Paris-Geneva, October 18, 2022 – Today marks two months of arbitrary detention for university students Venerable Welwewa Siridhamma and Wasantha Mudalige, who were arbitrarily arrested for peacefully participating in nationwide protests. The two have been charged under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA), and have been detained under conditions that may amount to torture or ill-treatment and in violation of their due process rights, the Observatory (OMCT-FIDH) denounced.
On August 18, 2022, Venerable Welwewa Siridhamma and Wasantha Mudalige were arrested, along with fellow Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF) member Hashantha Jeewantha Gunathilake, for their involvement in organising and participating in prolonged peaceful anti-government protests in Colombo. On many occasions, the police violently dispersed the protests, using tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and batons, in a context of a violent crackdown against protesters.
For over three days, their place of detention remained unknown to their families, until their lawyers were informed on August 22, 2022, that President Ranil Wickremesinghe had signed, in his capacity as the Minister of Defence, three 90-day detention orders against the students under Section 9 of the PTA. Police justified their arrest under the PTA on the ground that they needed to investigate whether the three student activists had incited and provoked the general public to set fire to the private residence of Mr Wickremasinghe, caused the assassination of a parliamentarian, incited the general public to overthrow a lawfully elected government, disobeyed a court order, and other acts.
On October 7, 2022, after 50 days of arbitrary detention in solitary confinement, Hasantha Jeewantha was released without charge by the Tangalle Magistrates Court, Southern Province, after the Terrorist Investigations Division (TID) of the police informed the court that there was no sufficient evidence to continue to hold him under the detention order. At the time of publication of this statement, Venerable Welwewa Siridharmma and Wasantha Mudalige remained arbitrarily detained in solitary confinement in dark and isolated cells, without being granted the right to have private conversations with their lawyers.
Detention orders issued under the PTA, unlike instances of arrests and detention under general law, are not subject to regular judicial supervision and therefore allow for administrative detention for up to a year without the requirement to produce defendants in court, which does not meet international standards of human rights protection and increases the likelihood of enforced disappearance, torture, and other acts of ill-treatment. The PTA has been continuously misused to repress civil society protest and associate it with terrorist activities.
The provisions of the PTA and its application have long been the subject of severe criticism both nationally and internationally. On March 29, 2022, some sections of the PTA were amended, as Sri Lanka had committed to reforming the PTA as part of its negotiation for trade-related assistance from the European Union. However, national and international human rights groups, the Sri Lankan National Human Rights Commission, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, denounced the reforms to be insufficient. The amendments included the reduction of the maximum period of pre-trial detention from 18 to 12 months and an increase of magistrates’ powers to visit places of detention. No amendments were proposed to address the vagueness of the definition of terrorism, and the issue of confessions obtained through torture.
The Observatory strongly condemns the ongoing arbitrary detention of Venerable Welwewa Siridharma and Wasantha Mudalige under the PTA and calls on the Sri Lankan authorities to immediately release them and put an end to the judicial harassment against them.
The Observatory urges the authorities to ensure the legitimate exercise of the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association, and to put an end to the misuse of the PTA against human rights defenders, protesters, and journalists. The Observatory recalls that counter-terrorism laws must always be subject to adequate judicial scrutiny, precision, and legal certainty. The Observatory call on the Sri Lankan authorities to significantly amend the PTA to bring it into line with international standards, and to include provisions and measures aimed at preventing the arbitrary deprivation of liberty, torture, and enforced disappearance.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.