Sri Lankan human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah released after 20 months 

Hizbullah was arrested in April 2020 and accused of being involved in the 2019 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. His release comes at a time when there is mounting global pressure on the Rajapaksa government to reform the existing anti-terror law in the country

February 21, 2022 by Shriya Singh
Hejaaz Hizbullah Sri Lanka
(Photo: via Colombo Gazette)

After more than 20 months in pre-trial detention under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in Sri Lanka, human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah was granted bail in an ongoing trial by the Court of Appeal on February 7. The Puttalam High Court had denied him bail on January 28.

Hizbullah, a prominent minority and civic rights advocate, was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police in April 2020 in the 2019 Easter suicide bombings case, a series of terror attacks in Colombo which killed around 300 people. Hizbullah was accused of “aiding and abetting” one of the suicide bombers with whose family he had been previously associated as a legal counsel.

PTA in Sri Lanka: A law requiring urgent reforms

Under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1979, any “suspect” can be placed in detention without charge and without being produced before a judge. The detention order can be renewed for a further 90 days and continue to be renewed for up to 18 months. 

Highlighting that the fundamental nature of the PTA violates basic human rights, activist Ambika Satkunanathan wrote in The Morning, “The entrenched nature of the abuse of persons arrested under the PTA is illustrated by the near identical pattern of abuse over decades. For instance, those arrested in relation to the Easter attacks in 2019 suffered abuses similar to those arrested for LTTE-related offenses two decades ago.” 

The most controversial provision of the anti-terror law is that it allows confessions made to an Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) and above to be admitted as evidence. The existence of this provision has led to torture of several persons to extract confessions, a fact well documented by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. In Hizbullah’s case, such confessions (including from people who worked with him as well as two minors) extracted through torture were allegedly used to fabricate false charges against the lawyer.

Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reads, “anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.” During his nearly two years of ordeal, Hizbullah was denied access to his lawyers and denied trial for more than a year. In July 2021, Amnesty International declared Hizbullah “a prisoner of conscience” for being targeted for his work with the minority Muslim community in the country. 

In the aftermath of the bombings and attacks on churches, anti-Muslim riots erupted in Sri Lanka. The then government led by president Maithripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed to the press that an Islamist group, the National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ), was responsible for the attacks. Muslims, who make up about 10% of Sri Lanka’s nearly 22 million population, saw targeted violence and attacks on their properties, houses and businesses in the months following the church attacks.  

While the initial charges were dropped as the police was unable to provide evidence of Hizbullah’s role, fresh charges of creating “racial divide” were imposed on him under the PTA. In 2021, the draconian act was expanded by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government to introduce a regulation that allows two-years of detention without trial for causing “religious, racial, or communal disharmony.” For a government that came to power by stoking religious sentiments in the charged environment of the post-Easter bombings two years ago, the regulation makes the PTA a convenient tool to easily target racial and religious minorities like Tamils and Muslims.

Global call to reform PTA

In its World Report 2022, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted the methods of prolonging arbitrary detention and torture under the PTA in Sri Lanka, which has continued for the past 43 years. Successive regimes in the island nation have used the notorious law to varying degrees as a tool to suppress dissent.

On January 21, the Rajapaksa government released a gazette notification proposing amendments to the PTA. The new amendments have been criticized at home and abroad and condemned as mere “eyewash”. Opposition parties in Sri Lanka like the Tamil National Alliance have called for the repeal of the law which has at least 400 people under arrest currently.

However, despite criticisms, the amendment bill was tabled in the Sri Lankan parliament on February 10 as the government continues to defend them as the “most progressive step” that will provide tangible protection to the persons detained under PTA.

A 2020 report by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that by September 2018, at least 29 PTA prisoners had spent five to 10 years in pretrial detention, and 11 had spent 10 to 15 years in similar detention. The commission’s report said that the longest period a person had been in remand before trial was 15 years.