Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has sought the release of “political prisoners” who were arrested — some convicted — for their alleged association with or role in the rebel LTTE during the civil war.
On Tuesday night, TNA spokesman and former Jaffna parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran handed over a list of the detainees under Sri Lanka’s controversial Prevention of Terrorism (PTA) Act to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
“There are 96 political prisoners in all and 47 of them were convicted. Only a presidential pardon can release them,” he said, referring to the Sri Lankan President’s discretionary power to grant amnesty. In March this year, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned a soldier who was on death row for killing eight Tamil civilians, including a five-year-old, during the civil war.
“The Prime Minister asked me to discuss the matter with the President and I will be doing that,” Mr. Sumanthiran added. The meeting between the TNA representative and the Prime Minister, he said, was a follow-up to a recent discussion between Mr. Rajapaksa and TNA legislators in Colombo.
Arrest without warrant
Tamil political parties and civil society organisations have for long sought the release of PTA detainees — many of whom were not charged — while urging the Sri Lankan government to repeal the draconian PTA, which allows arrests for unspecified “unlawful activities” without warrant, and permits detention of the suspect for up to 18 months before a case is initiated. Of the 96 prisoners on the TNA’s list, the cases pertaining to 22 suspects have dragged for over 10 years, while some others who were convicted have spent more than 20 years in prison.
Attempts by the former government, under then President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, to draft a new counter-terrorism law were unsuccessful.
Enacted in 1979, under President J.R. Jayawardene, the PTA was used mostly to quell the armed struggle of Tamil youth against the state. The PTA, which was modelled on South Africa’s apartheid-era legislation and laws used by the British against Irish militancy, became a permanent law in 1982. Though mostly used against northern Tamils, the PTA was also used in the island’s south to arrest Sinhalese youth during the second JVP insurrection from 1987-89.
More recently, persons allegedly linked to the April 2019 Easter Sunday terror bombings were arrested under the PTA. Last month, police detained prominent lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah for his alleged involvement in the terror attacks. His family has denied the allegation and a group of over 150 lawyers have condemned his “unlawful” detention.