End of emergency

Published : Sep 23, 2011 00:00 IST

Two years after the LTTE's decimation, President Mahinda Rajapaksa proposes the lifting of the state of emergency in Sri Lanka.

in Colombo

A DAY before the delayed debate on Sri Lankan Tamils took off in the Indian Parliament and just over a fortnight before the 18th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is scheduled to meet, President Mahinda Rajapaksa proposed to the Sri Lankan Parliament that the state of emergency in the island nation need not be extended.

I would like to present to this supreme Parliament the proposal to repeal the emergency regulations for administrative activities to function democratically under the ordinary law. This is because I am satisfied with the fact that there is no longer a need for extending the emergency regulations for the administration of the country now. Therefore, I propose not to extend the emergency regulations, he told Parliament on August 25. With this announcement, the state of emergency will be lifted on September 8, when the current Act lapses.

There was heightened anticipation over the nature of the announcement ever since the President's Office sent an SMS (short messaging service) to senior journalists in the capital early on August 25.

The announcement on the lifting of the emergency came as a surprise, though it was a subject of speculation in early August. The widespread belief was that the President would have something to tell Parliament about the invisible grease devils (yaka in Sinhala) who have been selectively attacking women in some parts of the country. Since not a single grease devil had been apprehended, the story ran that it was yet another ploy of the government to extend the emergency. Some people in Muslim-majority areas claimed that they had seen the grease devils run into naval detachments and army camps!

People, already on the edge, turned vigilantes, forcing the powerful Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to chopper down to some spots and also summon heads of mosques to Colombo for a meeting. Gotabaya later declared that the government did not need the excuse of a yaka to extend the emergency provisions.

The President's special statement in Parliament went thus:

From the time when terrorist activities ended in May 2009 until today, there have been no reports of any terrorist activities other than the imaginary Grease Demon. During this period, through the conduct of several elections, the country has moved further towards democracy. Society has accepted that these were peaceful and fair elections. Accordingly, in the recent past, we have been removing various clauses of the emergency regulations and steadily bringing society to normal administration. Internationally too, it is now accepted that there are no reports of terrorist activity in Sri Lanka. We have also introduced to Parliament internationally recognised laws and regulations to avoid monetary activities, exchange of goods, drug trafficking, banking and financial risks carried out by terrorists engaged in further nurturing terrorism. In addition to strengthening national security, we have worked towards pre-empting opportunities for terrorism to emerge through these laws and regulations.

When I took over the leadership and administration of the country in 2005, what we inherited was this environment of emergency. Although we made strong efforts to proceed with the peace talks that had been initiated at the time I assumed office in 2005, the brutal killing of people by the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] at Kebithigollewa and later closure of the Mavil Aru anicut led to our having to launch a humanitarian operation. The liberation of the East and the subsequent liberation of the North from terror was done under this environment. Emergency regulations became necessary and useful for providing relief to a large number of innocent people who had been taken hostage by the forces of terror and were released with the liberation of the entire North and East from terror, as well as for carrying out urgent measures for their resettlement.

Plethora of laws

Emergency laws are not new in Sri Lanka, which has seen frequent violence since the time it gained independence. However, it was the violent agitation by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that led to the first such serious repressive measure. With each new problem since the early 1970s, the government sought to circumvent existing laws and enact more draconian ones. Often, these have been overlapping and vague in definition and have been derided by human rights organisations for not allowing even basic individual rights. In some cases, these laws grant the security forces blanket immunity from prosecution.

Around the time the Eelam War IV began, there were as many as 20 new emergency regulations. The government argued that normal laws were powerless to deal with ruthless terrorist organisations such as the LTTE. Blanket provisions were necessary to provide legal immunity to the uniformed personnel who went after the LTTE, since the latter had become adept in taking advantage of the loopholes in the legal system, it said.

But human rights activists say that the emergency laws are open and abusive. And because there are so many of them, Sri Lankans hardly understand the laws and this might affect them adversely some day, they argue.

To understand the plethora of laws, it is necessary to trace their origins. In the beginning, there was the Public Security Ordinance, 1947, put in place by the British to deal with the locals who dissented. No Parliament, Prime Minister or Executive President has sought to annul this draconian ordinance. The ordinance has empowered Presidents to declare a state of emergency and enact more draconian regulations when they wanted to.

Not satisfied with the provisions under the ordinance, the government enacted the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA) of 1979, essentially to deal with the JVP and its offshoots. Long after the JVP gave up armed struggle as the way to usher in social transformation and long after the last LTTE fighter fell to a bullet bearing his name, this legislation remains. Though not an Act related to the emergency, some of its provisions are as draconian.

In the mid-2000s, the ordinance gave birth to two more laws, one in 2005 and the other in 2006. The Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions and Powers) Regulation No. 1 of 2005, enacted by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in response to the assassination of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, gives sweeping powers to the state to arrest and detain people, search and seize, and so on.

The Emergency (Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities) Regulation No. 7 of 2006, enacted by President Rajapaksa following the assassination attempt on his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, expands on the 2005 law and makes, among other things, dealing with a terrorist or terrorist group, regardless of knowledge and intent, punishable.

The 1947 ordinance also confers on the President special powers. Under Section 12 he can summon and deploy armed forces, under Section 16 he can order curfews, and under Section 17 he can declare any utility/service as an essential service. This is independent of the emergency provisions.

When President Rajapaksa spoke about lifting the state of emergency, he was referring to the 2005 and the 2006 laws, which are extended every month. Since 2005, Parliament has extended the emergency regulations every month. When the LTTE was active, the vote was unanimous, but since its defeat there has been dissent. A few of the 225 members of Parliament have abstained too.

Welcoming the move

A few in the Sri Lankan establishment assumed that the presidential order was prompted by Indian interference. However, although India has been demanding the scrapping of the emergency laws, it did not appear that the Indian officialdom was aware of the Sri Lankan move.

The Cabinet spokesperson was forced to deny that India had pushed for the lifting of the emergency laws. We did not succumb to pressure from India; everyone knows that this government does not get pressurised by outside forces, Minister of Environment Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said in response to a query from a journalist.

The first to welcome the lifting of the emergency laws was Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed, a friend of Rajapaksa's. India followed suit. The United States, too, issued a statement, which, for once, was not loaded. This is a significant step towards normalising life for the people of Sri Lanka, and reflects more than two years without terrorist activity after the defeat of the LTTE, said Christopher Elms, Press and Information Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, in a release.

The British High Commission in Colombo also welcomed the move. We welcome President Rajapaksa's statement that the state of emergency will be brought to an end, after a period of over two years free from terrorist attacks. This announcement marks an important move towards normalisation and the strengthening of civil and political rights. We look forward to the lifting of the emergency regulations, it said.

But the human rights organisation Amnesty International wants more. The lifting of emergency regulations indicates the Sri Lankan government is feeling international pressure, said Sam Zarifi, its Asia-Pacific director. With the [United Nations] Human Rights Council due to meet soon, it's time to demand that the government undertake real reforms, including repeal of the PTA and providing accountability for the thousands of people who suffered during the country's civil war.

Now the question arises as to what happens to those who have been held under the provisions of the emergency laws. On August 27, The Daily Mirror reported that a new Act would be enacted to try the terror suspects. Amnesty wanted a quick solution to these cases. There are hundreds of people who remain in detention under these regulations who should be released immediately or charged with a recognisable crime in a proper court of law, Zarifi said.

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