Hardly had the two-handed applause for President Wickremesinghe’s deal with the IMF for its much-awaited ‘gift’ subsided and the celebratory kiributh in some lucky people’s stomachs had already been digested, a dark cloud emerged over the horizon.
That was the new Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB) which lay beyond the horizon for a few days before the presidential announcement was made to parliament as though Sri Lanka had just discovered the original copy of the Mahavamsa.
This new legislation gazetted on March 17 would surely go down in history as Sri Lanka’s Ides of March. It was supposed to replace an earlier piece of obnoxious legislation called the Prevention of Terrorism ACT (PTA) that has been roundly condemned not only in the country of its birth but internationally too by multiple UN agencies, human rights, and other civil society organisations and respected legal associations.
Is it just coincidental that the UNP is responsible for two of the most egregious pieces of anti-terrorism legislation? The 1979 PTA intended to be a temporary law for six months, was the brainchild of Sri Lanka’s first executive president Junius (“The Genius”) Richard Jayewardene, widely known from his early political life as “Yankee Dicky” for his strong pro-US stance.
At the time the PTA was introduced, the Tamil militant movements operating in the country’s north were in their infancy, killing each other more than their intended enemy. It was the time when President Jayewardene despatched his army commander and nephew to Jaffna to go forth and wipe out northern pestilence in six months. Such was his assessment at the time of the northern threat that his Prevention of Terrorism Act was to serve more to control and trample on troublesome trade union and student movements critical of the UNP government and later to rough up political opponents. I have stories to tell, even told to me by “JR” himself, before he became president and other UNPers, but this is not the time for them.
But with the rise of Tamil militancy and increasing acts of terrorism, the law was used to deal with this northern uprising. Even years after the war ended in the military defeat of the LTTE, the PTA continued to be used despite mounting calls for it to be drastically amended or abolished.
After the 2015 defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa and coming to power of the coalition of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the “Yahapalana” government co-sponsored UNHRC Resolution 30/1. Among Sri Lanka’s commitments, was to abolish the PTA.
The architects of that co-sponsorship were Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera who even agreed to an accountability mechanism which included foreign personnel such as lawyers and investigators, to hold hearings on human rights violations and other alleged breaches of international humanitarian law.
It was during this Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration that a draft bill titled Counter-Terrorism Bill to replace the widely despised PTA was prepared and approved by the cabinet though it never reached parliament.
It was in abeyance until it is now that is. It now reappears under the stewardship of UNP leader Wickremesinghe but seemingly with added powers strengthening the president’s role.
So the original UNP-launched temporary PTA made permanent by President Jayewardene has grown into the Anti-Terrorism Bill with some grafting and redrafting under the current UNP leader and nephew of President Jayewardene.
Though I have managed to lay my hands on a copy of the equally or even more dreaded law than the horrendous PTA, reading some 90-odd pages of legalese is hardly as enjoyable as reading, for instance, Ernest Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald or that entertaining American satirist S.J. Perelman or humourist James Thurber. It takes a lot of effort and patience not to mention a couple of shots of sustenance.
But a quick glance at the 2017 draft bill and the recently gazetted draft, tells one that little has changed in safeguarding the rights and freedoms of the people, even those granted under the constitution and the rule of law, and the judiciary takes some hits with the strengthening of the hands of the police.
If at all, the horrors contained in earlier laws and draft laws have been enhanced, and the powers which the “Minister of Law and Order” were to have transferred to the president.
Under continued international pressure, Gotabaya Rajapaksa published some amendments to the PTA such as the arrest of persons without warrants and their detention without judicial supervision reduced from 18 months to 12.
But they were more cosmetic changes in a futile attempt to placate the UN Human Rights Council and the European Commission over GSP+ ( which have been repeatedly calling for the repeal of this law,) than with any consideration for those who have suffered under the dreaded legislation even though they had little or nothing to do with terrorism.
Even if the amendments were adopted, the PTA would still remain beyond the pale of any of the laws of the five “necessary prerequisites” described by the seven UN Special Rapporteurs in December 2021, to comply with international human rights standards.
The preamble to the latest attempt to control terrorism which has not been defined in any meaningful way, to begin with, makes interesting reading. It says the law will “ensure just and fair application of the system for the administration of criminal justice against terrorism.”
Why, reading this one would think the next thing these lawmakers (or law breakers) will say they will do, is to make pigs fly. The more one reads the content of the law the more one is led to believe that if it ensures “just and fair” application of the criminal justice system then this is a criminal abuse of the English language, if nothing else.
Perhaps we have sought help in drafting laws and interpreting terrorism from another Theravada Buddhist country now run by thugs in uniform in Myanmar who have desecrated the very religion that our leaders have sworn to protect and preserve at home.
Or perhaps we have turned to another master craftsman and draftsman North Korea’s Kim Jong-un who is more interested in playing around with rockets and missiles while his people eke out an existence which hopefully the Sri Lankan people will never have to suffer.
“If the provisions of the proposed law are read carefully and collectively, it is clear that they constitute a formidable tool with which a sitting government may crush dissent, citizen protests, political opposition and unleash disproportionate state responses to civil disobedience”, wrote an Attorney-at-Law recently in the local media.
Needless to say, it is happening under existing law and even laws that have been resurrected from colonial times such as the Official Secrets Act which was pulled out of the attic of forgotten things by a combination of masterminds to declare “high-security zones” which did nothing more than bring abject embarrassment to President Wickremesinghe busy between two state funerals in different parts of the world.
Ceylon/Sri Lanka has gone through many political and social troubles and even attempts to oust democratically-elected governments — from the hartal of 1953 which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake; the 1962 military-police abortive coup which sought to overthrow the elected government of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike; the 1971 insurgency by the JVP which tried to overthrow the United Front Government led by Mrs Bandaranaike and the 1987-89 JVP uprising against the UNP government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa over the presence of Indian peacekeeping troops in northern Sri Lanka.
They were all dealt with and defeated without resorting to PTAs, ATAs, CTAs and CTBs invoking emergency regulations which gave the leaders enough powers under the Public Security Act. Equally importantly the emergency had to be renewed each month by parliament.
Does Sri Lanka really need permanently entrench so-called anti-terrorist laws like the PTA just to satisfy the thirst for power and vanity of rulers like the Bourbons of France that Junius Richard Jayewardene seems to have some kind of peculiar interest in as he often referred to them and a fascination for Napoleon?
(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)