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Speech: Tamil political prisoners and the Prevention of Terrorism Act

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 10 Nov 2015

Tamil political prisoners in Sri Lanka who have resumed their hunger strike. This time they have stated they will fast unto death if they are not released.

The international community, numerous journalists and politicians from many countries have raised the issues of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. Now it is vital that the Tamil political prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) are not forgotten. We owe it to them as well as their families'.

The hunger strike started last month with 223 Tamils Prisoners of War in Colombo, Anuradhapura, Jaffna and Kandy. I understand that the hunger strike was called off when the prisoners were given assurances the President would act by November 7. The Government has since ruled out a common amnesty for the Tamil political prisoners but says it is considering an option of bail and or rehabilitation for some.

Some of the Tamils have been in jail since 1997. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act which has been in force since 1979.

According to the BBC only 54 of the 200+ prisoners have been convicted.

Most have been imprisoned on suspicion of links with the defeated Tamil Tigers or LTTE.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act permits Sri Lankan security forces to arrest without warrant individuals suspected of "acting in any manner prejudicial to the national security or to the maintenance of public order" or having conducted "any transaction" with a person or group engaged in terrorist activities, and to detain people for up to 18 months without bringing them before a court.

A 2014 Human Rights Watch report states that: Many LTTE suspects have been held under the PTA which provides effective immunity to officials implicated in abuses.

Under the PTA, as well as under the State of Emergency in effect during the war, confessions to the police and other authorities obtained under duress are admissible unless the accused can prove that they were involuntary.

The PTA allows Sri Lankan authorities to hold detainees where they choose and to move them from place to place while under investigation, practices that increase the likelihood of torture and abuse. In only a handful of the cases reported to Human Rights Watch was the victim provided an arrest warrant or a legally valid reason for arrest; more typically they were forcibly put into vehicles and subjected to beatings. Some detainees told Human Rights Watch that rapes and sexual violence did not occur in the first and "known" places of detention, but rather after they were driven, often blindfolded, to a second, unofficial location.

Secret detention camps are a huge concern. Amnesty International spoke of secret camps in 2012 when they reported that members of the security forces have used secret places of detention to interrogate and torture detainees, some of whom have reportedly been tortured to death or extra judicially executed.

UN Human Rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has also spoken of secret and unacknowledged places of detention saying there is an urgent need to investigate reports of them.

In the much awaited report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights handed down in September 2015, recommendation 16 said: "Initiate a high-level review of the PTA and its regulations and the Public Security Ordinance Act with a view to their repeal and the formulation of a new national security framework fully complying with international law;

Recommendation 24 said: Review all cases of detainees held under the PTA and either release them or immediately bring them to trial. Review the cases of those convicted under the PTA and serving long sentences, particularly where convictions were based on confessions extracted under torture;

The UN report also talks of the scale of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka being exceptional and that in 2014 the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported a total of 12,536 complaints of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka registered over the years, the second highest number of disappearances on the list of the Working Group from any country in the world.

Human Rights Watch has also recommended that Sri Lanka Repeal the PTA, and abolish the system of detention without charge or trial.

In 2014 Amnesty International noted that the PTA has been widely criticized by Sri Lankan civil society, international monitoring organisations, and United Nations bodies.

In its report, Authority without Accountability: The Crisis of Impunity in Sri Lanka, the International Commission of Jurists documents how provisions of the PTA have resulted in arbitrary detention, contravened suspects' right to a fair trial and due process, and facilitated torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearances.

The new President in his election manifesto promised to institute constitutional amendments that would guarantee democracy to Sri Lanka. He has also spoken about reconciliation with the Tamil community.

To give true meaning to genuine reconciliation, the culture of impunity and legal limbo of Tamil political prisoners must be brought to an end.

When one considers the role of the PTA and the power security and armed forces have in Sri Lanka, one can understand why so many political prisoners are on hunger strike. Freedom from arbitrary detention is both central to contemporary human rights standards and as long-standing as the Magna Carta. 

The PTA is a blatant violation of this freedom.

The law supports the violation of basic civil liberties and renders irrelevant in Sri Lanka the right to a fair trial. In its application it has been a lesson in the selective application of extraordinary security powers and the politicisation of law enforcement.  The PTA needs to be abolished and comprehensive measures needs to be taken to deliver justice to those who have been denied it. 

Australia has a role to play in this. We should give voice to support these people who have been so abused. 

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