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Monday, 9 November 2015
Page: 8057

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:00): Tamil political prisoners in Sri Lanka have resumed their hunger strike. This time they have stated that they will fast until death if they are not released. The international community, numerous journalists, politicians from many countries and prominent people have raised the issues of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. Now it is vital that the Tamil political prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act are not forgotten. We owe it to them as well as to their families.

The hunger strike started last month with 223 Tamil prisoners of war in Colombo, Anuradhapura, Jaffna and Kandy. I understand that the hunger strike was initially called off when the prisoners were given assurances that the President would act by 7 November. The Sri Lankan government has since ruled out a common amnesty for the Tamil political prisoners but says it is considering an option of bail and/or 'rehabilitation' for some. Some of the Tamils have been in jail since 1997. They are being held under Sri Lanka's Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has been in force since 1979. According to the BBC, only 54 of the more than 200 prisoners have been convicted. Most have been imprisoned on suspicion of links with the defeated Tamil Tigers, or LTTE.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act permits Sri Lankan security forces to arrest, without warrant, individuals suspected of 'acting in any manner prejudicial to the national security or to the maintenance of public order' or having conducted 'any transaction' with a person or group engaged in terrorist activities, and to detain people for up to 18 months without bringing them before a court. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report states that many LTTE suspects have been held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which provides effective immunity to officials implicated in abuses. The Human Rights Watch report goes on to say that, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, as well as under the state of emergency in effect during the war, confessions to the police and other authorities obtained under duress are admissible unless the accused can prove that they were obtained involuntarily.

The report also notes that the Prevention of Terrorism Act allows Sri Lankan authorities to hold detainees where they choose and to move them from place to place while under investigation—practices that increase the likelihood of torture and abuse. In only a handful of the cases reported to Human Rights Watch was the victim provided an arrest warrant or a legally valid reason for arrest. More typically, they were forcibly put into vehicles and subjected to beatings. Some detainees told Human Rights Watch that rapes and sexual violence did not occur in the first and 'known' places of detention but rather after they were driven, often blindfolded, to a second, unofficial location.

Secret detention camps are of huge concern. Amnesty International reported on secret camps in 2012 when they reported that members of the security forces had used secret places of detention to interrogate and torture detainees—some of whom have reportedly been tortured to death or extrajudicially executed. UN HR chief, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, has also spoken of secret and unacknowledged places of detention, saying there is an urgent need to investigate reports of them. In the much awaited report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights handed down in September 2015, recommendation 16 said:

Initiate a high-level review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act … and its regulations and the Public Security Ordinance Act with a view to their repeal and the formulation of a new national security framework fully complying with international law;

Recommendation 24 said:

Review all cases of detainees held under the PTA and either release them or immediately bring them to trial. Review the cases of those convicted under the PTA and serving long sentences, particularly where convictions were based on confessions extracted under torture;

The UN report also talks of the scale of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka being exceptional and that in 2014 the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported a total of 12,536 complaints of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka registered over the years—the second highest number of disappearances on the list of the Working Group for any country in the world.

Human Rights Watch have also recommended that Sri Lanka repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and abolish the system of detention without charge or trial. In 2014 Amnesty International noted that the PTA, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, has been widely criticized by Sri Lankan civil society, international monitoring organisations and United Nations bodies. In its report titled Authority without accountability: the crisis of impunity in Sri Lanka, the International Commission of Jurists documents how provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act have resulted in arbitrary detention, contravened suspects' right to a fair trial and due process, and facilitated torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearances.

The new President in his election manifesto promised to institute constitutional amendments that would guarantee democracy to Sri Lanka. He has also spoken about reconciliation with the Tamil community. To give true meaning to genuine reconciliation, the culture of impunity and legal limbo of Tamil political prisoners must be brought to an end. When one considers the role of the PTA and the power that security and armed forces have in Sri Lanka, one can understand why so many political prisoners are on hunger strike. Freedom from arbitrary detention is both central to contemporary human rights standards and as longstanding as the Magna Carta. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is a blatant violation of this freedom. The law supports the violation of basic civil liberties and renders irrelevant in Sri Lanka the right to a fair tria It has been a lesson in the selective application of extraordinary security powers and the politicisation of law enforcement. The PTA needs to be abolished and comprehensive measures need to be taken to deliver justice to those who have been denied it. Australia has a role in solving this issue. We should give voice to support these people who have been so abused.