1 June, 2023


Grave Abuses Under Discredited Law – European Union Should Press For Repeal Of Sri Lanka’s PTA: HRW

The Sri Lankan government is using the discredited Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to commit prolonged arbitrary detention and torture, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The European Union, other trading partners, and donors, should press for time-bound action to repeal the abusive law and reject the government’s vague pledges of reform.

The 59-page report, “In a Legal Black Hole’: Sri Lanka’s Failure to Reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act,” documents the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s misuse of the PTA against the minority Tamil and Muslim communities, and to suppress civil society groups. The administration rejected pledges by the previous government to repeal the law after it was readmitted to the EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences plus (GSP+), which grants Sri Lanka special tariff-free access to EU markets.

“Sri Lankan authorities continue to use the Prevention of Terrorism Act to sweep away targeted people’s basic rights, reneging on past government promises to repeal the law,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “EU members and other countries should reject the Rajapaksa administration’s unconvincing promises to reform the PTA and press for the law’s prompt repeal.”

This report is based on Human Rights Watch research on the Prevention of Terrorism Act carried out since 2018, interviews conducted between January and December 2021, and a review of newly available court documents. Human Rights Watch wrote to the attorney general of Sri Lanka and to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, and received a response from the commission which is included in the report.

The PTA allows the authorities to arrest people without warrants for unspecified “unlawful activities,” and to detain suspects for up to 18 months without producing them before a court. This denies suspects’ basic due process rights and removes safeguards that would help protect them from abuse, effectively creating a legal black hole, Human Rights Watch said.

Between 1983 and 2009, during the civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the authorities used the law primarily against suspected members or supporters of the LTTE or other armed groups. Since the deadly 2019 Easter Sunday bombings by a little-known Islamist militant group that targeted churches and hotels, the authorities have used the law to arbitrarily detain hundreds of Muslims. In the past three years the authorities have arrested over 600 people under the PTA, according to Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka data.

Many suspects have been held for years awaiting trial. Statistics indicate that most are tortured in custody, and convictions frequently rely on confessions obtained under torture.

Hejaaz Hizbullah, a prominent Muslim lawyer, was arrested under the act in April 2020, accused of aiding the Easter Sunday suicide bombers. While the initial allegations were dropped, the police made new allegations under the act of causing “communal disharmony.” Students alleged that police coerced them to testify that Hizbullah incited violence at a school. He remained in custody at the time of writing.

Ahnaf Jazeem, a 26-year-old Muslim poet, was arrested under the act on May 26, 2020, and accused of promoting “religious extremism” in a 2017 book of Tamil verse. Jazeem testified in a July 2021 Supreme Court affidavit that police interrogators threatened “to hang him from the roof and beat him, or threaten[ed] to subject him to similar treatment as the other detainees whom [he] was forced to witness being tortured.” After 18 months in PTA custody, Jazeem was released on bail in December.

The Rajapaksa administration has used the PTA to detain or intimidate the families of victims of past abuses, human rights activists and lawyers, and journalists. “When we talk to the families of the disappeared, they say they can be arrested at any time,” said an activist working with the Tamil community. “Police are arresting people for posting pictures on Facebook. They can arrest you for anything.”

The EU had removed Sri Lanka from GSP+ in 2010 amid rights violations at the end of the civil war, but readmitted the country in 2017 after the then-government renewed commitments to adopt and implement 27 human rights and other international conventions, and in particular to repeal the PTA. This followed a consensus resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015, in which Sri Lanka agreed to ensure accountability and reparations for war crimes, to investigate enforced disappearances, and to repeal this law. Most of these pledges have yet to be fulfilled.

In June 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the European Commission to “push for advancement on Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations and demand the repeal or replacement of the PTA” when assessing Sri Lanka’s eligibility for GSP+ status. A review is currently underway, and is expected to be completed later this year.

The Rajapaksa government has since early 2021 renewed pledges to review provisions of the act, but no substantive proposals have been put forward. Instead, the government introduced an ordinance in 2021 that would make the law even more abusive. Any proposed changes to the Code of Criminal Procedure would further undermine human rights protections.

Before enacting any counterterrorism law, the Sri Lankan government should conduct meaningful and inclusive consultations with civil society groups and adopt the “necessary prerequisites” set out in December 2021 by seven United Nations human rights experts for meeting Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN experts noted that the PTA contradicts Sri Lanka’s obligations under several international human rights conventions. Sri Lanka’s participation in GSP+ includes a commitment to implement these conventions.

“The Rajapaksa administration’s abusive actions have proved louder than its vague promises of reform,” Ganguly said. “The EU, United States, and United Kingdom should hold the Sri Lankan government to its international obligations and push for meaningful action to protect human rights.” (HRW)

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Latest comments

  • 15

    UN should apply the same PTA-type practices and arrest all those accused of human rights violations during the war. Let’s then see how they feel. They can be in custody indefinitely until the case is presented in a court of law and a judgment is given.

    • 4

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    • 2

      nimal fernando,
      “No doubt, there was abuse under the colonial English ……… but they were competent even in that.”

      English proved that they are competent in abusing human rights from the way they used scorched earth policy and destroyed Sinhala settlements in Uwa-Wellassa and massacred thousands of Sinhala people after they launched a liberation struggle against British rule.

      Not only English, Tamils also proved that they are competent in abusing human rights as well as committing war crimes during the time they terrorized people in this country for three decades.

      • 3

        It seems the European Union has done something else. They have demanded yesterday that blanket import bans on most European goods be lifted immediately, which is a way of saying that they can screw our exports if they want. The world is interconnected. Even islands can’t be insular. The days of Gotanomics are numbered.

  • 15

    This may be one of the craziest things one can say ……….. but most of Lanka’s problems are, the “Sinhalese” in power are so incompetent ……… incompetent even in abuse!

    No doubt, there was abuse under the colonial English ……… but they were competent even in that.

    • 13

      Yes Budhist1 and Nimal

      These goons are uncouth to the core
      and a laughing stock to the world
      When are going to see EVEN an iota of semblance. I can not see the authorities chaning track anytime soon to relieve the pain of the masses

    • 5

      Nimal Fernando,
      “This may be one of the craziest things one can say ……….. but most of Lanka’s problems are, the “Sinhalese” in power are so incompetent ……… incompetent even in abuse!”
      I agree and wish to add, that, they hate those who could understand the situation, act intelligently and get desired outcome ‘scorned’ and pull the rug under their feet!
      “Maru Sira” is a good example to cite!
      Ranils’ outward appearance and not smiling at one and all, is one reason for the dislike of him. I feel the major reason is this! They look down upon him because he finds a solution; not saying it is always correct.
      They will do that always, whether politicians, administrators, I believe out of jealousy.
      I remember the university days, Kaththa and Kaduwa.
      In parliament, ‘Bambotta’ and ‘Wattakaya’!!

    • 4

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    • 3

      nimal fernando

      “No doubt, there was abuse under the colonial English ……… but they were competent even in that.”

      However here in this island whether human rights abuses are competently carried out or not the spin following the abuses are most abhorrent.

      Look at Prabaharan’s photo after Brigadier Dia’s axe attack on his forehead. Only thing the the armed forces and the clan didn’t say was that he slipped on banana skin

      • 3

        nimal fernando

        Every inside information indicated VP was captured, interrogated, killed and dumped on beach to be found next day by members of armed forces, and reporters ready with their cameras and soldiers with their mobile phones.

        The clan and the military top brass did not have the stomach (b***s) to charge him in a court of law or face a court martial. Mahinda/Gota were worried LTTE diaspora could make use of it, organise a carnival of human rights campaigners, parade for top international legal eagle, ……. expose what kind of deal the clan struck with VP, exposing corruption in procurement of war assets, supplies,…, incompetence generally within the state,

        • 3


          How he died does not interest me ………. people are capable of lying and making up all sorts of crap ………

          To finish off the LTTE, once and forever, the entire Prabakaran family had to be wiped out ……….. I’m not condoning/justifying it ……….. but this is what has happened throughout human history: I’m a realist.

          To redeem Lanka from its current woes ………. the entire Rajapakse clan has to be wiped out. …….. To put an end to the nonsense once and forever.

          Prbakaran is the most remarkable “political figure” that emerged in my lifetime ……….. my only regret is, that he wasn’t a Sinhalese ……… he would’ve started with the 225 in the parliament; what a relief that would’ve been for the nation/people …….

  • 1

    The problem is not the PTA. Every country that faced terrorism menace need prevention of terrorism laws.

    The problem is existing ethnic divisions in the SL. Anything to add to the mix is combustible.

    Only solution is to create 3 independent nations for ethnic groups with total relocation.

    After all one community’s terrorist is another community freedom fighter. All their wishes will be granted with the 3 nation solution. No more wars. No more terrorism. No more PTAs.

    Until then PTA is essential.

  • 0

    Does Human Rights Watch want to eliminate terrorism or promote terrorism?

    • 1

      The Judges of the SL Court of Appeal itself noted otherwise.
      World Jurists think differently.
      Why not leave it to the qualified ?
      Agree form terrorism is justified.

      Is state terrorism not a possibility ?
      Yet democracy has a price for all
      unless you are free to run away and comment in comfort.

      • 1

        Agree no form of terrorism is justifed

    • 11

      “want to eliminate terrorism or promote terrorism?”
      Use your brain.
      When there was terrorism,
      1. The politicians were afraid of being killed and stayed quiet.
      2. Ditto the likes of Gnanasara and Gunawansa
      3. The Police had no time to collect bribes from drivers.
      4. There was plenty of LPG, fertiliser, milk powder, etc.
      Now there is no terrorism but:
      1 .We pay for an army of 300000 with money we don’t have
      2. No LPG, petrol, electricity, fertiliser, sugar, rice….
      3. Plenty of empty airports and useless highways
      4. Traffic jams everywhere caused by the Police
      Which is better?
      I know you live in Canada. Why not come back to paradise?

      • 5

        OC, brilliant!

        May I also add that it would have been even better if the British were still running our country?
        And then we would have achieved at least:

        1. We would have had railways extended to all nooks and corners of the island without a red cent going into the pockets of the Prime Minister (or his brother’s)
        2. Colombo port would easily surpass Singapore port’s workload and ranked in the best 5 in the world
        3. Our tea would be the best, high quality hot beverage in the world, easily beating coffee
        4. We would have only 3 universities and they would be ranked in the worlds best 25, closer to ivory league ones
        5. Our judges would have delivered world class judgements and be serving in world class establishments
        6. Our village folks will not be slaving in the middle east or south Korea for daily bread
        7. Our S&P, Fitch ranking would be AAA with billions of $$$ in reserves and Bangladesh would be our biggest borrower

        • 4

          Add 8) Evil Eagle would have actually worked for a living and not got to where he is now, living like a parasite.

  • 3

    Indeed, as a ‘layman’; I agree profoundly with what Nimal Fernando and Mahila say about our understanding of leadership; most of us, suffer from tunnel vision and from the ‘island” mentality. Most of our leaders lack a vision for the long term development of the country.
    Mr Ranil Wickramasingha is the only leader, according to my knowledge and understanding who worked with a long term goal towards the enhancement and development of many major sectors of the nation; specially education and social harmony – the bedrock on which economic development builds up.

    He respects all races and religions and is fluent in Sinhala and English and has a life style of his own and is not fearful to change it to be “popular” he is not “liked” by most due to his strength of character.
    We , as a people do not possess the sound thinking and the ability to appreciate that kind of leadership.
    I think we are incapable of solving our own problems in a calm and intelligent manner and envy people who are able to do so. As a result, we use our vote for a macho, fist shaking, finger pointing, bullying type of person who we think will “fight” for us to defend our racist, religion infested and now divided nation.
    We fought for over thirty years to defend the unitary state of our landmass and have ended up a divided nation of souls fallen down to the depths of murdering innocent citizens at worship and endorsing it by our precious vote.

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