Big changes to counterterrorism framework

Wednesday, 11 January 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

57 Prime Minister 

Ranil Wickremesinghe

  • PM presents revised CTA policy to Cabinet 
  • Revisions make confessions to police inadmissible as evidence
  • Suspects to be produced before magistrate within 48 hours
  • Persons arrested under CTA to get same access to legal counsel guaranteed under general law 
  • Detainees can only be held four months in custody without trial 
  • No changes to broad scope of terrorism-related offences

By Dharisha Bastians 

The Government has brought major revisions to the framework of a proposed counterterrorism law that will replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), to bring the draft in line with international best practice and Sri Lanka’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Daily FT learns. 

A revised draft was submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday. The initial draft of the proposed Counter-Terrorism Act (CTA) framework was presented to Cabinet in September last year and a subsequent “leak” of the document created some public debate about the Government’s proposed counterterrorism framework to replace the PTA. 

The legal framework for counterterrorism legislation in Sri Lanka now contains many “progressive provisions”, highly-placed Government sources told Daily FT. The Prime Minister had provided detailed explanations to Ministers about the CTA framework and the Cabinet had agreed to send the proposed counterterrorism framework to the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security for observations, authoritative sources told Daily FT. 

Daily FT learns that the revisions address key areas of concern with regard to the controversial counterterrorism policy drafted by a special committee appointed by the Prime Minister which handed over its report on 31 August 2016. 

The revised draft of the Government’s ‘Policy and Legal Framework on the proposed Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) of Sri Lanka’ makes confessions to police officers by detainees in custody entirely inadmissible as evidence and reduces the initial detention period before a detainee is produced before a judge from 72 hours to 48 hours. 

The Government-appointed committee’s initial draft retained the 72-hour detention period in the existing PTA, but counterterrorism experts and human rights lawyers argued that the three-day period failed to meet ICCPR requirements to promptly produce arrested persons in court.

Another key revision to the draft addresses concerns swift access to legal counsel for detainees arrested under anti-terror laws, authoritative sources told Daily FT. With the new amendments, provisions that guarantee access to a lawyer for arrested persons under general law will also be applicable to those arrested under the proposed anti-terror laws. 

In the revised version, the length of a detention order has also been reduced to 14 days. The first ‘leaked’ draft CTA policy had stipulated a 30-day detention order. The amendments also ensure that a detention order for suspects may only be extended for up to 16 weeks or four months. This revision reduces the initial six months proposed by the drafting committee – still a significant departure from the existing PTA which permits detention orders to be extended for up to 18 months, without trial. 

The new revisions however make no major changes to the scope of terrorism-related offences contained in the CTA draft that UN experts and human rights lawyers in the country said were too broad in nature and could be used to target journalists and rights activists if abused. However, amendments to the broad scope of terrorism-related offences in the draft may be proposed during the sectoral oversight process, Daily FT learns. 

The Government had decided to revise the CTA policy after independent experts, including members of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (UNCTED), weighed in with concerns about the initial document, Daily FT learns. 

Lawyers on the drafting committee appointed in their personal capacity, Dr. Rohan Perera and Suren Fernando, and Foreign Secretary Esala Weerakoon had also flagged similar concerns about the first draft of the CTA framework in 23 “footnotes” to the majority report and included amendments to bring the draft in line with international best practice, ICCPR principles and international law. 

The draft of the Government’s proposed counterterrorism policy and legal framework which was leaked in October last year, came under heavy criticism for appearing to widen the net on terrorism-related offences while failing to address some of the fundamental failures of the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act. However, the Government insisted that the leaked counterterrorism policy was an “evolving draft”. 

Making submissions before the UN Committee Against Torture late last year, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Dr. Rohan Perera, who also served as an independent lawyer on the drafting committee for the new counterterrorism framework, expressed confidence that the final draft would meet internationally accepted standards for counter-terror legislation and Sri Lanka’s ICCPR obligations.