Youth and Sports Minister and Digital Technology and Enterprise Development State Minister Namal Rajapaksa had made an inspiring speech in Parliament on June 23 on the long standing issue of Tamils who have been detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979. He told the House that some of these detainees have been in remand prisons longer than his age (35 years), with no charges having been filed against them till today. Minister Rajapaksa observed, “Among these remand prisoners were those who do not even have a case filed against them. There are a lot of LTTE suspects. There are 35 convicted prisoners who have been in remand for a longer period than the actual sentence they received. There are thirty eight prisoners whose cases are pending before the High Court for more than 20 years. They are still in remand custody.
There are 13 against whom no case has been filed. Then there are 116 who had not filed indictments after completing their trials. In this context, a large number of young lives are being ruined. Either these people need to be prosecuted, indictments filed or be rehabilitated.” Supplementing his point Justice Minister M.U.M.Ali Sabry stated that the Government is ready to make changes to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), according to a decision on 21 June by the Cabinet that has noted the need to make suitable changes to the Act to protect human rights as well as to ensure national security.
He also explained the plight of the Tamil prisoners languishing in prisons for a long time. “The Government believes that criminal charges must be brought within the law. People connected to the LTTE are in detention for a long time, some under the PTA. They may be detained in remand prison for a lengthier period, prior to being criminally charged and placed under Court ordered detention. We will look into this matter thoroughly, in particular on how to expedite legal proceedings without ethnic or religious bias.
The Government would not gain anything by detaining people for decades or years without charge-sheeting or producing them in courts
Secondly, if there is no Court case, then we believe that the person should be freed from detention.” he had said. Subsequently, 16 Tamils convicted under the PTA and former Parliamentarian Duminda Silva who was serving a death sentence in connection with the murder of another former Parliamentarian Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra were among the 94 prisoners released under a pardon by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in view of the Poson Poya Day (June 24). All the freed Tamil detainees were convicts and not those about whom Minister Rajapaksa informed the Parliament as languishing in prisons for decades as remand prisoners and even without being charged. Yet, this seemed to be a significant change in the government’s stance towards the PTA and the Tamil prisoners detained under it. When the last government led by the United National Party (UNP) attempted to release these detainees the members of the present ruling coalition made a huge hue and cry claiming that the government was attempting to release dangerous terrorists.
Similarly when the so-called Yahapalana government took steps to replace the PTA with a new anti-terrorism law, based on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution of 2015 which that government co-sponsored, members of the current ruling coalition described it as concessions to terrorism. Yet, many were hesitant to believe that the government had changed its mind upon realization of democratic values, because of a European Parliament’s resolution on Sri Lanka which was passed on June 10.
The resolution had threatened to do away with the GSP Plus concessions awarded to Sri Lanka unless the country takes some positive steps towards human rights and reconciliation. It had specifically expressed concern about the PTA, those who have been detained under it including lawyer Hijaz Hizbulla and poet Ahnaf Jaseem as well as Shani Abeysekara, the former CID director who had been arrested under another law. As if to prove these doubts the Foreign Ministry issued a statement on July 1 saying that it has apprised the European Union (EU) of progress in specific areas of reconciliation, as part of its regular engagement and dialogue with the organization.
It said the “Ministry on 25 June, informed the EU of action underway to revisit provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, No 48 of 1979, with the study of existing legislation, past practice, and international best practices.” Besides, the EU was informed of the decision made by the Cabinet of Ministers on 21 June to appoint a Cabinet Sub-committee and an Officials Committee to assist the Cabinet Sub Committee, to review the PTA, and to submit a report to the Cabinet within three months.
Toward this end, the Officials Committee was appointed on 24 June, with senior representation from the Ministries of Justice, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Public Security; and the Attorney General’s Department, the Legal Draftsman’s Department, the Sri Lanka Police, and the Office of Chief of National Intelligence. The EU was also informed of the “granting of pardon by the President, exercising his powers in terms of Article 34 of the Constitution, to sixteen (16) former LTTE cadres convicted and serving sentence under the PTA, on 24 June.”
While implying the link between the ongoing the Third Cycle of Review of Sri Lanka in the GSP+ Monitoring Process for 2020-2021 and the actions taken in respect of the PTA and release of prisoners detained under it, the Foreign Ministry in its statement had said that it had provided to the European Commission, the comprehensive Response of the Government of Sri Lanka to the List of Follow-up Questions on the current GSP+ monitoring cycle, in adherence to the agreed timeline. So, it is the European Parliament’s resolution that has worked.
The current government in January last year withdrew the Counter Terrorism Bill, which was drafted by the previous government to replace PTA. Explaining the reasons for the withdrawal of the Bill, the then Co-Cabinet Spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardena said on January 3 that the Bill had not been drafted based on local requirements but on the influence of foreign forces. Interestingly, it was Minister of Foreign Relations Dinesh Gunawardena who had proposed the withdrawal of the Bill, according to the then Co-Cabinet spokesman.
The response of the Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil amalgam representing the North and the East to the new developments is also worth noting. The spokesman of the Alliance, M.A.Sumanthiran soon after the two ministers spoke in Parliament in favour of their longstanding demands on the prisoners and the PTA thanked them while suggesting to forget about the past.
He seemed to have referred to the vehement opposition by the members of the ruling coalition in the past against the release of these prisoners and the attempts to replace the PTA with another counter- terrorism law. He apparently had avoided mentioning the GSP issue and the political ambitions behind the speeches made by the ministers. And when Minister Namal Rajapaksa visited Jaffna for a meeting later, TNA leaders too attended it and took that opportunity too to thank the government and to make requests on the remaining prisoners.
A window of opportunity seems to have opened to foster reconciliation and also to minimize the pressures exerted by the foreign forces on the country. The government would not gain anything by detaining people for decades or years without charge-sheeting or producing them in courts, as has been stated by Ministers Namal Rajapaksa and Ali Sabry. Neither would it gain anything by sending anybody to rehabilitation centres without them being tried by a court according to the regulations issued in March.
These regulations were also mentioned in the European Parliament’s resolution. If the government has agreed to adhere to the 27 international conventions to be eligible for the GSP plus concessions as pointed out by the foreign Ministry in its statement, the country would not lose anything by implementing them. They are all about human rights, labour rights, protection of environment and good governance.
Disclaimer: Make this an opportunity for reconciliation By M S M Ayub - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view