(Colombo) – Sri Lanka’s draft counterterrorism law significantly improves upon the current, abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) but needs further safeguards against rights violations, Human Rights Watch said in a commentary released today. Parliament should amend the bill to fully comply with international human rights standards and resist pressure to roll back its reforms.
The Counter Terrorism Act of 2018, drafted to replace the PTA, narrows the definition of terrorism, increases protections against torture and coerced confessions, and reduces pretrial detention. But overbroad provisions could be used to prohibit peaceful protests and ban nongovernmental organizations. Curbs on police powers remain insufficient.
“The Sri Lankan government has finally addressed the torture-tarred Prevention of Terrorism Act, but the proposed law needs stronger human rights protections,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament should reject attempts to add abusive clauses and pass a bill that advances the rule of law.”
The Cabinet of Ministers submitted the draft law to parliament on October 9, 2018. Media reports suggest that there is pressure within parliament to reduce the bill’s rights protections. Measures reportedly under consideration would include restoring the Prevention of Terrorism Act’s use of confessions to police as evidence in court.
Sri Lanka has agreed to calls by the United Nations Human Rights Council and the European Union to repeal the current law as part of the government’s accountability and reconciliation measures for widespread abuses during the country’s 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009. Government security forces committed multiple serious human rights violations under the PTA, which the government enacted as an emergency measure in 1979 and made permanent in 1982. The government has yet to carry out most reforms pledged to the Human Rights Council in its 2015 resolution.
Parliament should bring the draft law into full compliance with international human rights standards in a transparent and participatory process, Human Rights Watch said. The law should automatically lapse after two years, with renewal to be considered after an assessment of its impact on human rights.
The Attorney General’s Office should review all PTA prosecutions that are tainted by credible evidence of torture or other abuse and provide redress for violations. It should also prosecute and hold to account all law enforcement and other government officials implicated in the abuse of terrorism suspects.
“After years of stalling, Sri Lanka finally appears poised to scrap its discredited Prevention of Terrorism Act,” Tayler said. “The government should start demonstrating its seriousness about breaking with past abuses by strengthening its new counterterrorism bill.”