Last week the Supreme Court held that the “Prevention of Terrorism bill – or de-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology – Regulation No. 1 of 2021” is in violation of the fundamental rights granted under the Constitution. The justices of the highest court found that these regulations were inherently flawed and were beyond rectification. The regulations were made by the President under Section 27 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979.
The court noted that “the definition of ‘extremist religious ideology’ presents inherent difficulties as religious beliefs may vary widely among individuals, with one person’s religious ideology potentially appearing extreme to another. In the absence of clarity, there is a risk of arbitrary decisions being made where certain attitudes, behaviours, attire, etc., can also be deemed as signs of extremist religious ideologies.”
“According to Article 10 of the Constitution, the State cannot prevent a person from thinking or believing in some religious ideology on the basis that such thinking or belief is irrational or extreme. It sets “an absolute bar against such infringements” the court noted.
This decision comes in the same week that the Supreme Court held that the fundamental rights of Mohamed Razik Mohamed Ramzy, who was arrested in 2020 by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and spent over five months in remand over a Facebook post, had been infringed.
The case of Razik Mohamed Ramzy is emblematic of the weaponising of anti-terrorism laws and the ICCPR act, especially against minorities and political dissidents. The PTA is a draconian relic of the J.R. Jayewardene administration that haunts this country for over 40 years. What was intended to be a temporary provision to deal with the emerging security threats in the north and east of the country in 1979 has ended up becoming a permanent weapon in the hands of consecutive administrations.
The PTA did not stop the outbreak of war in 1983 nor curb terrorism that ensued. Instead, it became a means for arbitrary arrest, secret detention, torture and custodial murder. Rather than preventing terrorism, the Act contributed to radicalising and alienating whole communities against the State and providing a tool for State terrorism.
The Yahapalana administration with Ranil Wickremesinghe as the prime minister, worked on the Counter Terrorism Act. Despite some progress and extensive consultations at the drafting stage the proposed Bill never saw the light of day due to infighting within the administration. This Bill died a natural death in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2018. The current administration’s proposals to replace the anti-terrorism legislation has shown little signs of addressing the core issues of the draconian legislation. Instead it too attempts to keep the definition of terrorism vague so that it can be used against a range of individuals and in a multitude of situations. In the hands of the State it is yet another tool to supress the freedoms of the people.
The Sri Lankan military and the police are accused of carrying out over 100,000 extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances since 1971. Such acts have been carried out with impunity, under the guise of fighting terrorism. Any future anti-terrorism legislation must take account of this despicable history and context of State terror. While it has taken over 40 years to repeal the draconian PTA it should not be allowed to be replaced by a far worse piece of legislature that will further curtail the freedoms of the people and allow the continuous weaponisation of the law by the ruling administration.