(A campaign against PTA held in Colombo)
A group of Tamil prisoners taken into custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) started a fast last week demanding their release. Most of them have been in prison for over six years and many have not even being charged in courts. Throughout this whole period the investigating authorities have been unable to complete their investigations. One wonders whether this is sheer inefficiency or wilful neglect.
Be that as it may, the issue of these prisoners has been in the focus of attention these days. Opinions, naturally differ. However all opinions cannot be correct or justified. It is necessary to look at the issue objectively and rationally without being emotively provoked.
In the meantime the PTA is up for revision or repeal as the Government has given a pledge to the international community at Geneva to do so. To understand the rationale behind the demand of the international community and the Government’s response it may be necessary to briefly look into the history of its enactment and application.
The PTA was preceded by a special Act of Parliament called the Proscribing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and other Similar Organizations Law of 1978. It was originally intended for one year but was subsequently extended for another year. Then it was repealed and replaced by the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act of No. 48 of 1979. In both cases the Acts were intended to be temporary. (It is a different matter that the PTA has been in existence up to now, that is a period of over three and half decades.) Even if one does not agree with the need for the PTA even then, one could understand the political expediency which may have prompted the rulers to resort to such draconian legislation. Now that the LTTE has been definitively defeated and the war was over six years ago even that expediency is not there. Hence there is no rationale for preserving the PTA. It must be repealed.
This should be done as it is an obstacle to any reconciliation between the Sinhala and Tamil communities, which is essential for national unity and development. Moreover, the PTA is basically anti-democratic in nature and hence could and would be used against the popular masses in their agitations and other struggles.
Opposition parties and groups that want to bring back the former regime are carrying on a campaign to instil fear in the minds of the people about the likelihood of a resurrection of the LTTE and the re-emergence of the war. These projections run counter to the ground realities. The war as well as the dominance of the LTTE among the Tamil community was a direct result of the failure of the peaceful struggle carried out by the Tamil people for their rights under moderate leaderships. It was also a response to the repression of that struggle.
Now that the war is over and the LTTE defeated it has not got any substantial support among the Tamil community. The situation of No war – No peace that prevails now requires strategies different from those pursued during the war. What is now requires is a strategy that would bring peace instead of war. Hence the continuation of the PTA or incarcerating persons under the PTA would be counter-productive.
It is not only the Opposition that is up in arms about the release of persons incarcerated under the PTA. The mass media continue to display the same ethnic bias that existed during the war. For example, an editorial last Sunday in a mass circulation Sinhala weekly categorically stated that those taken into custody under the PTA are not political prisoners. They are terrorist suspects. It claimed that it cannot be considered as a political organization as it has been banned in several countries.
We have to forgive the writer for his ignorance. Almost all freedom struggles were branded as terrorist by governments when they were fighting for power. The ANC of South Africa was considered terrorist. So was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLA). One does not become apolitical due to the method of struggle. It is the objective of a movement that determines its politics. Even if the method of struggle is inappropriate it is a different matter but it remains a political organization if the objectives are political.
Political prisoners are those that have been taken prisoner on account of their political beliefs and/or actions committed in pursuance of those policies. The LTTE suspects fall into this category.
Another fallacy of the argument of the above writer is that all those who are taken into custody under the PTA are terrorists. Governments in office have right through used the PTA to take into custody and harass their political opponents. They have imprisoned and even indicted numerous persons though the victims had never even handled a single galkatas in their entire life. Some of these PTA detainees later became Members of Parliament and even Cabinet Ministers.
There is also the precedent of the former government pardoning several prominent LTTEers involved in armed actions against the State. In this background it is ridiculous to detain further a single individual that is now in custody since by comparison they are small fry.
The message that is given to the Tamil community by keeping the prisoners is that the Sinhala dominated governments, including the present one cannot be trusted. This would lead to a fresh round of alienation and estrangement.
Finally, let us have a quick glance at the PTA and its usage to understand its draconian nature. Under Section 9 of the PTA the Minster could detain any person when he “has reason to believe is connected with or concerned in any unlawful activity” for a period not exceeding three months in the first instance, in such place and subject to such conditions as may be determined by the Minister, and any such order may be extended from time to time for a period not exceeding eighteen months at a time”.
Thus everything is at the discretion of the Minister. He even determines the place of detention. It could be any private place. He can determine whatever condition and impose it on the victim. Usually the victim is not allowed even family visits and is not provided with newspapers.
What is worse is that under Section 10 “An order made under Section 9 shall be final and shall not be called in question in any court or tribunal by way of writ or otherwise”.
Even after 18 months the suspect is not released. The practice has been to detain them then Regulation 18 of the under the Emergency Regulations which prescribes indefinite detention.
Once in detention the police need only to extract a confession from a victim. Under the PTA a confession is a valid evidence. One could only imagine how these confessions are taken. One has only to remind oneself of how kondaya confessed to murdering the little girl Seya or how evidence was found to incriminate a schoolboy in the same case.
Anyone taken into custody under the PTA reaches a dead end. He has no legal redress mechanism if he has been unjustly taken into custody. This is a violation of his basic human rights. Such laws should never be enacted. High time it is repealed together with similar regulations under the Emergency Regulations.
– Courtesy Ceylon Daily News