Sri Lanka: Govt. in dilemma over anti-terrorism law

The country experienced two terrorist campaigns in the South in 1971 and 1987-1990 and the 30-year-old war spearheaded by the LTTE. Sri Lanka defeated all three attempts through military means. The country had no option but to deal militarily with terrorism and conventional military challenge, regardless of opposition.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Under any circumstances, post-war Sri Lanka cannot ignore international concerns as regards the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (No 48 of 79).

A section of the international community wants Sri Lanka to amend the PTA without further delay. The civil society organisation, One-Text Initiative (OTI) has pointed out repealing the PTA is a necessity underscored by the European Union and the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) as well as by Western-funded civil rights organisations and international agencies. It would be pertinent to mention that the OTI came into being in 2003 in the wake of the Norway arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The CFA, too, made reference to the PTA. The following is the relevant section 2.12: The parties agree that search operations and arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act shall not take place. Arrests shall be conducted under due process of law in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code. Therefore, the public should know the PTA had been an issue for the LTTE, too.

Supreme Court of Sri Lanka 

Following the 5th Meeting of the European Union – Sri Lanka Working Group on Good Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights on Sept. 29, 2021, they issued a comprehensive statement.

Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim: “Sri Lanka provided an update on the action in process to review the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and reiterated its commitment to bring it in line with international norms and standards within a time bound process. The EU and Sri Lanka agreed to take stock of the progress in this regard by the next meeting of the EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission in early 2022. The need to uphold international norms and standards of human rights while countering terrorism and violent extremism was also underlined.”

OTI last Monday (25) arranged a discussion on the PTA and its impact with the participation of lawyer Chrishmal Warnasuriya, Dr Paikiasothy Sarawanamuttu, UK-based Amal Abeywardene and the writer. Harindra B Dassanayake moderated the two-hour discussion. All agreed with Dr. Sarawanamuttu’s call for a moratorium of the PTA until the government and those engaged in discussions on the future of the security law reached a consensus. The civil society guru also suggested until consensus could be reached on the issue at hand, the Attorney General should be authorised to facilitate bail to those held under the PTA. That proposal, too, should be seriously considered. OTI raised specific issues relating to the PTA. Why does the reforming/ repealing of PTA matter? , What is the situation now, and what is likely to happen? Are there options for Sri Lanka, and with what consequences? What hinders change? And what paths and steps are recommended? The OTI initiative should be appreciated.

Western powers are eternally interested in accountability issues and related matters here. However, there is no such enthusiasm to correct far worse continuing wrongs in places like Egypt, Israel or for that matter the continuing genocide in Yemen, thanks to Saudi Arabia and UAE or against international drug rings freely operating from capitalist citadels, like Dubai!

Since the end of the war in May 2009, the GoSL (Government of Sri Lanka) has been under tremendous pressure to either abolish the PTA or amend it in line with laws in place in other parts of the world. Do we need anti-terrorism laws? Do they serve any purpose or strengthen Sri Lanka’s response to terrorist challenge? Sri Lanka should have examined how PTA facilitated the country’s overall response to terrorism.

Unfortunately, successive governments conveniently failed to do so just to appease the West fearing a greater orchestrated outcry against the country, thereby contributed to some international efforts to discredit the Sri Lankan military as well as the law enforcement apparatus.

The country experienced two terrorist campaigns in the South in 1971 and 1987-1990 and the 30-year-old war spearheaded by the LTTE. Sri Lanka defeated all three attempts through military means. The country had no option but to deal militarily with terrorism and conventional military challenge, regardless of opposition. Some sections of the international community oppose the PTA. But no one talks about draconian anti-terror laws in place for example in the USA or the UK since 9/11 and thereafter.

They always boast about a rules-based order followed by the international community. What is this international community? It is nothing but a self-appointed handful of countries in the West that earlier plundered much of the world at their will.

Interestingly, almost all those countries demanding abolition or amendments to the PTA provide refuge to those who should have been dealt with in terms of anti-terrorism laws. Those countries swiftly accept accusations that the PTA is used widely and indiscriminately at the expense of public freedom and also against political opponents.

Focus on PTA cases

Let me briefly refer to four recent cases that had attracted international attention due to some of those involved being arrested in terms of the PTA, as well as accusations relating to Sri Lankans seeking political refuge overseas: (i) Arrest of Attorney-at-Law Hejaaz Hizbullah in April 2020 over his alleged involvement in the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage (ii) the recent Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) statement on the arrest and the subsequent release of All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader and MP representing the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Rishad Bathiudeen. The MP was also taken into custody in terms of the PTA over the Easter Sunday attacks blamed on National Thowheed Jamaat. It would be pertinent to mention that the IPU represents altogether nearly 180 Parliaments all over the world (iii) New Zealand police killing Ahamed Adhil Mohamed Samsudeen, 31, who had secured political asylum therein in Dec 2013 on the basis of him being under threat in Sri Lanka. No less a person than New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has admitted how the man from Kattankudy, who knifed several persons in an Auckland shopping mall received inspiration from ISIS (iv) New Zealand granting political asylum to a Sri Lankan wanted in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks. The suspect also wanted under the PTA received New Zealand protection soon after the mayhem in the shopping mall.

Hizbullah’s arrest was also taken up by the UK-led Sri Lanka Core Group at the UNHRC as well as by HRC Michelle Bachelet. In spite of Hizbullah personally knowing two of the Easter bombers and their father, Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, he should be considered innocent until found guilty in a court of law.

Hizbullah knew them as he had represented the wealthy family in court and his right as a lawyer to represent anyone should never be questioned whatever the accusations directed at his clients. The UN, foreign government and the civil society, too, should have the right to represent the interests of anyone regardless of the accusations. In the absence of own legal representation or the inability to procure legal services, suspects, whatever the accusations directed at them, reserved the right to obtain legal support from the Attorney General’s Department.

Similarly, the State, in this case the Sri Lanka State shouldn’t give up its right to take security measures deemed necessary to protect the public. The government cannot forfeit its right to defend the public against acts of terrorism. However, every effort should be made to address concerns of the UN and the EU as regards the PTA.

Most importantly, the government should respond to concerns raised by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and all other political parties representing the Tamil speaking people as well as the civil society such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

The incumbent government in June this year appointed a high powered committee chaired by Defence Secretary Gen. Kamal Gunaratne to examine the PTA. The Committee has been asked to recommend whether to suitably amend the current law or introduce new counter-terrorism law.

Prez wants PTA examined

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to examine the Counter Terrorism Act (CAT) prepared on the instruction of former Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe should be appreciated. Gen. Gunaratne’s committee received specific instructions to study the CAT. The government should be ashamed of its failure to undertake a comprehensive study on the PTA before foreign powers intervened. Having examined the CAT, the writer is quite convinced it addressed concerns of all.

Prepared by the previous government in consultations with the British, French, EU et al, the CAT can be the basis for proposed new law or facilitate required amendments to the existing PTA.

Sri Lanka should seek a guarantee as regards comprehensive cooperation from Western governments to address threats posed by terrorism. They cannot ignore such a request on the basis of their domestic laws. A lot depends on international cooperation to fight terrorism. Western powers no longer can deny their response to terrorism elsewhere, in a way, promoted terrorism on their soil. How many Sri Lankan terrorists received political asylum in those countries, particularly in the UK, Canada and Germany? Sri Lanka cannot forget the fact that Western powers at least do not share information regarding missing persons. How many thousands of those categorised as missing or disappeared Lankans live overseas under different names.

The recent assassination of ruling party British lawmaker David Amess, 69, is a case in point. The police arrested 25-year-old Ali Harbi Ali, British passport holder of Somali origin over the stabbing in a church east of London. Hope the British investigate the circumstances under which the assassin received British nationality. Having declared the MP’s killing an act of terrorism, the British should conduct a no holds barred investigation. The British media reported the suspect has been detained in terms of additional powers under anti-terrorism laws.

In June 2016, another terrorist, who believed in white power, assassinated 41-year-old Jo Cox. She was shot thrice and then stabbed 15 times. The British cannot turn a blind eye to the growing threat posed by terrorism. Perhaps, law enforcement authorities require wider powers to deal with new threats.

Incidents in New Zealand, Norway, France, Germany and other countries must influence governments to take sufficient measures to ensure public protection. The civil society as well as international organisations, such as IPU, too, should be accountable for campaigns they do. They should be mindful of their actions.

The IPU’s right to be concerned over MP Bathiudeen’s detention should be respected. There shouldn’t be any issue over IPU’s response to the Sri Lankan politician’s arrest. Let the IPU closely examine MP Bathiudeen’s case. Perhaps, the IPU should make its position public on the assassination of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and clandestine meeting the Norwegian government had with the LTTE’s British advisor Anton Balasingham in the UK to discuss ways and means of managing the fallout.

Those who want Sri Lanka to adhere to international standards in the formulation of anti-terrorism laws should be reminded how Commonwealth heavyweight India destabilised Sri Lanka. The transformation of Sri Lanka’s ceremonial armed forces to one of the best fighting forces in the world should be studied against the backdrop of Indian intervention. Sri Lanka needed the PTA as part of the overall measures against terrorism. Can anyone honestly declare that clandestine LTTE operations in Colombo and its suburbs could have been thwarted without the PTA.? Sri Lanka had no option but to fight back. The PTA had been part of the overall defence. The PTA should be discussed taking into account high profile terrorist operations in the South that resulted in political assassinations. Perhaps, the PTA hadn’t been enough to neutralise the LTTE. They succeeded in assassinating President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993, made an abortive bid to assassinate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga at the final PA rally ahead of the 1999 presidential election, blew up over 50 people, including UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake in late Oct 1994, suicide attack on the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in April 2006 and Oct 2009, respectively. All those responsible for the above-mentioned terrorist attacks came to the South as innocent civilians until the moment they transformed themselves into human bombs.

Those who demand that the government treat terrorist suspects with respect did nothing when the LTTE blasted civilians outside the war zone while mingling with ordinary people. Interestingly, years before the ISIS influenced terrorists, the LTTE inspired Norway’s worst ever terrorist attack. The far–right Norwegian terrorist who massacred 77 people, including dozens of children, is on record as having explained how LTTE terrorism directed at Muslims inspired him.

International interventions

The EU’s strong push against Sri Lanka’s current anti-terrorism law should be examined taking into consideration its demand to do away with the death penalty.

The EU-Sri Lanka joint statement issued following the Sept. 21, 2021 meeting also dealt with the death penalty, even though the death penalty had not been carried out in the country since the mid-’70s. The relevant section is as follows: “The EU reiterated its opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances. Welcoming the continued moratorium, the EU encouraged Sri Lanka to take steps towards the formal abolition of capital punishment.”

How is it that the EU is so concerned about Sri Lanka’s dormant death penalty, but didn’t lift a finger to spare the life of Saddam Hussein or the cold blooded killing of Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi, both deaths instigated by the West?

The abolition of the PTA or enactment of new anti-terrorism law should be discussed with push for a new Constitution. The successful conclusion of the war over 12 years ago opened up a new front. The Geneva Human Rights Council got involved with the move to draft a new constitution here. Premier Wickremesinghe spearheaded that effort, too, the way he had handled unfinished project to introduce new anti-terrorism law. In fact, co-sponsorship of the 2015 Geneva resolution had been in line with the overall game plan that brought Maithripala Sirisena into power in January 2015. Following the August 2015 general election, Wickremesinghe enjoyed a commanding position in Parliament with which he could have had achieved major political objectives if not for the Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016. That is the undeniable truth.

Having lambasted the UNP, both in and outside Parliament, for planning to do away with the PTA at the behest of Western powers, the SLPP is working with the same lot to either amend or introduce new anti-terrorism laws.

The government seems incapable of at least presenting Sri Lanka’s case before the international community properly. Sri Lanka should discuss application of anti-terrorism laws during the deployment of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force). Did the world care about what really happened in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces during the IPKF deployment? Having destabilised Sri Lanka, India forced the then government to ‘accept’ the IPKF in terms of the Indo-Lanka accord signed on July 29, 1987.

Those who had been detained by the IPKF on suspicion were not handed over to Sri Lanka police for investigations. Therefore, the PTA didn’t matter. The IPKF hadn’t been accountable at all in respect of operations conducted here and those who want Sri Lanka hauled up before foreign judges over alleged war crimes /accountability issues are conveniently silent on the period India had been responsible for Northern and Eastern districts.

Easter Sunday carnage

If not for the Easter Sunday carnage, the UNHRC and the EU would have definitely demanded the abrogation of the PTA. The Western funded civil society, too, would have pushed for the same. Sri Lanka would have found it extremely difficult to justify the need for continuation of anti-terrorism laws. However, the Easter Sunday massacre proved that a country cannot take security for granted. Sri Lanka’s failure to deal with specific intelligence provided by India pertaining to impending terrorist attack, too, should be dealt in terms of the PTA.

Accusations that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) benefited at the presidential and parliamentary polls, respectively, as a result of the Easter attacks cannot be ignored. No less a person than Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has repeatedly raised that issue against the backdrop of the incumbent government’s failure to implement recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that inquired into the Easter attacks.

Interestingly, the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe used the Easter attacks to justify his government’s bid to replace the PTA with a new counter-terrorism law.

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