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Govt. should withdraw Counterterrorism Bill – HRW



The government of Sri Lanka’s proposed Anti-Terrorism Act would empower the authorities to systematically violate fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch has said.

In a statement, the HRW said “The government should withdraw the bill and ensure through consultations that any counterterrorism legislation upholds international human rights standards.”

The statement further notes :

The government pledged to adopt an improved law following domestic and international criticism of abuses under existing counterterrorism legislation. But instead of addressing the problems, the bill would expand the definition of terrorism to include crimes such as property damage, theft, or robbery, and restrict the rights to freedom of assembly and speech.

“The proposed counterterrorism law would permit the Sri Lankan government to continue to use draconian measures to silence peaceful critics and target minorities,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s crackdown on dissent and misuse of existing counterterrorism laws to arbitrarily detain protesters highlights the obvious risk of abuse.”

The Anti-Terrorism Bill, which was published on March 22, 2023, is intended to replace the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which led to widespread torture and arbitrary detentions since its introduction in 1979. While the new bill contains some improvements, it includes provisions that will facilitate abuse. The bill appears designed to give the president, police, and military broad powers to detain people without evidence, to make vaguely defined forms of speech a criminal offense, and to arbitrarily ban gatherings and organizations without meaningful judicial oversight.

In response to criticism from Sri Lankan activists and lawyers, the United Nations Human Rights Council, foreign governments, and the European Union, successive Sri Lankan governments have repeatedly promised to repeal and replace the PTA with rights-respecting legislation.

The Anti-Terrorism Bill is largely based on proposals presented in 2018, when Sri Lanka’s current president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was prime minister. The 2018 bill was criticized over human rights concerns and was not enacted. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe recently expressed satisfaction with the new draft and told journalists that “we won’t make any major change to the current version.”

In 2021, the UN independent expert on human rights and counterterrorism set out five “necessary perquisites” to ensure that Sri Lanka’s counterterrorism law complies with international rights standards. They include providing an appropriate definition of terrorism, ensuring precision and legal certainty, provisions to prevent arbitrary detention, measures that adhere to the absolute prohibition on torture, and due process and fair trial guarantees including judicial oversight. The Anti-Terrorism Bill does not fully meet any of these standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Its definition of terrorism is vague and overbroad and can include peaceful protest or acts that, while criminal, do not rise to the level of any reasonable definition of terrorism. Offenses include participation in certain “unlawful” assemblies if the aim is to “intimidate” the public or “wrongfully” compel the government to act in a certain way, as well as “theft” or “robbery” of government or private property, even if these acts are not intended to cause death or serious harm. The government is currently facing strikes, including by public sector workers. In 2022, the authorities used counterterrorism powers to arbitrarily detain three student leaders after widespread protests over corruption and misgovernance forced both the president and prime minister to resign.

While under the PTA, the authorities can detain a suspect for up to a year on orders signed by the defense minister, the proposed bill gives the authority to issue detention orders to deputy inspector generals of police, increasing risk of abuse. The police could take a detainee from pretrial detention back into police custody, and the defense secretary could transfer a detainee to the custody of “any authority.” This puts suspects at greater risk of torture and other ill-treatment, as abuses under the current law demonstrate.

The proposed bill grants police and military sweeping powers to stop, question, search, and arrest anyone, or seize any document or object without a warrant, if they believe they have “reasonable grounds.” The military, which is not trained in law enforcement, would have 24 hours to transfer a detainee to police custody, placing detainees at greater risk of abuse.

It also provides the president power to issue regulations for “rehabilitation” programs if the attorney general has decided to defer or suspend prosecution. The attorney general could then “impose” “voluntary” rehabilitation on a person who has not been convicted of any crime. In 2021, the Supreme Court stayed similar regulations. The authorities have long committed human rights violations against people accused of terrorism or of drug use, who are incarcerated without trial in government “rehabilitation” programs.

The president, on the advice of the police or military, would be authorized to declare any location a “prohibited place,” with up to three years in prison for violations. This appears to be an attempt to prevent a repetition of the largely peaceful 2022 protests in the capital, Colombo. The government had declared “high security zones” under the Official Secrets Act, which were withdrawn following widespread condemnation.

The bill expands broad powers to criminalize speech that is “likely to be understood” as encouragement or inducement to commit or prepare for terrorism, with the burden of proof on the defendant to show that was not their intention. These offenses also apply to those who publish, distribute, sell, or transmit “terrorist publications,” which could have a further chilling effect. In the past, the government has used the PTA to detain people who commemorated Tamil victims of Sri Lanka’s civil war on social media on the grounds that they were “glorifying” terrorism, which is also an offense under these proposals.

The president would be authorized to ban an organization if authorities have “reasonable grounds” to believe it is acting in a manner “prejudicial to the national security of Sri Lanka, or any other country.” In the past, the government has proscribed Tamil diaspora organizations advocating for human rights and accountability as “terrorist organizations,” and human rights organizations have faced government interference in their banking and finances on the pretext of countering “terrorist financing.”

The bill provides for the death penalty for the terrorism offense of murder, although Sri Lanka has observed a moratorium on executions since 1976. Sri Lanka should abolish the death penalty, which Human Rights Watch opposes in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and finality.

The bill includes some new due process protections, including that confessions to the police will not be admitted as evidence, and that female suspects should be searched by women officers. There are new procedures for reporting and notifying the reason for an arrest, providing access to translations of documents in a language a detainee understands, and presenting a detained person before a magistrate every 14 days. It also clarifies the procedures that a magistrate should follow if a detainee appears to have been tortured.

However, the two ostensibly independent entities proposed under the bill, the Board of Review to hear appeals against detention orders, and the Independent Review Panel to advise on rights-respecting implementation of the law, would not be independent by law.

Until new counterterrorism legislation that upholds human rights is drafted, the government should impose a full moratorium on the use of the PTA and take steps to repeal it, Human Rights Watch said.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have offered repeated assurances to the EU that they would uphold rights commitments, including by repealing the PTA, in exchange for tariff-free trade access under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+). The trade access is conditioned to the ratification and effective implementation of key human rights treaties. In its latest monitoring report, the European Commission said that Sri Lanka “still has to deliver on a number of important reforms.”

Sri Lanka’s international partners, including the United States, EU, Japan, India, and others should press for genuine reforms to ensure this bill meets Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said. The EU should make it clear that replacing the present counterterrorism law with similarly abusive legislation does not address its concerns and could affect Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status.

“The Anti-Terrorism Bill needs to be seen both in light of Sri Lanka’s abusive history of counterterrorism powers and the current government’s repression of peaceful dissent,” Ganguly said. “Sri Lanka’s international partners should make it absolutely clear that they will not reward this abuse with trade preferences and other support.”


New evidence surfaces on health ministry’s controversial emergency procurement scheme




More documentary evidence has emerged on the Health Ministry’s disastrous “fast-track” emergency procurement scheme that led to counterfeit drugs entering public sector hospitals.

Letters between key officials show the plan was in place as early as September last year. That month, a Health Ministry Additional Secretary wrote to the Deputy Director General of the Medical Supplies Division (MSD) stating that it was decided at a meeting chaired by former Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella to buy drugs using the Indian credit line (ICL) through private suppliers.

The purchase would be under an “emergency procurement method”, it said, adding that pending orders must be disregarded.

This meant that, even if required stocks were on the way, the Health Ministry would farm out additional contracts under the ICL to handpicked suppliers. And it would be done through a new system that a small coterie of officials—with the Health Minister’s endorsement—had floated to facilitate walk-in, unsolicited offers from unvetted suppliers, bypassing the national drug regulatory process.


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Tsunami Alert Lifted 




The Philippines lifted a tsunami alert early on Sunday as waves receded from a magnitude 7.4 earthquake that struck the south of the country, triggering coastal evacuations and some waves in there and in Japan.

There were no initial reports of casualties or serious damage from the quake in the Mindanao region, although some residents reported damage to buildings in the area, which is less populated than some parts of the archipelago.

More than 500 aftershocks were recorded, and the Philippines’ Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) urged caution as people resumed normal activities.

“The tsunami threat associated with this earthquake has now largely passed the Philippines,” Phivolcs said in a statement but advised people in threatened communities to heed the instructions from local authorities.

It had earlier urged people living near the coast of Surigao Del Sur and Davao Oriental provinces to move inland.

The national disaster said it was assessing the impact of the quake, with a team on the ground collating information.

The Philippine Coast Guard put all its vessels and aircraft on alert for potential dispatch.

“We started going back to our homes early on Sunday, although we are still shaking because of aftershocks,” Julita Bicap, 51, a front desk staffer at GLC Suites hotel in the seaside town of Bislig, said after power was restored around 5 a.m. (2100 GMT)

“There are aftershocks even now. Last night we were at the evacuation centre including my two foreigner guests. One of them came back to the hotel already,” Bicap told Reuters, adding that she noticed a small crack in the hotel’s front wall.

The largest aftershock was magnitude 6.5, according to the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre.

Earthquakes are common in the Philippines, which lies on the “Ring of Fire”, a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is prone to seismic activity.

Scores of residents were seen in an evacuation centre in photographs posted on social media by the authorities in Hinatuan province, 30 km (20 miles) from the quake’s epicentre.

Philvolcs’ Hinatuan-Bislig Bay station recorded maximum waves of 0.64 metre (2 feet). Japan’s Hachijojima island, some 290 km (180 miles) south of Tokyo, recorded waves of 40 cm (1.3 feet), the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

The U.S. Tsunami Warning System had initially warned of waves of up to 3 metres (10 feet) above the usual high tide level.

The quake, which struck at 10:37 p.m. (1437 GMT) on Saturday, was at a depth of 25 km (15 miles), Philvolcs said.

James Soria, who owns a small hotel in Hinatuan, said there had been significant damage to his home. “It’s shaking again here now,” he told Reuters before the call was disconnected as another aftershock hit.

Cosme Calejesan, 47, said there had been damage to his house in Surigao City 185 km (115 miles) from the epicentre, but the structure was intact.

“I was already asleep, but I was woken up by the creaking sounds of my cabinets when the tremor occurred,” he said. “It was frightening. It was sudden and abrupt and I was worried for my children.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by srilankamirror staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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President leads talks on six renewable energy projects for next year




President Ranil Wickremesinghe along with Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera and Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake has spearheaded discussions for six renewable energy projects next year.

The projects will generate over 1500 MW and transform Sri Lanka’s energy landscape. The inaugural project is a 700 MW solar power initiative, harnessing sustainable energy sources. A senior Government spokesperson said that all six projects are slated for completion within the next 12-24 months.

President Wickremesinghe initiated these discussions with the relevant parties before leaving for the United Nations International Conference on Climate Change (COP 28) in Dubai.

Presidential Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake last week held a meeting with officials to address the challenges and devise solutions to commence these ground-breaking projects.

The Ministry of Power and Energy anticipates a marked reduction in Sri Lanka’s electricity tariffs following the successful implementation of these energy projects. This is in line with the country’s broader vision for a sustainable and eco-friendly energy future.


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