ECONOMYNEXT – Twenty-five university students who were arrested at a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Tuesday August 30, will not be detained under the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), according to Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.
Responding to a question by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, Gunawardena told parliament on Wednesday August 31 that the government had been informed by police that the students were arrested under the country’s normal law and detention orders (DOs) will not be issued.
The students were arrested at a protest organised by the Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) Tuesday afternoon. The prime minister said that the organisers’ had only notified the police of the location the protestors would be convening at and not where they would be headed. A protest march ensued and the students were met with police tear gas and water cannon fire.
Raising the matter in parliament the following morning, Opposition Leader Premadasa said the student body was exercising its freedom of expression and its right to protest.
“IUSF members were brutally attacked and tear gassed, and 25 of them were arrested for no reason. I wish to ask the prime minister if there are no fundamental rights in this country anymore? Is it against the law to protest on the streets?” said Premadasa.
The opposition leader said the government was calling for an all-party government, all the while engaging in “state terrorism”.
“We’re ready to join an all-party mechanism, but not to take up cabinet positions,” he added.
He asked Gunawardena for an assurance that the arrested university students would not be detained under the PTA.
The controversial anti-terror law, which temporarily cost Sri Lanka 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. Three other activists including IUSF Convenor Wasantha Mudalige are already in detention under provisions of the PTA – a move widely criticised by human rights activists, opposition lawmakers and foreign governments.
Premadasa said no private or public property was damaged during Tuesday’s IUSF protest.
“We saw that it was in fact the police that were affected by their own tear gas,” he added.
With the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) sessions coming up in Geneva, where Sri Lanka’s human rights record will once again go under the microscope, analysts say the government’s recent alleged crackdown on protestors will be a focal point in the discussions.
“Geneva session begins this September. Have you forgotten about the UNHRC session coming up? We don’t want the country to be at risk. We want to help the country and the people and the government with regard to the Geneva question. But how can we help when there is such barbarism?” said Premadasa.
“We’re not in the habit of going to other countries and complaining about Sri Lanka. But what are supposed to do when there is such savagery and state terrorism?
“Don’t do this. This is called ‘illan kanawa’ (asking for it),” he said.
Responding to Premadasa, Prime Minister Gunawardena said police had not been notified by the IUSF about their planned movements.
“It’s not just about the fundamental rights of one person, but about the rights of everyone else [that may be infringed]. We’re committed to an environment in which no one is [disturbed or harassed],” said Gunawardena.
The police has an obligation to investigate disturbances to the public, he added.
However, anyone arrested on Tuesday will be treated under the country’s standard laws and will not be detained under the PTA, the prime minister said.
“It is good that this question was asked.
“We will work with the country’s normal law and not the PTA,” he said.
On August 23, the government announced the introduction of a new ‘national security act’ with more “relaxed” provisions to replace the PTA.