken up for court hearing. Yet this process is in itself time consuming and does not give the accused access to a proper trial. Additional measures such as giving the accused adequate legal counsel, including lawyers and the ability to participate in investigations needs to be done. Many struggle to even communicate with police investigating their cases because of language constraints.
A study done in 2015 by Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) into 181 people detained under the PTA and Emergency Regulations show serious issues of arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without charges, long drawn out court cases, multiple cases against one suspect, inhumane detention conditions, torture, forced confessions, long years to release those who are innocent and post-release harassment and restrictions, including re-arrests.
Many of the detainees have spent most of their youth behind bars, and their mental and physical wellbeing has been severely affected due to long term detention, and in the case of many, also as a result of rigorous interrogation and torture, the study found. There have been many cases too of forced/coerced confessions where the detainee had not even known he was signing a confession as he could not understand the language it was written in, which was Sinhala in most cases.
Among the shocking results was one prisoner, who has spent 19 years in remand without conclusion of his case, another has a 17-year case still ongoing in High Court, in one instance it took officials 15 years to file charges, 400-500 court hearings without conclusion of a case in some instances and one individual was found to have 15 cases against them.
All these findings show the need for a multi-faceted approach to dealing with PTA prisoners including having a separate mechanism to fast track cases. Given the continued existence of the PTA and about 21 people reported as arrested under the draconian law in 2015 it becomes ever more important to find sustainable ways to reduce the law creating victims.