Freedom of expression: Sri Lanka’s ‘overbroad’ draft terrorism law threatens human rights

Rebecca RootFriday 2 June 2023

Activists and human rights organisations have claimed that a new draft of Sri Lanka’s Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) threatens citizens’ freedom of assembly and speech. ‘The proposed legislation is an insult to civil society in Sri Lanka, who have advocated for decades for legal reforms to protect human rights’, said Carolyn Nash, Asia Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA, in a statement. ‘This is far from a good faith effort on the part of the Sri Lankan authorities to improve or replace a bad law; it is an effort to shore up the government’s ability to target and silence their critics.’

Criticism has been rife in Sri Lanka since the country plunged into an economic crisis. In May 2022, as a result of low levels of foreign currency reserves, Sri Lanka defaulted on its international debt, leading to a shortage of food, fuel and power. While a $3bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund was agreed in March, half of the country’s families have already been forced to cut their children’s food intake, while thousands have fled Sri Lanka.

Protesting what they believed to be mismanagement by the government that led to the crisis, thousands of Sri Lankans gathered at the Galle Face Park in the capital, Colombo, from March to July 2022, with some making the site their home for months. The protest site became known as ‘GotaGoGama’. ‘It started because we didn’t have power, we didn’t have food, and we didn’t have gas so basically our whole lives got stopped completely’, says Shenali Perera, a young community leader and activist, who took part in the protests.

In July, protestors stormed the presidential residence and demanded President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation. After Rajapaksa resigned, he was replaced by then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who declared a state of emergency, giving police further powers, and who ordered the removal of protestors from the GotaGoGama campsite. Dozens were injured in the process. ‘The military launched a huge attack on the protestors […] from that moment people have been scattered all over the place and finding their own way to continue the struggle’, says Perera, adding that water cannons, tear gas and violence were used in the dispersal of the protestors. ‘We should not forget human rights in the face of our economic crisis’, she adds.

The draft bill requires amendment in a number of key areas to mitigate the risk of abuse

Can Yeginsu
Deputy-Chair, High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom

Following the disbanding of the camp, over 100 protestors were arrested, while others had their homes raided and were issued with travel bans. At the time, Wickremesinghe’s office stated that non-violent protests against the government would be permitted. The President denied allegations that he was ‘hunting’ protestors and said that he was taking action only against those engaged in ‘violent or terrorist’ acts.

The latest version of the ATA was published in late March and is designed to replace the current Prevention of Terrorism Act, which itself has garnered criticism both nationally and internationally because it allows for torture and arbitrary detentions. ‘There is broad consensus that the Prevention of Terrorism Act, introduced in 1979, is oppressive, inconsistent with international human rights standards, and must be repealed’, says Can Yeginsu, Deputy-Chair of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, the independent advisory body of the Media Freedom Coalition; the IBA’s Human Rights Institute is Secretariat to the Panel. ‘The ATA that the government has introduced to repeal it contains some improvements, but the bill requires amendment in a number of key areas to mitigate the risk of abuse’, adds Yeginsu, who is a barrister practising from 3 Verulam Buildings, London.

The new ATA proposes expanding the definition of terrorism to include crimes such as property damage, theft or robbery, while restricting the rights to freedom of assembly and speech and granting authorities powers to arrest anyone or seize anything without needing a warrant. Peter Almeida, Deputy General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers’ Union, says that in its current form, the draft legislation defines terrorism so broadly that the president would be able to declare and detain any organisation they see fit.

Yeginsu agrees that the draft’s ‘overbroad and vague statutory language’ is of serious concern, as is ‘the nature and breadth of the powers that would be granted to the police and the military, the very real risk of lengthy arbitrary detentions, and – of course – the issue of independent review’.

Father Amila Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and prominent activist in Sri Lanka, believes the government wants to pass the ATA as a means of unjustly protecting its power. ‘People have no freedom of democracy right now and day by day they are going to tighten all laws’, he says.

According to local media, the country’s justice minister, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, said in a statement to parliament in April that the government doesn’t intend to suggest the creation of any law that will harm the general public and that it will allow more time for discussion before presenting the final draft to parliament. ‘We have given more time now. We do not want to rush anything. Only after doing all the amendments, [will we] present it to the parliament’, stated Rajapakshe.

Human Rights Watch has called for the bill to be withdrawn altogether and urged the government to ensure that any counterterrorism legislation ‘upholds international human rights standards’. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that ‘no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention’, while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights highlights everyone’s right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Amnesty International has specifically urged the US President, Joe Biden, to ‘send a clear message’ that the bill should be overhauled or scrapped while activists told Global Insight that they plan to push back via unions and civil society organisations. The Sri Lankan Working Journalists Association, the Federation of Media Employees’ Trade Union and the Free Media Movement are just some of the national bodies that have condemned the bill. Rather than looking externally, it’s important that Sri Lankans look to themselves to change the situation and rebuild the country, says Almeida.

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