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Sri Lankan Minister Threatens Prisoners at Gunpoint

Incidents Highlight Abusive Prevention of Terrorism Act

Prison guards at the main entrance of Welikada prison in Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 2019. © © 2019 Lakruwan WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images  

As the Sri Lankan government was assuring foreign diplomats of its commitment to human rights, the country’s minister for prisons was on a drunken, armed rampage in two prisons, some 200 kilometers apart.  

On Sunday, Lohan Ratwatte reportedly arrived at Anaradhpura prison and demanded to see Tamil prisoners held under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). He allegedly made two men kneel and threatened to shoot them.  

Earlier, Ratwatte had reportedly entered Welikada prison in Colombo, armed with a pistol and accompanied by a group of drunken friends, demanding to inspect the gallows. On Wednesday he resigned as prisons minister amid a public outcry. He remains minister for gems and jewelery.

The incidents reflect the disregard for human rights that prevails under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and in particular the vulnerable position of people held under the PTA. The law has been used to facilitate grave abuses since it was introduced as a “temporary measure” in 1979. Most of those subjected to the PTA belong to the Tamil and Muslim minority communities.

Under the PTA, the authorities can detain people for years without trial, evidence, or judicial oversight. Convictions have frequently been secured using confessions obtained under torture.

Sri Lanka made a commitment to the European Union that terrorism legislation would be brought in line with international rights standards when it was granted tariff free GSP+ trading privileges in 2017. Four years later, as these privileges are being reviewed, nothing has changed.

Instead, the government has attempted to mollify international partners by granting “pardons” to PTA prisoners who have already served most or even past their sentences. A new “advisory board” of three presidential appointees is preparing to consider further PTA prisoner releases. Although such releases would be welcome, this mechanism only underlines the arbitrariness of the law. Meanwhile new regulations outlawing “disharmony” make the PTA even more abusive.

The EU and other international partners should not be persuaded by the government’s false promises and cosmetic gestures, but should push hard for repeal of the PTA. And Lohan Ratwatte, who has faced numerous serious allegations for many years, should be made fully accountable for his actions.

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