Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) will be undergoing a much-needed reform with the Government deciding to enact three fresh laws to protect security and promote law and order. However, these new laws have to undergo many rounds of discussions to be adequately transparent and include progressive clauses for the reforms to be successful.
Minister of Law and Order Sagala Ratnayake has informed the UN Counter Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) of three new laws to replace PTA. Minister Ratnayake said the Government has decided to enact three new laws relating to the national and public security and law and order, to comprehensively and efficiently respond to the contemporary manifestations and threats of extremism and terrorism, other attacks on national security including organised crime and to address the issues of public order and maintenance of essential services.
Government discussions centered around the revision of anti-terrorism legislation including technical assistance to draft comprehensive counter-terrorism legislation to replace the PTA, in accordance with United Nations Human Rights Council Resolutions and in keeping with international best practices.
The PTA lengthens the detention period of terror suspects, detained under Emergency Regulations promulgated under the Public Security Ordinance. The Police can detain suspects for as long as 18 months without filing charges against them. PTA goes further as to usurp the powers of the detainee to seek relief from the Superior Courts. Section 10 of the PTA specifically states, “Any order made under Section 9 shall be final and shall not be called into question by any Court or tribunal by way of writ or otherwise.”
Furthermore, not only does the PTA undermine the terms in the Constitution but it also disregards various international instruments to which Sri Lanka is party to and is thus bound by ‘international law’ to uphold. Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “No one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or trial.” Moreover Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, “Everyone has the right to liberty and security, and no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention.”
Now the war has ended the question which then comes to mind is whether the terms of the Act can be amended to at least reflect the greatly improved security situation in Sri Lanka post-war. Under the Sri Lanka Evidence Ordinance, confessions made to the Police or other public officers and confessions made while in the custody of Police are not admissible as dispositive evidence in ordinary criminal cases, unless they are made in the presence of a Magistrate. But such confessions are admissible under the PTA.
Human rights defenders argue that the practice of making confessions to ordinary Police officers must be changed by which either a Superintendent of Police or a Deputy Inspector General of Police can hear the confessions. These are just a few technical issues that a new set of laws will have to tackle. The larger challenge will be the political difficulties of pushing forward reconciliation when opportunistic politicians will use it as a window to whip up anti-minority hysteria as well as figuring out how best to deal with people already detained under the PTA.