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Sri Lanka tests UN’s patience on human rights

Memories of the dark cell and constant fear for his life still haunt Murugiah Komahan, who spent six years in prison in Sri Lanka on counter-terrorism charges.

Mr Komahan, 40, is among thousands of Tamils ​​and others jailed under the Terrorism Prevention Act (PTA) in recent decades.

Successive Sinhala-majority governments used the PTA primarily to arrest those suspected of links to the separatist Tamil Tigers until the rebels’ defeat in 2009.

But more than a decade after the end of the civil war, the law is still in force and Sri Lanka is under pressure to reform it.

The island’s access to lucrative export markets in Europe depends on making progress on human rights.

Mr Komahan, who hails from the northern Jaffna region, was first arrested in 2010 under the Anti-Terror Law for links to the rebels.

“The police tried to force me to sign a confession, but when I refused, I was severely beaten. One officer even threatened to shoot me. When I complained to a judge about the torture, I was beaten even more,” Mr Komahan told the BBC.

Finally, he signed a confession in Sinhala, a language he does not understand. He feared he could be put in solitary confinement if he refused.

A court released him in 2016 for lack of evidence – but Mr Komahan says he is still being monitored by intelligence agencies.

“The constant surveillance makes it difficult to return to normal life,” he says.

Human rights groups say the PTA has been used to make arbitrary arrests, detain people for years without due process and extract false confessions under torture, allegations the authorities deny.

It was first introduced as a temporary measure more than 40 years ago when the insurgency for a Tamil homeland was still in its infancy. But it has also been used over the years to target other minority groups, government critics and civil society activists, activists say.

“We have cases of people who spent several years in prison before being released — meaning there was no evidence and no charges were brought,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, a prominent human rights activist.

She claims the PTA was deployed to target Muslims following the Easter Sunday 2019 bombings by Islamist militants on the island.

These include prominent Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, a vocal opponent of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Amid mounting international criticism, he was released on bail in January after serving almost two years in detention.

According to Sri Lankan prison authorities, nearly 300 people remain detained under the PTA, some of whom have been held for more than a decade.

After years of criticism, the government has now introduced amendments to the law “with the aim of bringing it into line with international norms and best practices”.

Justice Minister Mohamed Ali Sabry told the BBC: “One of the key provisions in the amendments is that the detainee can apply for bail if the charges have not been filed for more than a year.”

He said officials are trying to expedite pending anti-terrorism cases and 86 people have recently been released.

But activists say the proposed changes don’t go far enough. For example, “a confession given to an assistant superintendent of police or higher can still be used as evidence in a court proceeding,” Ms Satkunanathan said.

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The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), holding its spring meeting in Geneva, and others are watching closely. Another critical assessment by the Council later this year would not bode well for Sri Lanka.

The European Union has already warned that if there is no progress on human rights, it will suspend duty-free access for Sri Lankan companies. The island’s exporters sent more than $2 billion worth of garments to the bloc in 2020.

In view of the crisis in Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves, a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund appears to be on the cards.

Last month, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet acknowledged that the Sri Lankan government had taken some steps to address human rights issues. But she also called on member states to “investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka”.

Last year, member states authorized them to collect and store evidence of alleged war crimes by both sides of the 26-year conflict. The UN estimates that 80-100,000 people were killed and thousands disappeared.

“The first step is to create a central archive for the wide range of material available, including material collected by the UN over the years, which is considerable,” said Rory Mungoven, Asia-Pacific chief at the UN office -High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the BBC.

“We analyze all the material and pinpoint specific cases, specific perpetrators, where further action might be possible.”

Following the inaction of successive Sri Lankan governments, the material collected is said to be used to try war crimes suspects outside the island under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”.

President Rajapaksa, a hard-liner who has directed the war effort, has consistently denied allegations of war crimes by the military and is highly unlikely to agree to the terms set by the UN. Many of his supporters in the Sinhala majority see those accused of wrongdoing as heroes.

His foreign minister criticized the UN decision earlier this month.

“It creates obstacles to reconciliation efforts, fuels hatred by reopening past wounds and polarizes society,” GL Peiris said at the Geneva meeting.

Ministers in Colombo refer to measures already taken, such as the rehabilitation of former rebels and the establishment of an office to determine the status of those still missing in the war.

Critics argue that little has come of such initiatives.

People like Murugiah Komahan agree. He and others wrongly jailed say their lives are ruined – and they will never get back the lost years.