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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2522

United States opposition to Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act Solely to prevent human rights abuse of Tamil minority

Daya Gamage – US Bureau Asian Tribune News Analysis

Washington, D.C. 8 December (Asiantribune.com): On eve of Sri Lana’s re-introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to combat Tamil Tiger terrorism and those who are associated directly or indirectly with separatism including that of propagation, the American ambassador Robert O. Blake gave a subtle warning that he would not prescribe USA Patriotic Act type laws as "civil liberties, frankly, are already under strain here."

"So, I wouldn’t want to suggest other things that might further imperil them," he further noted.

The American ambassador very diplomatically, in his state-controlled TV network Rupavahini interview in early December 2006 and carried in full by state-controlled Daily News on 5 December, opined for what purpose the 2001 USA Patriot Act as opposed to the Sri Lanka’s PTA is being used, and the difference of the two constituencies in which the two laws are implemented.

Asked as to why Sri Lanka should not defend itself in pursuing terrorists when the United States is pursuing terrorists, America’s top diplomat in Sri Lanka, gave a signal to his host country administration saying “I think it is dangerous to make comparisons between one country and the next. Every single country is different. In our case, the terrorists that we are pursuing are mostly stateless organizations like Al Qaeda that are not based in any single country” clearly indicating that his country is faced with global terrorism that has no territory and that Sri Lanka’s terrorists are ‘non state players’ domiciled in the country.

The American ambassador, who would have by now read the history of the PTA and its operation in the years that was in place well recorded in the Colombo American Embassy-produced annual human rights reports of the US State Department, knew how well he could answer ‘tricky’ questions of a government-paid journalist to get his country’s endorsement for the re-introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)

Blake, whose previous posting was New Delhi where he was Deputy Chief of Mission who mostly handled American affairs in India due to the prolonged medical problem of his ambassador, already knew Sri Lanka’s national question, its relations to India and the role played by the international community before he assumed as Chief of Mission in Colombo, reflected the US State Department sentiment that LTTE terrorism has not an issue in the Asian region and that it is confined to Sri Lanka involving the 12.5% ethnic Tamil minority: "I think the LTTE has been very careful about confining their operations to Sri Lanka because they are aware of the fact that if they should do so they do not want to antagonize particular neighbors like India. So they have been very careful and I think they have realized that one of the greatest strategical mistakes they made in their history was targeting Rajiv Gandhi."

In his Rupavahini interview, Ambassador Blake, on solution to the national question, reflected his country’s long-standing opinion that "the answer to this question is not a counter-terrorism or military solution. There also has to be a parallel political strategy where the Government advances a power-sharing proposal of some sort."

He further said: "But, we believe that negotiations have to take place within an undivided state and that there has to be some sort of devolution to the Tamil areas that will meet the aspirations of the people of those areas."

To the question whether the 2001 USA Patriot Act helped the United States, Blake answering in the affirmative gave a valuable hint: "But, at the same time, there has been a very strong realization that there has to be a strong respect for civil liberties in America. I think there has been a good, healthy debate about that in the US…"

The core issue for the United States during the period the PTA was in operation was civil liberties, human rights and the rights of the ethnic Tamil minority which is caught in the middle of Sri Lanka’s national question.

The Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) led by LTTE-breakaway Karuna Amman in a statement to Daily Mirror carried in its 8 December edition said it was unhappy with the government’s move to re-introduce the PTA owing to concerns it would open the doors for the harassment of ordinary Tamil civilians. It cautioned that the PTA could give the LTTE the chance to further its cause if the laws are misused as was the case prior to the (2002) ceasefire agreement with the Tiger rebels ultimately insisted on a separate state for the safety of the Tamil community.

Definition of ‘terrorism’: According to new definition spelt out by the government

• ‘terrorism’ means any unlawful conduct which:

• involves the use of violence, force, coercion, intimidation, threats, duress, or

• threatens or endangers national security, or

• intimidates a civilian population or a group thereof, or

• disrupts or threatens public order, the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community, or

• causing destruction or damage to property, or

• endangering a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the act, or

• creating a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public or,

• is designed to interfere with or disrupt an electronic system, and which unlawful conduct is aimed at or is committed with the object of threatening or endangering the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka or that of any other recognized sovereign State, or any other political or governmental change, or compelling the government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to do or abstain from doing any act, and includes any other unlawful activity which advocates or propagates such unlawful conduct.

(ii) ‘specified terrorist activity’ means, offences specified in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, offences under the Public Security Ordinance No. 25 of 1947 and Regulations made thereunder, offence under section 3 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act No. 5 of 2006, offence under section 3 of the Convention on the Suppression of Terrorist Financing Act No. 25 of 2005, and offences under sections 114, 115, 116, 117, 121, 122, 128, 129 of the Penal Code (Daily Mirror 8 December 2006)

The American Embassy’s well researched annual official document on human rights in Sri Lanka has been very critical of the government’s use of the PTA during the late nineties and until it was lifted in 2002. Sri Lanka’s human rights record, along with other countries, is annually presented to the US Congress as mandated by the Foreign Assistance Act.

Hiding behind the phrase ‘observers claim’, the human rights report for the year 2002 noted: "Observers claim that the PTA, like the ER repealed in 2001, permitted arbitrary arrests of Tamils."

In another US government official documents stated: "The PTA makes confessions obtained under any circumstances, including by torture, sufficient to hold a person until the individual is brought to court. In some cases, the detention may extend for years."

Country Report on Human Rights Practices on Sri Lanka for the year 2000 carried the following observation:

"Large-scale arrests of Tamils continued during the year; these arrests were particularly prevalent after LTTE bombings, when many young Tamils were detained or arrested on suspicion of being LTTE cadres or sympathizers. The Government detained more than 2,819 persons under the ER and PTA from January to August 31, a higher number than that for all of 1999. Many detentions occurred during operations against the LTTE. Most detentions lasted several days to several months. The number of prisoners held at any given moment under the ER and the PTA consistently remained close to 2,000. Hundreds of Tamils indicted under the PTA remained without bail awaiting trial, some for more than 2 years. The high courts held hearings on 1,000 cases under the PTA or ER during the year.

"Many such cases drag on for years. On January 7 and 15, security forces detained several thousand Tamils in Colombo and the surrounding suburbs in "cordon and search" operations meant to find LTTE cadres after suicide bomb attacks (see Section 1.a.).

"Although authorities eventually arrested fewer than 100 persons, many of those rounded up for questioning spent hours in detention, often without access to sanitary facilities. On March 18, police at a Colombo checkpoint detained and publicly strip-searched one woman, who turned out to be Sinhalese, on suspicion of being an LTTE suicide bomber. On May 30, police detained hundreds of Tamils in downtown Colombo for almost 5 hours of questioning.

Approximately 50 of the detainees were taken for photographing and further questioning. In addition those arrested, most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing, sometimes were detained in prisons with convicted criminals. Many lesser incidents of this sort occurred during the year. Tamils complained that they were abused verbally and held for extended periods at the security checkpoints that have been set up throughout Colombo (see Section 1.d.). The Government justified the detentions and arrests on security grounds, but many Tamils claimed that the detentions and arrests were a form of harassment. Tamils often suffered arbitrary searches in their homes."

Country Report on Human Rights Practices on Sri Lanka for the year 2001 made these observations:

"Large-scale arrests of Tamils continued during the year. Many detentions occurred during operations against the LTTE. Most detentions lasted a maximum of several days although some extended to several months. The number of prisoners held at any given moment under the ER and the PTA fluctuated between 1,500 and 2,000.

Hundreds of Tamils charged under the PTA remained in detention without bail awaiting trial, some for more than 2 years. The high courts held hearings on just over 500 cases under the PTA or ER during the first 8 months of the year. Many such cases drag on for years. During the week following the July 24 attack on Colombo's main airbase and international airport, security forces detained hundreds of Tamils in the Colombo region for questioning. In addition, those arrested sometimes were held in prisons with convicted criminals. Although most of the Tamils who were detained were released within a matter of hours, many were held overnight, with some held for several days. Cordon and search operations occurred regularly throughout the country during the year, although on a much smaller scale. Tamils complained that they were abused verbally and held for extended periods at security checkpoints throughout Colombo (see Section 1.d.) The Government justified the detentions and arrests on security grounds, but many Tamils claimed they constituted harassment. Tamil homes were often searched arbitrarily. In January 2000, security forces detained several thousand Tamils in Colombo and the surrounding suburbs in cordon and search operations meant to find LTTE cadres after suicide bomb attacks. Although authorities eventually arrested fewer than 100 persons, many of those rounded up for questioning spent hours in detention."

And, the 2002 State Department report said:

"In 1999 the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances made its third visit to the country. Its report, released in December 1999 cited the PTA and ER as important factors contributing to disappearances and recommended the abolition or modification of these laws to bring them into conformity with internationally accepted human rights standards. The ER was repealed in 2001 and there were no arrests under the PTA during the year; however, some arrests were being made without proper procedures and the Government had not all persons detained under the PTA in previous years at year's end (see Section 1.d.). The reviewing process for some cases still was ongoing at year’s end."

The U.S. Department of State commenced, since 2003, the preparation of a separate report to the Congress titled ‘Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The US Record’. In its 2002-2003 report, released on 24 June 2004, stated in its Sri Lanka section: "The Government’s arbitrary arrests of Tamils has been a serious human rights problem. During the year, the U.S. supported projects to address the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and to insure that no new arrests under the PTA occurred."

The most interesting admission by the United States Government in the above report, for the first time, but omitted in the following year’s report, which has largely gone undetected is the following: The U.S. Government maintains indirect contact with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but recognizes that the LTTE is on the U.S. Government’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list."

The following year’s report to the US Congress Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2002-2003 stated "The Government’s arbitrary arrest of citizens under the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been a serious human rights problem. Although the PTA is no longer used to detain new suspects, 65 Tamils remain in jail on PTA charges. The United States funds local organizations that work to insure that those who remain in detention under the PTA have access to legal services."

One could comprehend how much the United States was concerned about the use of the PTA, the application of its provisions which the official U.S. government documents described as the violation of human rights of a particular ethnic group in Sri Lanka singled out by the U.S. as the Tamil minority.

The above report admits that the U.S. Government even funded local organizations to see that the detainees, all of whom are ethnic minority Tamils, have access to legal remedies.

This scenario was strongly imbedded in the mind of American ambassador Robert O. Blake when he told the state TV interviewer that he would not prescribe USA Patriot Act type laws as "civil liberties, frankly, are already under strain here."

With that in mind, it is in the best interest of the Rajapaksa administration to implement the PTA with caution not giving political ammunition to the separatist Tigers to re-emerge as the ‘savior’ of the Tamil people and re-establish itself as the ‘sole representative of the Tamil people’ while giving no excuses for Tamil Tiger professionals in the United States to go before the most liberal/far left Democratic Congress that will be inaugurated in January 2007 to scrutinize and put the Government of Sri Lanka, which is fighting a battle to safeguard the territorial integrity and sovereignty, on the dock on the issue of human rights.

The Asian Tribune, in these columns, early November described how the new Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress whose vital committees such as foreign relations, intelligence and armed services controlled by far left liberals would look at the ‘national question’ in Sri Lanka, especially the rights of the Tamil minority, quite different to that of the neo-conservative Republicans who have proved during these six years of Bush administration that national security superseded the protection of civil liberties.

Ambassador Blake strategically and diplomatically escaped the trap laid for him by the interviewer to endorse the re-introduction of the PTA knowing full well the composition of the new Democratic-controlled Senate and the House and their committees that will make Bush a lame-duck president. But he gave some important signals to his host country administration.

- Asian Tribune -

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