The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) expresses its deep concern about the latest attempt by the Sri Lankan government to introduce a new Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) instead of repealing the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) introduced in 1979. The government frames ATA as a result of their response to the internal and international pressure against the PTA for over 40 years, justifying the Act as a set of proposals that meet the standards introduced by some other developed countries.
FUTA finds this justification a grossly misleading exaggeration, especially in light of the grave governance issues the country is undergoing, i.e., the relentless undermining of democratic values and the marked deterioration of social welfare. We are especially concerned that the ATA is being introduced in the context of the government misusing the police and the military as well as exploiting the coercive power of the law as a means of curbing citizens’ rights to protest and assemble. FUTA is of the view that the danger of the ATA is that it will not impact only one community but to the larger Sri Lankan society, paving the path for a severely abused state structure.
FUTA strongly opposes the new Act based on the following concerns:
1. ATA’s definition of terrorism does not meet UN standards and instead lowers the bar for acts that are to be considered terrorist acts (i.e., property damage, unlawful assembly, robbery, theft, damage to religious or cultural property). Thus, the ATA challenges the rights entrenched by the Sri Lankan constitution.
2. ATA dangerously empowers the president to declare any organization as a proscribed organization if the president has reasonable grounds to believe that said organization has engaged in a terrorist offence. As per section 82(3), a proscription order may include one or more of the following prohibitions: prohibition of any person being a member of a proscribed organization, prohibition of the organization recruiting members; prohibition of any person acting in furtherance of the objectives of the organization; prohibition of meetings, activities, and programmes; prohibition of the use of bank accounts; prohibition of the organization entering into contracts; prohibition of raising of funds and receiving of grants and bequests; prohibition of the transferring of funds and assets of the organization; prohibition of lobbying on behalf of such organization; and prohibition of any person publishing any material in furtherance of the objects of such organization. FUTA holds the view that this law could be used to persecute organizations as well as associated members who hold opposing views to the government, posing a serious threat to the right to express dissent.
3. FUTA is also concerned how ATA grants permission to the president to declare any place of the country as a “prohibited place.” Placing such an unlimited and an unchallenging power to the executive can discourage the citizens’ right to protest.
4. ATA suggests granting the power to issue detention orders to the Deputy Inspector Generals (DIG), a power that has previously been granted to the president under PTA. Apart from that, the proposed law overrides the magistrate’s power, as now the magistrate can only decide whether the person can be discharged on the grounds put forward by the police. The magistrate is not empowered to discharge the person, but only to release them on bail, in situations where the police request the continued detention of a person even if there are no reasons to believe the person has committed an offence under the Act. FUTA is heavily concerned about the check and balance of the Act in its execution.
5. ATA also proposes to legalize military intervention in civil matters in a very problematic way. Traditionally the military could intervene in civil matters only at times where an emergency situation is declared by the President. But the ATA grants power to any member of the armed forces to search any person, vehicle, vessel or train or any premises or land without any prior authorization, warrant or oversight. This becomes further problematic looking at how the military has behaved in the past few months, e.g., the brutality that broke out at the Gota Go Gama, challenging the role of the military in a democracy.
Due to all these grave concerns, FUTA expresses strong opposition to the ATA. We consider this Act as a serious move towards de-democratization, making the people subservient to a highly authoritarian and corrupt political system. We urge the government to reverse the proposed ATA which we consider as an anti-democratic and an anti-people piece of legislation.