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Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Issue of Political Prisoners is Clearly Not a Legal But a Political Issue – R. Sampanthan

I want to raise the question of the persons in custody – detainees. I was extremely happy to listen to the Statement of the Hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was a very progressive and a very positive Statement. Hon. Mangala Samaraweera, we expect that you will be in a position to fulfill the various matters that you have outlined in the course of that Statement.

You can rest assured that within the framework of a united, undivided Sri Lanka, we will make our maximum possible contribution towards the bringing about of permanent peace, reconciliation, goodwill and harmony amongst all our peoples because the peoples have lived together in this country for, indeed, a long period of time and through the greater part of history in this country, we have lived as a united people. Unfortunately, as a result of the identities of people not being adequately recognized and they not being accorded adequate self-respect and dignity in this country, there have been certain conflicts. It has assumed a violent form, but all conflicts have to come to an end at some point of time. I think it is the duty of all of us to ensure that all conflicts come to an end and we are on that path now. We are not on the path of promoting the conflict. If there are any Hon. Members in this House, my Good Friends, who think that they can survive politically by promoting conflicts, I would appeal to them to abandon that path and return to the path where we all can resolve our conflicts and live together as a united nation, where we will serve the best interests of our country and in the best interests of all the people who live in this country, irrespective of which ethnicity they belong to.

Having said that, Sir, I want to deal specifically with this question of the persons who continue to be in custody because this has become a very serious issue, where there is a feeling amongst people that not enough is being done in this regard, that this is the first issue which is being handled, which is being tackled by the Government and that the Government should perform more expeditiously in bringing this to an end.

Now, there are persons who have been convicted. That is one category. There are persons against whom cases are pending. That is the second category. Then, there are persons who have not been charged and that is the third category. We have discussed this matter with His Excellency the President and with the Hon. Prime Minister. General agreement that this matter should be brought to an early end is prevalent in the course of all our discussions. We have also discussed this matter with the Hon. Minister of Justice and other ministerial Colleagues. These persons have been in custody for long periods of time.

In fact, if they had been convicted and sentenced, they may have been released from prison by now. Some of them have been in custody for such long periods of time – 10, 15 or even more than 15 years. Some of them have been in custody for such long periods of time – 10, 15 or even more than 15 years. Some others may have been in custody for a shorter period of time. But, the fact of the matter is that in many of these cases, if they had been tried, if they had been convicted and if they had been sentenced, they would have by now been released and they would have gone home. I know, Sir, that there is a hue and cry being raised in this country by some persons who are opposed to the release of persons in custody and who allege that their release would not be in the interests of national security. I think this is a rather unrealistic and exaggerated fear which is being sought to be spread by some people in this country purely in order to bring about instability and to ensure that the Government is not able to proceed on its path which is to bring about reconciliation, goodwill, harmony, peaceful resolution of conflicts and enable this country to prosper and progress. Persons who are not interested in the achievement of this agenda and who are opposed to this agenda for their own selfish reasons think that they must somehow be an impediment and prevent these happenings. I would strongly urge the Government not to be influenced by such endeavours and to gather the necessary courage to be able to deal with this question in a very practical way.

All extremists in this country have been marginalized, both in the North and in the South. At the Parliamentary Election held last, persons who advocated extreme positions in the Northern Province have been totally marginalized. They have been totally sidelined; not one of them was returned to Parliament having taken up an extreme position and I want to say on the Floor of this House now that if anyone in the future attempts to take an extreme position, whatever his position maybe now, that person or such persons would be marginalized and sidelined. They will have no future in this country.

Sir, I would like to say on the Floor of this House that if anyone in the North or the East thinks that by adopting extremist positions they can enhance their status politically, they are making a very sad mistake and they should abandon that position because the people of the country, the people of the North and the East have gone through such immense sufferings that they do not want that repeated any longer. They want to live in peace. They want honourable solutions to their problems.

As I said in Parliament a couple of days ago, the Tamil people are a very resilient and courageous people who will not succumb, but they are not a desperate people. They are not people who will opt to go along the path of extremism. They want to live peacefully with self-respect and dignity in this country. So, I think, Sir, even in the South, extremist elements have been marginalized. They have been cast aside by the people. We know that certain extremist organizations which were trying to spread communal venom in this country attempted to enter this Parliament at the last Parliamentary Election, but all of them have been marginalized. So, we should bear this in mind and I think that the Government should not hesitate; the Government should be courageous. The Government should do what needs to be done and deal with the situation pertaining to these persons in custody.

There have been such releases made in the past. In 1971, I remember the JVP insurrection, a large number of people were released and no one complained about it. They were young men who faced certain grievances. They had taken to violence. In fact, I have defended several of them in courts at that point of time. In 1988-89, consequent to the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord, there was a similar position when amnesty was granted and several people were released. The persons who were released at these points of time were also persons who tried to bring down the legitimate government of the day. Despite that they were released. They had taken to violence and used weapons. They attacked police stations, but they were released.

Campaign in Colombo
Campaign in Colombo

So, I do not know why the Government should be reluctant now or should hesitate now or should delay now? During the time of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, thousands of people were released at the end of the war, after rehabilitation. They were persons who had engaged with the LTTE, fought with the LTTE against the Government. But several thousands of them were rehabilitated and they were released. They were engaged in an armed struggle. The offences committed by the persons in custody are not any more serious than the offences committed by these people whom I have referred to.

I want to refer, Sir, to the basis on which these people are being charged. These people are today being charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and I would like to read out what is contained in the Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the 16th of September, 2015 in regard to this matter. It states, I quote:

“The Government has been slow to clarify the number and identity of detainees still held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and emergency regulations. As of writing, the Government is believed to have acknowledged 258 remaining detainees: 60 of whom have not been charged; 54 who have been convicted in the past; the remaining cases pending. Reports have continued to emerge about the existence of secret and unacknowledged places of detention, which require urgent investigation.”

The Hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs referred to that in the course of his Statement this morning. So, in this Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, he refers to persons being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations. Then there was a statement made, Sir, by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the 30th of September where he says, I quote:

“The Government has yet to clarify the number and identity of detainees still held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and emergency regulations. Reports have continued to suggest the existence of secret and unacknowledged places of detention. These require urgent investigation. According to local civil society sources, from January to August this year, 19 people were arrested under the PTA. 12 of them remain in detention and 14 cases of torture have been reported to us by credible sources since January 2015. I welcome the Government’s commitment to review and repeal the PTA, which has long provided a legal context facilitating arbitrary detention, unfair trials and torture.

So, there has been a commitment made by the Government that they propose to repeal the PTA under which these persons have been held in custody. What does the Resolution that has been adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on the 1st of October say?

The Resolution states, Sir, I quote:

“Welcomes the Government of Sri Lanka’s commitment to review the Public Security Ordinance Act and review and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and replace it with anti-terrorism legislation in line with contemporary international best practices;”

So, you have acknowledged it in the UN that the Prevention of Terrorism Act is a draconian law; it is a law which is unacceptable by international standards and that you will repeal that law.   All those persons who are being held in custody, whatever position they maybe in, are persons who are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. When you yourself have made a commitment through this Resolution which you co-sponsored that you are going to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act because it is an obnoxious, draconian law, how can you – I ask you – continue to hold persons in custody? You have accepted that this law is not in conformity with acceptable, proper, legal principles and in the face of the commitment that you have made in the Resolution that has been adopted by the UN Human Rights Council which you co-sponsored,   I think it is obligatory; it is imperative that this matter be not delayed any longer and that all these persons are released.

I want to say it very clearly Sir, that this is not a legal issue. This is a political issue.

The decision that has to be taken, has to be a political decision. We cannot permit legal nitpicking and allow this matter to hang on forever or for a long period of time. I think what is required is a political decision. My Friends in the JVP – Senior Leaders of the JVP have made a demand that these people be released. I want to commend you for that. I want to thank you for that. Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who was the person who primarily conducted this war, has requested that these people be released. So, even Members of the JVP and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka take the view that these persons must be released. Surely they cannot act in this manner if it would bring any harm to this country.

So, in the context of the war having ended, in the context of the LTTE having been decimated, in the context of no LTTE as an organization functioning in the country at present, in the context of the people having repeatedly demonstrated through their electoral verdicts that they want to live within an undivided, united Sri Lanka with self-respect and dignity as equal citizens with a legitimate constitutional recognition of their legitimate aspirations – in this background – I do not think there can be any justification whatever, Sir,   for these persons to be looked at differently and to continue to be kept in custody. I would therefore, earnestly request, Sir, that this matter be addressed early.

Thus far, as far as I am aware, 39 persons have been released on bail. Twenty persons have been recommended for rehabilitation against whom cases are pending. Two of these persons, have already been released. Several cases are pending against those recommended for rehabilitation. They have been recommended for rehabilitation in one case, bearing one number. But there are several cases pending against these people which have different numbers.

Unless they are recommended for rehabilitation in respect of all those cases pending against them under the different numbers, even after completing rehabilitation in one case in view of the fact that there are other cases pending against them, they will continue to be in custody. That matter needs to be addressed. All cases must be included in the rehabilitation procedures. There are, in all, 217 cases of persons in custody and only 59 cases have been dealt with thus far and there are yet 158 cases to be dealt with. So, I would urge His Excellency the President and the Hon. Prime Minister to look into this matter without delay. I think the persons who have been convicted must be pardoned and in view of your own Resolution where you say that the Prevention of Terrorism Act will be repealed because it is obnoxious; it is draconian and when you make an acknowledgement which accepts that without any reservation, how can you continue to hold in custody persons under that law? This is the question I want to pose. How can you take to court and charge persons under this law which you say is obnoxious, draconian and which, therefore, you are going to repeal? So, my submission is, Sir, that this matter should not be delayed any longer and these persons should be released early and I would earnestly request the Government to act expeditiously in regard to this matter.

(From the speech made by Hon. R. Sampanthan leader of the opposition in parliament on 3rd Dec 2015.)

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