The Sri Lankan government has failed to fulfill its pledge to abolish the abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
For decades, the PTA has been used to arbitrarily detain suspects for months and often years without charge or trial, facilitating torture, and other abuse, it claimed.
“The Sri Lankan government has been all talk and no action on repealing the reviled PTA,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Replacing this draconian counterterrorism law with one that meets international standards should be an urgent priority if the government is serious about protecting human rights.”
The 46-page report, “Locked Up Without Evidence: Abuses under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act,” documents previous and ongoing abuses committed under the PTA, including torture and sexual abuse, forced confessions, and systematic denials of due process.
Drawing on interviews with former detainees, family members, and lawyers working on PTA cases, Human Rights Watch says it found that the PTA is a significant contributing factor toward the persistence of torture in Sri Lanka. The 17 accounts documented in the report represent only a tiny fraction of PTA cases overall, but they underscore the law’s draconian nature and abusive implementation.
The PTA was enacted in 1979 to counter separatist insurgencies, notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the law was widely used to detain hundreds of people during the country’s 26-year-long civil war. Yet while other emergency regulations have lapsed since the conflict ended in May 2009, the PTA remains in effect, the report said.
The Sri Lankan government arrested at least 11 people under the PTA in 2016 for alleged terrorist activities.
The PTA allows arrests without warrant for unspecified “unlawful activities,” and permits detention for up to 18 months without producing the suspect before a court. Human Rights Watch said it has received several reports of people detained for a decade or more without access to legal recourse, who were subsequently acquitted or released without charge, yet received no compensation, reparations, or apologies from the government.
Government figures released in July 2017 indicate that 70 prisoners have been held in pretrial detention under the PTA for more than five years, and 12 for over 10 years.
Many of those detained under the PTA described being tortured to extract confessions. Of the 17 individuals whose cases are detailed in the report, 11 reported beatings and torture. Human Rights Watch has previously documented cases where security forces raped detainees, burned their genitals or breasts with cigarettes, and caused other injuries through beatings and electric shock.
“A senior judge responsible for handling PTA cases said he was forced to exclude confession evidence in more than 90 percent of cases he had heard in 2017 because it was obtained through the use or threat of force. Former detainees frequently suffer from psychological and physical trauma as a result of their incarceration and ill-treatment in custody.”
“The PTA provides immunity for government officials responsible for abuses if deemed to have been acting in good faith or fulfilling an order under the act, which gives broad cover to security force personnel to engage in torture and other abuses.”
Numerous reports from United Nations special procedures have documented similar findings on the grave impact of the PTA. The then-special rapporteur on counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, said after his July 2017 visit that “the use of torture has been, and remains today, endemic and routine, for those arrested and detained on national security grounds.” His post-mission report found that 80 percent of those arrested under the PTA in 2016 reported being subject to torture and other ill-treatment following their arrest. In October 2017, the special rapporteur on transitional justice, Pablo de Greiff, called for all PTA convictions that were based solely on the accused’s confession to be reviewed.
After a two-week country visit in December, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for an immediate repeal of the PTA, referring to it as a “key enabler” of abuse. The European Union also reiterated its call for the PTA to be repealed at an EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission meeting in January 2018.
The Sri Lankan government agreed to a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015 outlining a series of commitments on accountability and justice. Yet more than two years on, it has largely failed to implement key pledges on security sector reform, including repealing the PTA. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, highlighted Sri Lanka’s lack of progress in his opening remarks at the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in September 2017, calling on the government to realize that its obligations are not a mere “box-ticking exercise.” At Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva in November, several UN member countries pressed the government to implement safeguards against torture and repeal the PTA.
While the government of President Maithripala Sirisena has taken some steps to charge or release PTA detainees, it has not put forward a plan to provide redress for those unjustly detained, or addressed the issue of detainees charged and prosecuted solely on the basis of coerced confessions obtained during detention, HRW said.
Although the government has floated several drafts of a new counterterrorism law, none have complied with international human rights standards. In May 2017, the cabinet approved with little public consultation a draft Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) to replace the PTA. Although the bill improves upon the PTA in some ways, it still allows prolonged arbitrary detention, enabling rights abuses such as torture. It also includes broad and vague definitions of terrorist acts, which could be used to criminalize peaceful political activity or protest. Ultimately, the proposed law falls far short of the government’s commitments to the Human Rights Council, and suggests it does not intend to fully relinquish the broad and too easily abused powers available to it under the PTA.
Rather than enacting a law that will perpetuate the wrongs committed for decades under the PTA, the government should consult with Sri Lankan victim groups, human rights organizations, and international experts to draft a law that protects both national security and human rights. This should be undertaken as one component of broader security sector reforms, including accountability for abuses carried out under the PTA.
“The 2015 Human Rights Council resolution did not mean an end to international scrutiny of Sri Lanka,” Adams said. “Rather, it offered tangible benchmarks that UN member countries should draw on to highlight Sri Lanka’s lack of progress and press for needed reform.”