The Sri Lankan government detained three student activists under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) on August 22. The police and the Defense Ministry confirmed the detention of the three activists – Wasantha Mudalige, convenor of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, convenor of the Bhikku (Monks) Federation, and Hashantha Jawantha Gunathilake, a member of the Kelaniya University Students’ Union. The three were arrested from a student rally in Colombo on August 18, under a 72-hour detention order while the police awaited approval for a 90-day detention order. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Defense Minister, approved the 90-day detention on August 22.
Govt sources confirm that President @RW_UNP has signed detention orders to hold @IUSFSL Convener Wasantha Mudalige, Inter Uni. Bhikku Federation Convener Galwewa Siridhamma Thero & student activist Hashan Jeewantha for 90 days without trial under #SriLanka's draconian PTA.
— JDS (@JDSLanka) August 22, 2022
Defence Minister grants permission to detain & interrogate Wasantha Mudalige, and two others for 90-days under the PTA.
— Newsfirst.lk Sri Lanka (@NewsfirstSL) August 22, 2022
The activists were picked up from a protest held by the IUSF on August 18, the first day after the emergency imposed from July 17 was lifted. Nearly 2,000 protesters at the rally raised slogans against the ‘Ranil-Rajapaksa Junta’ and the ongoing economic crisis in the country. A key demand of the students was the immediate release of anti-government protestors who were arrested under emergency measures by the state authorities in recent weeks.
Heavy police presence in Union Place, Colombo as IUSF protest proceeds to Fort against Ranil – Rajapaksa Govt#lka #SriLanka #SLnews #News1st #IUSF #Protest #Colombo #Traffic #Police pic.twitter.com/LdAd57lmd3
— Newsfirst.lk Sri Lanka (@NewsfirstSL) August 18, 2022
Soon after the march began, students were confronted by a massive contingent of police including riot control officers. The students were brutally assaulted with water cannons and tear gas.
Riot police & STF unleashed on unarmed students who were exercising their democratic right to protest, ironically against State repression! @USAmbSL @SarahHultonFCDO @EU_in_Sri_Lanka @SwissAmbLKA @GermanyinSL pic.twitter.com/EbibHdPH1j
— Mari (@EmDeeS11) August 18, 2022
Police are chasing the students through Borella junction which seemed comedic. But one side is armed with batons and tear gas canisters while the other side is unarmed, and that isn’t funny.#SriLankaProtests pic.twitter.com/IO6WaT9yaD
— Marlon Ariyasinghe (@exfrotezter) August 18, 2022
Journalists for Democracy (JDS) Sri Lanka estimated that 21 students were arrested by the police.
At least 21 activists including @IUSFSL leader were arrested by police on Thursday (18) in #Colombo:
2.Gallewé Siridamma Thero
4.Pokunuwita Piyasoma Thero
5.Thalagolle Dammaratana Thero
8.M.Rifath 1/2 pic.twitter.com/I71z7Ly11v
— JDS (@JDSLanka) August 18, 2022
While most of the arrested students have now been released on bail, the detention of the three student activists under the PTA is being decried as a new low for the Wickremesinghe government, coming after a month-long series of arrests of citizens for participating in peaceful protests.
#SriLanka @RW_UNP has unleashed a full-blown witch-hunt against the protesters: So far, 3353 activists have been arrested and 1255 still remain in remand custody under the flimsiest of charges.
31 activists were arrested Yesterday ( 21st), 6 were remanded. @MaryLawlorhrds https://t.co/tuiB5n0Crn
— Ranga Jayasuriya (@RangaJayasuriya) August 22, 2022
The PTA was enacted in 1979 under President J.R. Jayawardene. The controversial law has a history of use by consecutive governments to scuttle dissent, especially during the civil war. It was introduced as an urgent temporary bill, and was used to suppress the Tamil population and target those associated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). More recently, hundreds of Muslim youth were targeted and charged under the draconian law following the 2019 Easter bomb attacks.
The PTA has been the most debated of Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism laws due to its controversial provisions that give unfettered, extensive power to the police. Talking to NewsFirst Sri Lanka, Ambika Satkunathan explained that the law enables human rights violations like torture and arrest without warrant. She says, “Once detained under PTA, the accused can be detained for 90 days without being produced in front of the magistrate. Moreover, a confession made to to a police officer is admissible which leaves room for using torture to extract confessions.”
A 2020 study conducted by the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission on prisons highlighted that prisoners under the PTA category are more vulnerable than others. In January this year, former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa published a bill to amend the PTA. However, according to several experts, the bill left out crucial elements that were undemocratic. In its February 2022 report on the PTA, Human Rights Watch highlighted the Sri Lankan government’s prolonged use of the law to carry out arbitrary detentions and torture.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka also criticized the arrests of the student activists, saying that “The recent iteration of the PTA has been grossly manipulated to exert tyranny through undemocratic methods and to justify the wrongful arrest of protestors.”
The Commission firmly informs that no suspect exercising their fundamental rights under the Constitution should be wrongly treated as a terrorist.”
— Meera Srinivasan (@Meerasrini) August 22, 2022
Global condemnation of arrests
In a statement, Amnesty International South Asia Director Yamini Mishra said that using the PTA against peaceful protestors was “weaponizing of an already highly-criticized law, which should be repealed immediately.”
The PTA has a long history of abuse in Sri Lanka, and this development shows precisely why both local and international actors have been calling for its repeal. Time and time again, the Act has been used as a tool to silence government critics, journalists and minorities.”
— Amnesty International South Asia (@amnestysasia) August 22, 2022
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor had also expressed concerns regarding the arrests and urged President Wickremesinghe not to sign their detention order requested by the police.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung, along with her Canadian and EU counterparts, took to Twitter to condemn the move which she claimed promoted the breach of universal human rights and erosion of democracy in the island nation.
Using laws that don’t conform with international human rights standards – like the PTA – erodes democracy in Sri Lanka. We encourage the government to uphold the rights of the people to express their views.
— Ambassador Julie Chung (@USAmbSL) August 22, 2022
Concerned about reports on the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in recent arrests as we refer to information given by #GoSL to the International Community about the de-facto moratorium of the use of #PTA
— EU in Sri Lanka (@EU_in_Sri_Lanka) August 22, 2022
Suppression of dissent continues
In its first few weeks in power, the government of President Wickremesinghe has faced increasing criticism for its scuttling of dissent and brutal repression of protests in the national capital, Colombo. State authorities and the police have launched a spate of “witch-hunt” arrests targeting citizens who have been associated with the mass anti-government protests that ousted President Rajapaksa last month.
The emergency rule placed broad and disproportionate power in the hands of the executive. Some of the arrests were made under new regulations promulgated by President Wickremesinghe on July 17, which attach far harsher punishments than those already mentioned in the penal code.
Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis
While Wickremesinghe prepares for staff-level agreement talks with the IMF scheduled to begin on August 24, the inflation rate in the country is set to touch 66.7% in August. The overall rate of inflation as measured by the National Consumer Price Index (NCPI) was reported to be 66.7%, compared to 58.9% in June, according to figures provided by the Department of Census and Statistics. Domestic food inflation rose to a record 82.5% in July from 75.8% in June.
The economic crisis in Sri Lanka continues to be at the heart of the problems being faced by its citizens. Nandalal Weerasinghe, governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank, told the media on August 18 that the economic crisis in the country could lead to at least an 8% contraction in the economy, much more than the 3.6% contraction seen in the pandemic year.