Sri Lankan lawmakers on Tuesday approved reforms to a harsh anti-terror law that rights groups have long criticized, as the country looks to shore up its trade relations with the European Union amid its worst economic crisis in memory.
The vote to alleviate the decades-old Sri Lankan anti-terror law follows last year’s European Parliament resolution that called for a preferential trade scheme with the South Asian country to be used as leverage for rights reforms.
The Generalized Scheme of Preferences, or GSP Plus, allows substantial duty concessions on imports from selected countries. The EU review on the concession is expected shortly.
Sri Lankan opposition groups and lawmakers called the reforms “cosmetic,” saying the anti-terror measures will retain provisions like the ability to arrest a suspect without a warrant, or allowing courts to admit confessions often obtained through torture as evidence.
The opposition and rights groups say the law has been abused widely since it was introduced in 1979 causing a large number of innocent persons to spend years in prison without trial.
Justice Minister Ali Sabry, however, said the reforms were substantial and included provisions that allow suspects to challenge their detention in court and expedite hearings to prevent lengthy pretrial detentions.
The reforms were only the beginning of a process and the government will soon introduce a new law, Sabry added.
Most of Sri Lanka’s history since its independence from Britain in 1948 has been mired in armed uprisings. There were two Marxist insurrections in 1971 and 1987 to 1990. There was also a full blown civil war between government forces and ethnic Tamil rebels for 26 years.
With a $7 billion debt obligation for 2022, Sri Lanka is badly in need of foreign currency with dwindling reserves and massive debts to pay.
There are severe shortages of essentials like medicine and fuel that have handicapped power supplies.
Europe’s GSP Plus eliminates import duties on a large share of Sri Lanka’s products, such as textiles, tea and fish, an advantage worth some $360 million annually, according to the EU.