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Sri Lanka Should Free Detained Students

Use of Abusive Anti-Terrorism Law Flouts Government’s Commitments

A protester shouts slogans against the detention of two student leaders under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, Colombo, November 18, 2022. © 2022 Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo

Since taking office in July amid an unprecedented economic and political crisis, Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe has suppressed anti-government protests and hounded alleged protest organizers. Among his most egregious actions has been to use the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to detain student activists.

On Thursday, a magistrate in Colombo, the capital, ruled to keep 2 student organizers behind bars after they already spent 90 days in detention without charge. The government has produced no evidence that Wasantha Mudalige, convener of the Inter-University Students’ Federation, and Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, the convener of the Inter University Bhikku [monks’] Federation, were involved in terrorism.

The next day, police teargassed protesters in Colombo demanding the students’ release.

The PTA has been used to enable prolonged arbitrary detention and torture since it was introduced as a “temporary” measure in 1979. Often the victims are members of the minority Tamil or Muslim communities, or critics of the government. The abuse of the law was raised in parliament this week.

In August, shortly after becoming president, Wickremesinghe used his powers under the PTA to order the students’ detention. Yet when he was prime minister in 2015, he had promised to repeal the law as part of Sri Lanka’s support for a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution. He again promised to repeal it in 2017, when Sri Lanka committed to uphold its international human rights obligations in exchange for tariff-free access to the European Union under a trade arrangement called GSP+.

This March, then justice minister – now foreign minister – Ali Sabry told parliament there was a “de facto moratorium on the use of the PTA.” In July, the then-Foreign Minister G.L. Pieris gave the same assurance to the UN Human Rights Council.

Successive governments have broken these commitments time and again. Wickremesinghe should immediately release the detained students and others arbitrarily detained without trial under the PTA, as well as prisoners who were convicted based on confessions obtained under torture.

The government should introduce a genuine moratorium on the PTA, and ensure that any counterterrorism legislation that replaces it complies with the five “prerequisites” set out by UN experts to meet international human rights standards.

Sri Lanka’s international partners, including the European Union, should judge the government by its actions and hold it to its commitments.

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