This week, we saw the strange and astonishing saga of two Sri Lankan human rights activists who were peremptorily arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA, 1979) and then released without charges with various branches of the Government differing on almost every circumstance relating to this incident.
The sequence of events thereto illustrates a regime which appears not to know what it is doing. It seems as if there is fundamentally contradictory tug and pull within the highest echelons of the ruling administration. Needless to say, the consequences thereto are immeasurably dangerous for the country.
Indeed at one point, the basic factual incongruities became stark, amounting to sheer absurdity. Following the arrests, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative stated with appropriately dramatic flair that activist Rukshan Fernando and a Catholic priest, Fr Praveen had been ‘engaging with persons connected to Gobi’ (an ex-LTTE cadre). Gobi, we were told, was implicated in the recovery of an arms caché at Vishwamadu and a shooting incident in Dharmapuram. The arrest of a Northern war widow Balendran Jeyakumari under the PTA was also justified on this same basis.
As Alice in Wonderland would have had occasion to remark, things were thereafter to get ‘curiouser and curiouser’ after this dire warning when the two human rights defenders were released in Colombo with the police spokesman emphasizing quite correctly that no charges had been filed. Compounding this farce, the Ministry of External Affairs, in a most extraordinary blunder, then issued a release stating that they had been released was on bail which stood in immediate contradiction to what the police spokesman had declared.
Appalling misuse of the PTA
As this grim comedy went on with observers watching appalled and transfixed as it were, the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) obtained a court order impounding the passports of the two activists (which was later varied to securing prior court permission for travel), seizing their laptops and quite unprecedentedly, warning them not to talk about the case nationally or internationally. Meanwhile Jeyakumari remains in detention without charges being filed against her and with her daughter Vibooshika languishing in a child care home. Vibooshika’s affidavit handed to her lawyers this week indicates the abuse that the mother was subjected to with the daughter as an unwilling witness.
In all genuineness, if one searched assiduously for a better illustration of the appalling misuse of the PTA, one could not find a better example than this. These three arrests give the final lie to the Government oft-repeated claim that the emergency regime is at an end. Not so. In fact, we are in a worse off situation as the Emergency Regulations under the Public Security Ordinance (1947) at least had to be debated regularly in Parliament and allows access of family members and counsel to a detainee. The PTA has no such safeguards. Access of lawyers to PTA detainees is not as a matter of right. Practically, lawyers are impeded at every point from affording basic legal counsel. The PTA’s post 2009 strengthening has been used by Sri Lanka’s defence establishment to strike terror into the hearts of dissenters and critics. Its use against Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and Muslim politician Azath Salley some time ago was a good case in point. In both instances, the vaguely defined PTA offence of causing racial and communal disharmony was utilized as appears to be the case this month as well.
Opposing the Government
In addition, Salley was accused of ‘humiliating’ and making ‘antipathetic statements’ against the Government’. This is of course a slobbery slope that we are on. A reporter, a columnist, an editor or a citizen using the media to criticize the Government will be liable to be arrested on this same basis. This flagrantly contradicts the basics of freedom of expression. Being opposed to, antagonizing or indeed, humiliating the Government are perfectly legitimate activities for citizens. This is an accepted part of democratic life. Indeed, interrogators of the two activists this week reflected that same sense of ridiculousness accusing them of ‘inconveniencing the Government.’ Frankly it is high time that this Government realizes that the people of Sri Lanka do not exist ‘for their convenience’ and that the country cannot be held to ransom by power hungry politicians and their relatives.
True enough, sense prevailed in this week’s arrests due to in large part, to national and international concern. But that does not detract from the seriousness of what took place and the further chilling effect that this would have on already cowed and frightened people. Not only in the North but in the South, villagers in Hanwella demanding clean water were characterized by the authorities as politically motivated. No effort was made to actually listen to the people’s complaints. The unfortunate death of a policeman was one result.
Mourning the country
In this crucial week leading up to the debating of the 2014 resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council, what the world saw was a Government at odds with itself in dealing with investigations that should have been handled with the utmost delicacy if a national security threat was actually in issue. The timing could not have been worse, bringing the fiercely criticized PTA again into focus. It was almost as if there was a deliberate act of self-immolation.
The revised resolution tabled before the Council requests the Office of the High Commissioner to lead a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations by both parties in Sri Lanka with assistance from experts and with a view to preventing future impunity. Its focus on institutional Rule of Law reforms is singularly uncommon. As history will record, what will happen this week at the Council is no small matter. It is of grave consequence to Sri Lanka.
And the responsibility for isolating ourselves in this manner can only be on this Government, notwithstanding angry condemnation of the West’s double standards. Let us be clear about this, even at this late stage.