Sri Lanka on Tuesday defended its proposed amendments to the draconian counter-terrorism law as the ”most progressive step” towards securing and protecting the fundamental rights of its citizens.
The foreign ministry in a statement said the proposed bill to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which the government intends to introduce in parliament and upon it being passed into law, would be a salutary piece of legislation that would give persons tangible protection.
After 43 years since it was enacted, ”it would be the most progressive step that would give persons subject to the said law, tangible protection towards securing, advancing and protecting their fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution.” The statement comes as Sri Lanka was due to meet the EU sub committee on human rights in Geneva later on Tuesday.
A Sri Lankan court on Monday granted bail to long-held prominent human rights lawyer and activist Hejaaz Hizbullah, who was arrested under PTA on April 14, 2020 for suspected links to the 2019 Easter attacks which killed 270 people, including 11 Indians. He was held without being charged.
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Sri Lanka is under pressure from the EU to reform the controversial PTA which allows detention up to 90 days without being charged with provisions for further extension of the time.
The government had on January 27, by a gazette notification, announced amendments to PTA, which the officials described as its bid to make the draconian law fall in line with international standards of counter-terror legislation.
The foreign ministry defended the proposed changes saying that they included steps such as the reduction of the period of detention, magistrates visiting the places of detention to eliminate torture, lawyers to be given access to detainees, allow communication with relatives, to expedite hearing of cases and the introduction of a new section to allow bail for PTA detainees.
However, the rights groups remain skeptical. The European Parliament in June 2021 had called for the repeal of the PTA and invited the European Union (EU) Commission to consider temporarily withdrawing Sri Lanka’s access to GSP+, a favoured trade concession for the island’s exports.
The resolution adopted then recalled that “one of the key commitments of Sri Lanka was to fully align its counter-terrorism legislation with international human rights conventions”.
It urged the European Commission to “use the GSP+ as a leverage to push for advancement on Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations.” Senior EU officials visited the island nation in October last year and discussed the PTA, recalling that its amendment was a key commitment in readmitting Sri Lanka to the GSP+ in 2017.
GSP+ preferences for Sri Lanka were withdrawn in 2010 due to significant shortcomings in the country’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions.
Sri Lanka was readmitted to GSP+ in May 2017. The EU’s GSP+ trade concession allows Sri Lankan exports to Europe without taxation. This has been a big boost to Sri Lanka’s apparel and fishing industries.
The EU remains Sri Lanka’s biggest exports partner followed by the US and India. Over 80 per cent of Sri Lanka’s exports to the EU are eligible for GSP+ concessions.