Student activists in Sri Lanka detained under draconian anti-terrorism law

The three activists 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 that was approved by President Ranil Wickremesinghe on August 22

August 25, 2022 by Shriya Singh
Sri Lanka student activist arrest
(Photo: via Journalists for Democracy Sri Lanka/Twitter)

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.

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.

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. 

Journalists for Democracy (JDS) Sri Lanka estimated that 21 students were arrested by the police.

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.

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.” 

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.”

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.

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.