By M A Sumanthiran –
The arrest and detention of Azath Salley, leader of the Muslim Tamil National Alliance, brought the incongruously named Prevention of Terrorism [Temporary Provisions] Act to the spotlight. There is nothing quite temporary about the PTA. It is here to stay unless the people of this country demand that it be abolished. Until it is, it will continue to victimize and terrorize families and communities, as it has done for more than three decades now.
The PTA is a draconian piece of legislation that rights activists, progressive politicians and well meaning international friends have asked successive governments to repeal. The Tamil people have been the worst affected victims of the PTA. Indeed, the PTA continues to strike terror into Tamil families and the larger Tamil community. I have appeared for a number of individuals held in detention under the PTA. Typically, persons arrested under the PTA are arrested and whisked away to a police station, or worse, the TID or CID Headquarters. The desperate families of the arrested person must then go looking for their loved ones, often relying on unhelpful officials for snippets of information on the location in which their relative is held. When this trauma ends, another begins. That of attempting to visit the detenue. Almost always, a Detention Order is issued within days of the arrest, extending the period of time under which a suspect can be held without charge to eighteen months! As suspects are kept in custody without charge or judicial supervision for long periods, police abuse is rampant. This is compounded by provisions in the PTA which enable confessions made by suspects to the police to be admissible in evidence. In fact, many convictions under the PTA are based solely on the confession of a suspect. Being aware of this, the police stop at nothing to extract confessions. The methods of torture are legion. The lucky survive with telltale mental and physical scars of torture – paranoia, panic attacks and headaches. The not so lucky are permanently disabled. Some are killed. One person whom I represented was blinded in both eyes. This is the reality of the PTA.
While the PTA has brought agony and distress to its victims, it has played a fundamental role in defining governance in Sri Lanka.
Firstly, it enables the government in power to persecute and terrorize communities and classes of people considered ‘enemies of the state’. The PTA is almost never used in isolation. Its purpose is not to deal with individuals suspected of terrorism. Instead, its use has always been designed to subjugate communities thought to be troublesome. This is why the PTA has been used so widely against Tamils. The PTA enables governments to crush the source of any organized resistance against it and this is why it continues to be used in the North and East today. During the second southern insurrection, the PTA was turned on Sinhala youth. Thus, the arrest and detention of Azath Salley under the PTA was not an ad hoc exercise done in response to a single line in a single interview in a single newspaper published outside Sri Lanka’s shores. The treatment of Salley was not merely a threat to Salley. Instead, it is a chilling reminder to Muslims that they too must be cautious, lest the fate of the Tamils come to haunt them. The message is that any resistance to the prevailing orthodoxy of Sinhala Buddhist suzerainty will be crushed.
Secondly, the PTA has been instrumental in ushering in the ‘National Security State’. The use of the PTA to carve a ‘national security’ niche within the law of this country was the first step toward the establishment of the National Security State. While a confession to a police officer is not admissible in evidence in respect of every other criminal offence on the law books, the PTA carved out an exception, ostensibly in the pursuit of national security. While persons charged of offences are normally entitled to bail, the PTA takes this right away. While the constitution recognizes the freedom of speech and the right to criticize the government, the PTA nullifies the effect of the constitution by criminalizing legitimate criticism. In short, the PTA forces the judiciary and lawyers to view regular civic activity through the narrow prism of national security. In his book “The Brave New World Order”, Jack Nelson Pallmeyer identifies the first characteristic of the national security state as one in which “the military is the highest authority. In a National Security State the military not only guarantees the security of the state against all internal and external enemies, it has enough power to determine the overall direction of the society. In a National Security State the military exerts important influence over political, economic, as well as military affairs.” This characteristic is strikingly apt to describe the current dispensation of governance in Sri Lanka. While the government makes much of its victory in the war, it has used the euphoria and triumphalism surrounding that victory to entrench the military in governance. From animal husbandry to golfing, and whale watching to the management of entertainment venues, the military is in the process of establishing control over the country’s economy. The Defence Secretary – only a public servant – now plays a central role in the formulation of national policy. The militarization of society is continuing apace, in which the PTA had no small role.
In conclusion, it is worth recalling Benjamin Franklin’s reminder that those who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. These words have prophetic ring to those of us listening to the voices of history. In Sri Lanka’s pursuit of temporary safety, it has lost respect for civil liberties. Indeed, the National Security State spawned by those very compromises is now making enemies of constituent communities of the country. To say this undermines the country’s security is but an understatement. This is what, I believe, Azath Salley was warning us about.
*The author – M. A. Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance, senior practicing lawyer, prominent Constitutional & Public Law expert and civil rights advocate