The Sri Lankan government lifted strict wartime emergency laws Tuesday night, but introduced new regulations under the Prevention of Terrorism Act allowing it to continue holding suspects detained during the state of emergency.
Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem said Wednesday that about 1,200 people detained under the emergency laws will likely be freed soon.
But hours later, Attorney General Mohan Peiris said no suspects will be released and there is no change even though the emergency has been allowed to lapse. He said new regulations under the PTA will allow the government to keep an undisclosed number of these suspects in custody.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced the move to end the emergency rule in a speech to Parliament last week. The president said he made the decision because there was no longer a need for such laws since the country’s civil war between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels ended in May 2009 with the rebels’ defeat. He said abolishing the restrictions would help the country move ahead in a democratic way.
Supporters of scrapping the laws say that ending the emergency has symbolic significance for Sri Lanka, where an entire generation has grown up with tough wartime regulations. They also insist that it is a positive first step in restoring a sense of normalcy after nearly three decades of conflict.
But critics doubt whether the move will restore political and civil rights in a country where the human rights record has been under international scrutiny. They say it is meant to placate international opinion ahead of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in September in Geneva that is expected to discuss the rights situation in Sri Lanka.
The emergency orders gave security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.
Rights groups have long criticized the laws, saying authorities used them to censor and crack down on opposition activists, journalists and trade unionists. They also charge that tens of thousands of Tamil civilians disappeared in the last weeks of the war and that the government continues to discriminate against the Tamil minority and stifles dissent. The government denies the charges.