20 May, 2024


Sri Lanka & Its Political Detainees

By Lionel Bopage

Dr Lionel Bopage

Dr Lionel Bopage

The jail system in Sri Lanka and the fate of prisoners who are being held therein have been discussed on several occasions, when major violence occurred within the system. However, the most recent discussion was based on a hunger strike a group of detained political prisoners had launched. According to the information we have received, these detainees have been held without charges for a period much longer than the time they would have been spent, even if they had been convicted for any charges possibly brought against them. Some of them would have been taken into custody much before the end of the armed conflict in 2009. Even under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), pre-trial detention of individuals is limited to a maximum of 18 months. Thus, the authorities have violated this provision by holding these prisoners in detention indefinitely.

Violation of the rights of prisoners is nothing new in Sri Lanka. Political prisoners who are Tamil, have been subjected to severe abuse. The armed conflict ended in May 2009 and it has been more than six years since then. High Court of Sri Lanka recently found a Tamil woman who had been detained for more than 15 years in prison not guilty. It is not wrong to believe that there could be many more prisoners, who are being held in detention like this, as there are no bail provisions made available under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). According to the state, these prisoners are held for aiding or abetting acts of terror, while some others consider them as being held for political reasons.

My personal experience as a detainee in 1985 under the PTA, for having a discussion with a leader of Peoples’ Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), in which I emphatically refused to form an organisation similar to theirs in the south, was not different. Until my detention was politically and legally challenged, I was held without charges. Since the enacting of the PTA in the 1970s, many civil society organisations, political parties and groups both local and overseas have demanded for its repeal. The PTA provides the state and its security apparatus wide-ranging powers to search and arrest people and hold them in detention. Evidence appears to be available that the PTA has been used inappropriately as the vague definition of an act of terror is used to disadvantage people and communities. The impunity the state has provided to its security personnel and its paramilitaries has made the situation worse and intractable. This impunity and lack of accountability of the part of the state has led to the plague of family bandyism, nepotism, authoritarianism, corruption and murder.

The election campaigns conducted by the President in January 2015, and by the Prime Minister led coalition in August 2015 discussed the issue of releasing all political prisoners. Later on the new regime also agreed to release them. However, recently the Cabinet spokesperson and the Minister for Justice of the Sri Lankan government have reiterated that there are no political prisoners in Sri Lanka’s jails. This is strange when the very same persons have recognised the fact that the 30 year armed conflict occurred due to political causes that have been affecting the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. There are about 300 suspects held in detention for allegedly aiding or abetting acts of terrorism during this period. According to the government sources, the detainees against whom there is direct evidence of involvement in acts of terror, would be prosecuted as early as possible. The recent hunger strike ended after about a week, and President appears to have pledged to deal with this issue soon.

During the armed conflict, tens of thousands of Tamils had been detained in prisons, camps and police stations. Some Sinhalese, who had been arrested for the same reasons also faced similar abusive treatment. The Sri Lankan government has always contested the use of the term political prisoners for those whom it had detained. However, all those arrested under the PTA and the Emergency Regulations have been described as such. The detainees currently held have been suspected of aiding or abetting the activities of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Obviously, the LTTE had its political goals, despite it having carried out acts of terror against many civilians and combatants. They had taken up arms for the broader cause of establishing a separate state, which they believed to be the only way to achieve fairness and justice for Tamils in Sri Lanka. Obviously, this has been a political cause. Despite the government’s rejection, the detainees, their families, opposition political parties, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the media have continued to identify them as political prisoners.

This is not the first time, Sri Lanka has gone through situations of this kind. Sri Lanka held close to 50,000 suspects during the JVP uprising in 1971. There have been many others, who had been held in the 1988-89 period, despite the alleged procedures some security personnel had followed, of “not taking any prisoners”. The civil society, organisations and prominent individuals, particularly individuals such as late Ven Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayaka Thero and late Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya, OMI had appealed to stop following the process of “not taking any prisoners” in non-combat situations. During the 30 year armed conflict, the alleged dictum of some security personnel was again, “not taking any prisoners”. With many in the south justifying this process of elimination, the voices for sparing the lives of those taken into custody was minimal during this time. Despite this “not taking any prisoners” process, many other security personnel had taken thousands into custody and they had been held in detention in locations all over the island.

As the history has witnessed, the actions being taken by civil society, the state and the detainees themselves contributed to resolving the complex situation and issues that had arisen as a result of the uprising in April 1971. There was domestic and international pressure to release political prisoners held in detention. Many local organisations based in the south of Sri Lanka, including the Civil Rights Movement led by Ms Suriya Wickremasingha and PC Desmond Fernando and the Ceylon Mercantile Union led by comrade Bala Tampoe were behind this campaign. Internationally, many human rights organisations led by Amnesty International, campaigned for the release of political prisoners.

There are certain similarities of the current situation to what existed in April 1971, but at the same time there are certain differences. The arguments raised by the government then was not dissimilar to those raised by the previous and current regime regarding the prisoners held in detention. During the seventies, the government insisted that there were no political prisoners, and that only those who aided and abetted terrorist acts were being held in detention. Nonetheless, with the political opposition gaining ground in the country led to the triumph of the idea that those detainees and even those who had been convicted, had fought for an economic political cause; they were held for political reasons; and therefore they were political prisoners. If the same criteria are applied, the Tamil prisoners that are being held in detention for a long time, had also fought for a nationalist political cause, they have been held for political reasons and therefore, they are also political prisoners.

A major difference in the two situations is that most of the leaders of the April 1971 uprising had been held in detention; and that they had been able to lead the campaign for the release of political prisoners; while in the current situation, almost no leader of the LTTE is held in detention. Most of them had been killed during the armed conflict and the rest have become identified with the Sri Lankan state. One could question the ethical aspect of holding rank and file members in detention while their leaders have remained scot-free. Many domestic and international organisations have been asking the Sri Lankan government to release these Tamil political prisoners. Locally, the pressure to release these prisoners comes mainly from the Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka or in the diaspora. Recently, Tamil political party leaders and certain Sinhala activists held protests calling on the government to release those prisoners that are being kept detained. Certain Tamil civil society and political groups organised protest actions in the north and east and also in Colombo, with relatives and friends of the detainees playing a prominent role. Internationally, most of the human rights organisations has been demanding the release of these detainees.

I can recollect the judicial strategy the then government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike adopted in 1971. The Criminal Justice Commissions Act (CJC Act) the then government enacted, required the accused to prove that they were innocent, rather than the prosecution proving that they are guilty. This process allowed the creation of several expedited trials. Leaders of the insurrection were tried at a separate “Main CJC Trial”. Some were convicted; some were released, while many were subjected to lighter sentences for assisting the CJC in the trial. For those who had not been categorised as leaders of the uprising, the state encouraged them to plead guilty by pledging to limit convictions to suspended sentences. As happens after the failure of any insurrection, chaos prevailed at the time, and many held in detention agreed to plead guilty. They were either released or given suspended sentences.

Even those convicted by the CJC were either pardoned or released when the Parliament repealed the CJC Act. This was again due to the actions of civil society, political groups and many other individuals that opposed the violation of rule of law and the injustices committed under the imposition of state of emergency and the CJC provisions. One of the major campaign issues during the July 1977 parliamentary elections was that of the political prisoners that had been detained or convicted under the CJC Act. The traditional left parties supported Mrs Bandaranaike during the election campaign. However, the main opposition led by the United National Party won the elections gaining 140 of the 168 seats. The SLFP won only eight seats and the traditional left won none. Soon after the formation of the new government the CJC Act was repealed under the Criminal Justice Commissions (Repeal) Law (No. 12 of 1977).

In 1989, President Ranasinghe Premadasa lifted the state of emergency that was imposed in 1983 allegedly to counter the LTTE led armed struggle. He also arranged to release more than 200 political prisoners that were being held without trial under the emergency regulations. Later on many more political prisoners were also freed and included some of the Sinhala political prisoners that had been detained under the emergency laws.

Currently, about 300 Tamil political prisoners detained under the PTA are said to be held in jails across the island. The recent hunger strike by Tamil political prisoners was to demand their immediate release. They called upon the government to pardon them or to provide them with an acceptable solution. Apparently, President of Sri Lanka has instructed the relevant authorities to accelerate the judicial process dealing with these detainees. The Prime Minister is said to be awaiting a report from the Attorney General’s Department to take action on Tamil political prisoners.

As pledged during the election campaigns this year and later on as agreed by the new government, it is time to take practical action to show the Sri Lankan Government’s genuineness towards reconciliation. As many previous regimes have done before, the President has the power to make an executive decision to immediately release all political prisoners held in detention. In cases where this is not possible at all, the President can direct the Attorney General to prioritise and expedite the judiciary process so that these prisoners could be indicted and granted bail, or released immediately.

In spearheading this campaign to release political prisoners and to take steps to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, civil society leaders and political organisations in the south that are genuinely committed to good governance should take charge, while collaborating with Tamil civil society organisations and political leaders. The President should consider granting amnesty to or pardon all political prisoners as a goodwill gesture towards reconciliation of all communities in Sri Lanka. As Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister stated recently at the United Nations Human Rights Council, let us set an example of upholding the universal values of equality, justice, and freedom by fostering reconciliation between communities and securing a political settlement. Let us design, define and create our future by our hopes and aspirations, and not be held back by the fears and prejudices of the past.

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Latest comments

  • 8

    PTA should be scrapped and I am in agreement.

    In addition brutality by Police and armed forces should be death with immediately.

    All political prisoners should be released immediately if charges cannot be brough up say within 3 months.

    The prisons should be upgraded and over crowding must be stopped.

    Can the yahapalanaya deliver on its promises?

  • 8

    The JVP WAS sinhalese,so no problem.The 300 odd prisoners are Tamils.

    Therefore,the usual discriminatory practice will cloud their release!

    • 0

      There are Sinhalese too who had been arrested under PTA and incarcerated for more than their requirement

  • 5

    It appears the government is not sincere in its attitude towards achieving genuine reconciliation. Otherwise how could it justify detaining any suspect beyond the legal 18 months even under the draconian PTA? I wonder why none of the Tamil lawyers have raised this issue at the courts!
    I suppose the government wants to continue the detention of most of these Tamil political prisoners in order to justify arresting a handful of foot soldiers under pretext of ‘maintaining a balance’ in their prosecutions!
    The TNA for its part should not bother about these fake ‘accountability’ matters and instead concentrate on matters affecting the living, such as release of the Tamil political prisoners, release of lands grabbed by the military, re-settlement of the displaced, getting down the refugees languishing in the Indian refugee camps, demilitarisation and empowering the provincial council. Let them leave the matter of accountability to the Sri Lankan government, the UNHCR and the international community to sort out!
    Sengodan. M

  • 3

    Thank you Lionel. Very good article. I Iwish someone can persuade Mr.Champika Ranawake to acknowledge and appreciate the necessity and support this cause to bring people together, build trust and put the past behind to move forward. Hope this will happen soon before people get disappointed and disillusioned. Regards

  • 3

    It would be nice to believe that the CJC Act was repealed in response to the struggle by civil society and political activists to correct the injustices of that time and conform to the rule of law but the fact is thet it was repealed because it had been used to imprison some well known members of the elite closely connected to the UNP, for massive exchange control fraud and its repeal was the easiest way to release them.
    What is surprising about our legal system is that unlike in other countries time spent in detention is not offset against the sentences imposed. The CBK bomb accused were imprisoned for 300 years but with having to serve 30 years last month but no allowance was given for the over 20 years that they had already served in detention.

  • 2

    The problem goes much further than political prisoners. The problem is that NO ONE takes any notice of the law. So whatever laws we have are a JOKE and are not implemented. Everyone is VERY happy about this because ALL break the law. The police and the judicial system are the worst offenders.

  • 2

    Whilst this analysis has all the legal points, one wonders what the Minister for
    Dialouge could have done or should have done. The Justice Minister is
    prejudiced on the matter, as he led a protest to the UN on the request (hidden threat
    of Tax files?) at the demand of MR.

    The UNHCR co-sponaored Resolution is clear on the matter of PTA and Political Prisoners –
    so action is necessary and hunger-protest is not called for.

  • 4

    Excellent article. Thanks.

    Our ’eminent lawyers’ including Sampanthan andSumanthiran must read this article and take notes. A Tamil translation should be given to the Tamil detainees so that they won’t be deceived by Sumanthiran and Sampanthan when they visit next.

    So far these lawyers do not know the basic information such as 1. Number of Tamil detainees in each prison 2. Their date of arrest 3. Charged and taken to Courts or not 4. How many not charged 5. How many charged under PTA. No govt official is giving the correct information. A.G Dept says 217 persons detained whereas Justice Minister says 300, .Prison Dept does not Say anything. There is no answer to the rest. This shows no one is sincere to bring this matter to an end.

    I fully agree with Sengodan.M above.

  • 1

    Even after the domestic investigation was announced some Tamils ran away in speed boats to Tamilnadu.

    LTTE cadres are still in Jffna.

    Scrap the PTA. Present govt won’t get that much political power to re-establish one one. the result will be newly established LTTE will run havoc in the north.

  • 1

    Bopaga was an arch anarchist cum Terrorist, its ideology belongs to JVP politics of petty bourgeoisies an opportunism. JVP has become political parasites of Terrorism in south of Sri Lankan since 1965.
    The damage of JVP has gone to 50 y

    Bopage played leading role of spreading terrorism in Sri Lankan soil ,due by his role played by leading part in 1971 April 5th insurrection ,that 15,000 to 20,000 youth lost their life for ever.

    Bopage escaped form struggle and hide in Temple ,by given orders to attacks to police stations on 5th April 1971.The man who set fine example others of betraying their own anarchist cause ,now he want revive Terrorism by supporting to repel PTA in Sri lanka.

    See how is that excellent anarchist like Bopage working in oversees by encouraging Terrorism! An Island of Sri lanka!

    Well same man appear on behalf of LTTE-Tamil Terrorist.

    Now while he talk on abolished or repeal that PTA and Emergency Regulations of Public Security Act in favors of LTTE Tamil Terrorist who had been killed civilians-hundred thousands – people of an Island.

    National security is the pillars of democracy and is only key weapon to eliminated Terrorism in any kind by elected government by majority people of country.

    Why that Bopage want repeal PTA?

    He is man who escaped from Sri Lankan to oversees now keeping high standards of life in aboard. And preaching ideology of Terrorism of many kinds. And for Humankind ?

    He like to that see many Terrorists who are working and disorder society by anarchist politics that undermined DEMOCRACY ONCE AND FOR ALL–SRI LANKA.

    • 0

      Interesting. Modern day ‘humanists’ with a black past.

      We suffered thirty years of terrorism by an internal enemy, and the PTA was an essential piece of legislation in it’s control. It may have been misused to an extent. The US Patriot Act, which was presented to Congress within days of 9/11 (it had been sitting collecting dust till then, ? in anticipation) and it is still the law long after the event. Yet the same country wants us to repeal our PTA, while they themselves have taken to using terrorists (funded, trained and armed by them) to destroy nations in the ME. It does not pass the smell test.

      • 2


        “We suffered thirty years of terrorism by an internal enemy, and the PTA was an essential piece of legislation in it’s control.”

        Actually we suffered terrorism for 43 years from 5th April 1971 to 8th January 2014.

        PTA was another recruiting seargent for terrorists.

      • 1

        It is unfortunate that “Ram” does not appear to be aware of the disastrous situation, the US anti-terror legislation (such as The US Patriot Act) has created today in the USA and the world. Without genuinely addressing the issues that lead to peoples’ unrest and individual and/or group acts of terror in a country or world-wide, simply enacting and implementing anti-terror legislation using the state machinery would aggravate the circumstances and may lead to explosive situations.

  • 1

    People like Jim Softly and Milton who wrote the above comments are obviously Sinhala chauvinists. They think they are safe along with their families. They don’t care if innocent guys languish in jail, some of them for almost 20 years. After all these prisoners are Tamils.
    If there is a situation where their own family members are kept in jail on mere suspicion,without any trial, then they will realize how inhuman it is.
    SriLanka will NEVER see peace or prosperity by antagonizing the minorities. If you know history of the world you will no that no power can last eternally. Sinhala Buddhist hegemony cannot be different

  • 1

    Most of the detainees who held under PTA are from poor families.all with connections and money have found their way out after bribing and did the needful are all released.poor with out money awaiting for mercy from srisena and ranil.

  • 1

    Instead of dealing with the discussion of the situation and the issues I have raised in this article; the manner previous regimes has addressed the issue of political detainees, and the ways the government may use the current situation to contribute towards the reconciliation of the country, its people and the diaspora. Mr “W. Milton” brings up matters that betrays his ignorance of the Sri Lankan history. I have detailed elsewhere the campaign of state terror against the JVP in the seventies, in the form of disruption, intimidation, torture, proscription, incarcerations, and disposal of dead bodies without holding post mortem examinations and the manner political and military situation developed during the period of the 1971 April uprising. For example, see “Rebellion, repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage Story” available at Vijitha Yapa Publications. For this, please refer http://www.vijithayapa.com/product/view/26687
    So let’s put aside the erroneous comments Milton makes. There are important issues facing our country that need to be discussed in a constructive manner.

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