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Sri Lanka: New Terrorism Law Being Drafted

(Nov. 22, 2016) The Sri Lankan government is formulating new anti-terrorism legislation to replace the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act.  (Sri Lanka Works on Draft Counter Terrorism Legislation to Replace PTA with Technical Assistance from UN, COLOMBO PAGE (Nov. 15, 2016); Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979 (July 20, 1979, as amended by Act 10, 1982, & Act 22, 1988), South Asia Terrorism Portal.)

The government appointed a committee to create new legislation that would be consistent with respect for human rights, the rule of law, and good governance, while effectively dealing with the threat of terrorism.  (Sri Lanka Works on Draft Counter Terrorism Legislation to Replace PTA with Technical Assistance from UN, supra.)  That drafting committee has developed a framework for the law and a number of versions of a text, with technical assistance from United Nations agencies, including the U.N. Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate, which provided a specialist to review the drafts, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).  (Id.)

Background

Once the framework was drafted, it was sent to the Cabinet of Ministers; the Cabinet then requested that the framework be sent by the Prime Minister to the parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on national security.  The Cabinet decided to await input from this legislative committee before making a final decision on approving the framework.  (Id.)

Following its deliberations, the executive branch drafting committee had listed some issues that needed further discussion, including the scope of offenses to be covered in the law and a number of questions related to procedure: powers of arrest, investigation, and detention; bringing suspects before a magistrate; and rules on admissibility of evidence.  (Id.)  On November 8 and 9, 2016, a meeting was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, with the cooperation of the Office of the U.N. Resident Coordinator, to consider these matters.  Participants included the UNODC Terrorism Prevention Branch, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism Ben Emmerson, and experts from the United Kingdom.  (Id.)

Reactions to the Existing Drafts

The existing drafts of a new anti-terror law have been controversial.  Human rights activists have raised the concern that the drafts being considered are worse for civil liberties than the current Prevention of Terrorism Act.  That Act has been described as draconian by activists and members of the Tamil minority in the country; it was used to detain people indefinitely, without charges or trials.  (Sri Lanka to Bring in New Anti-Terror Law: PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, INDIAN EXPRESS (Oct. 1, 2016).)

A letter sent to Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena from 120 individuals and organizations stated “strong opposition” to the framework for the new counter-terrorism act.  (Sri Lanka Urged to Drop New Counter-Terrorism Draft Law, CEYLON NEWS (Nov. 11, 2016).)  It expressed the fear that the new legislation could “have a chilling effect on all forms of dissent.”  (Id.)  The letter went on to say of the most recent draft version of the law:

The defects of the proposed law are not a matter of mere amendments to particular clauses.  The proposed law, taken holistically, falls significantly short of what is acceptable and permissible as a counter-terror law for Sri Lanka, and therefore [we] reiterate our stance that this draft is beyond reform and must be withdrawn in its entirety. (Id.)