ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which temporarily cost the country the EU’s GSP Plus trade concession in 2010, is once again under scrutiny after it was enforced to arrest and detain protestors involved in the Aragalaya (Struggle) protest movement that caused a sitting president to resign.
First billed as a temporary Act in 1978, the PTA has been used sporadically throughout Sri Lanka’s recent history.
It was used in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, after the initial protests in front of ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksha’s private residence in Colombo suburb, and most recently to detain three anti-government protestors.
The protestors, Convenor of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) Wasantha Mudalige, Convener of Inter University Bhikku Federation Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, and member of the Kelaniya University Students’ Union Hashantha Jawantha Gunathilake, have all been served a 90 day detention order by President and Minister of Defence Ranil Wickremesinghe.
This development came hours after UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor requested President Wickremesinghe to not to sign the detention orders.
Historically accused of being used against minorities, the PTA was drafted by Wickremesinghe’s uncle, then President J R Jayawardena, to quell activity of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).
Critics say the Act’s vague wording made it possible for law enforcement to arrest civilians on the slightest suspicion of anti-state activity including but not limited to intimidating a population, preventing governments or international organisations from functioning, or causing damage to any property, public or private.
After civilians took to the streets en masse in March against rising costs and shortages amid Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since Independence, protests were largely peaceful.
The first protest at Mirihana ended with the burning of a bus. In May, retaliatory mob violence after supporters of then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksha attacked peaceful protestors ended with the burning and looting of vehicles and houses belonging to MPs, and the death of one government MP.
In July, Wickremesinghe’s private residence was burned down. Protestors had taken over several official buildings including the Presidential Secretariat, the Prime Minister’s office, and the president’s official residence, causing some damage to public property, all causes for arrest under the PTA.
“It is not just bringing in bombs or guns and murdering people that can be construed as terrorism,” an official said speaking to EconomyNext asking not to be named.
“Intimidation, destruction of or damage to public property, burning down houses, this is all terrorism.”
With the imposition of the Emergency Law – which has now lapsed – and removal of the protestors’ main occupation site at Colombo’s Galle Face Green, protestors have become less outspoken, many going into hiding out of fear arrest.
Arrests made under the PTA have strengthened that fear, and International agencies such as the European Union have already voiced their concerns.
Amnesty International tweeted on Friday August 19: “Arbitrarily detaining protesters and charging them with serious criminal offences that are not justified by their actions, such as terrorism-related charges, is against international law.”
Protestors have been arrested for sitting in the president’s chair and taking selfies in the president’s official residence, while calls to investigate the pro-government mobs that attacked protestors on May 09 have gone unanswered, activists say.
Wickremesinghe effectively ended the Galle Face Occupation within 19 days of his swearing in, but dissent is still ongoing, with some protestors demanding an election.
While the State of Emergency has effectively lapsed, the PTA arrests have made protestors both more wary and more determined to take down the Wickremesinghe regime, they say. (Colombo/Aug22/2022)