(New York) – Sri Lankan authorities have detained nine ethnic Tamils under the country's abusive counterterrorism law for commemorating those who died in the 1983-2009 civil war, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly assured international allies, trading partners, and the United Nations that it would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has long been used to arbitrarily detain and torture minority community members and civil society activists. The government should immediately release all those arbitrarily detained under the PTA and place a moratorium on its use until it can be repealed.
“The Sri Lankan authorities’ use of a counterterrorism law against Tamils commemorating those who died in the civil war is cruelly abusive and further marginalizes a community that already faces persistent government discrimination,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “President Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks of ‘reconciliation,’ but his government’s actions only serve to deepen ethnic divisions.”
The authorities arrested those newly detained under the PTA between November 25 and 27 in Batticaloa, in the Eastern Province, and confiscated decorations and loudspeakers from a commemoration vigil. Since the civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in 2009 with the separatist armed group’s complete defeat, successive administrations have prevented Tamils from publicly memorializing the war dead.
On December 2, police in Mullaitivu district, in the Northern Province, reportedly shut down an event at a Hindu temple to commemorate the Sri Lankan army’s 1984 massacre of Tamil villagers in Othiyamalai. Preventing ethnic and religious minorities from conducting ceremonies to commemorate the dead violates the rights to freedom of religion, belief, expression, and association, Human Rights Watch said.
Soon after taking office in July 2022, President Wickremesinghe ended a short-lived moratorium on the use of the PTA. A previous administration, in which Wickremesinghe was prime minister, had pledged in 2017 to repeal the law when it rejoined a European Union trading program called the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP+). The GSP+ grants tariff-free access for Sri Lankan exports conditioned on compliance with international human rights conventions. Sri Lankan authorities have repeatedly renewed the pledge but never carried it out.
Many of Sri Lanka’s international partners, including the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom, as well as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticized the recent PTA detentions.
The administration has also used the PTA to restrict criticism of government management of the economy and other policies. In August 2022, three student activists were detained under the law for protesting the government’s handling of the economic crisis. Other activists say that they fear being arrested under the PTA for speaking out and that the government is constraining civil society organizations’ access to funding, particularly donations from abroad, under the guise of “countering terrorist financing.”
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is providing Sri Lanka with a US$3 billion loan, reported in September that civil society’s “oversight and monitoring” of government actions is “restricted … by broad application of counter-terrorism rules.”
In a November report on Sri Lanka’s compliance with its human rights obligations under the GSP+ trading arrangement, the EU found that “the treatment of minorities remains a concern in particular as efforts towards reconciliation are slow, and the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to be applied including after the protest movements in 2022, causing fear among the population and suffocating dissent. Substantial reform or repeal of the PTA in line with human rights standards remains a priority, just as Sri Lanka’s need to re-commit to reconciliation and accountability.” Despite Sri Lanka’s failure to comply with its six- year-old pledge to reform the PTA, the EU continues to extend GSP+ benefits to the country.
On September 15, the government published the latest version of its proposed replacement counterterrorism legislation. It then withdrew the bill for further revisions after widespread domestic and international criticism that it reproduced many of the abusive provisions of the current law while creating new speech-related offenses that could be used to suppress dissent.
The government recently proposed another law, the Online Safety Bill, that could also be used to restrict freedom of expression by creating a commission, appointed by the president, which would decide whether online statements are false or prohibited. The commission could order the removal of online statements and participate in police investigations and prosecutions of those accused of posting them.
“The Sri Lankan government’s latest misuse of the PTA should be a strong reminder to the EU that its GSP+ requirements are being ignored,” Ganguly said. “The European Union and EU governments need to make their displeasure with this turn of events known.”