Monday, June 5, 2023

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The proposed Anti-Terrorism Act – a serious attack on democratic principles

Civil Society Collective For Democracy: The government is presenting its proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) to be fast-tracked through parliament, in a context in which it has come under significant international pressure to repeal or amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).  The PTA has been widely criticized both within Sri Lanka and internationally due to its potential for abuse. Recently, three persons held under the PTA for 14 years were acquitted by the court which is but the tip of an iceberg of abuse over a very long period. 

While as members of the civil society of Sri Lanka we support the repeal of the PTA, we are concerned that the draft ATA presented by the government to replace it has several features that are worse than the PTA. These would impact on the democratic space and rights available to political parties, trade unions, and civic activists.

Among the worst features of the proposed ATA is its vague and broad definition of terrorism which would include theft of government property and trade union action.  It also includes legitimate democratic actions including protests, publishing material, demands for action by the government, strikes, and disputes relating to racial and religious places. The law permits police or military or coast guard personnel of any rank to arrest anyone on whom they have reasonable suspicion of being involved in acts such as those given above. Once a person is arrested, that person can be detained for up to 24 hours, and even more depending on the situation, in a place of the arresting party’s choosing.  The plight of a young person arrested in such a manner can be imagined.  Thereafter, if a detention order is signed by a more senior police officer, those arrested can be held for up to three months without being presented before a court of law. All these provisions demonstrate the enormous potential for abuse of this law. 

We the Civil Society Collective for Democracy strongly oppose the proposed ATA because it violates the Constitution and endangers the freedoms and human rights that are guaranteed in a democratic society.  This law is far too broad and leaves wide open who can be arrested, by whom they can be arrested, and for what purpose they are arrested.  The present economic situation in the country is very difficult for the masses of people with the economy set to contract by a further four percent this year in addition to the eight percent last year. Through no fault of the people, the country was made bankrupt by those that governed it.  We fear that the proposed ATA will be used to make the people bear the full weight of the economic burden by those who are responsible for the calamity, by suppressing the space to question, to expose and to dissent with Government. As such, it would create an environment of fear among trade unions, journalists and civil society, thereby intensifying the prevailing democratic deficit and violating the Fundamental Rights of Sri Lankans. 

Therefore, we demand that the Government withdraw the proposed ATA and honor its duty to protect democracy and the rights of citizens and to uphold its international obligations related to human rights and democratic freedoms.

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