While welcoming this month’s lifting of emergency rule, which has been intermittently enforced since 1981, the Bishop of Mannar says Sri Lanka still has a long way to go in terms of personal and religious freedom.
Bishop Rayappu Joseph is especially concerned and has spoken out strongly against the heavy military presence in the north, which he believes is overbearing.
“In the presence of the army, people are scared to gather, move around and speak,” he said. “It is a vegetable life that people are living. It is like we are still at war, with military everywhere.”
He has even intimated that there are worries for the safety of women when the army is on patrol.
“The army should stay back in barracks,” he said, otherwise he fears that the north will revert to “the time when the emergency law was still in existence and people mistrusted the government.”
He is by no means alone in his fears. Amid allegations of torture and wholesale killings, the UN Human Rights Commission was urged last week to investigate Sri Lanka’s use of military force during the closing stages of the civil war.
In addition, a wide range of rights groups including the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Asian Human Rights Commission have been long-term critics of the emergency rule which many described as “draconian.”
Ostensibly enacted to combat the Tamil rebels in their 30 year struggle for a separate homeland, the regime gave the security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.
Even when the war ended in May 2009, the law remained in force, and at least 6,000 arrests have been made under its auspices. It gave the police special powers of search, arrest and detention which the critics say were disproportionate and open to widespread abuse.
They particularly opposed the clause that allowed suspects to be held without trial for up to 18 months.
There is also widespread outrage over what is perceived as the government’s oppressive stance on media freedom. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 19 journalists and media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka since 1992.
The Messenger, an English language Catholic weekly, has taken up the cause of one of the dead, Lasantha Wickrematunge, an editor killed by gunmen on his way to work in 2009.
“Lasantha Wickrematunge was murdered in broad daylight and his killers are still at large,” it said in an editorial comment after emergency rule was lifted.
“The Prevention of Terrorism Act was used not only against terrorists and terrorist suspects,” it continued, “but also against Tamil journalists. So it is not enough to repeal these laws. There must be a genuine commitment to the fundamental rights of the people. These rights are not given by the state.”
The Minister of Justice, Rauff Hakeem, has told media that new laws will be introduced in place of the expired regime. He also said that up to 1,500 people currently in detention may be released. But in the same statement, he added that “there are more who need to be kept in custody.”