Sri Lanka proposes end of wartime emergency laws

August 25, 2011 - 10:30 AM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's president announced plans Thursday to lift wartime emergency laws that have curbed civil and political liberties for most of the past 30 years.

The country has been under intense international pressure to sweep away the draconian measures now that more than two years have passed since the government's victory in its bitter civil war against separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.

The emergency laws, which Parliament had extended every month, had allowed the government to detain suspects without trial, displace residents from their land and set up ubiquitious military checkpoints.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the legislature the laws were no longer needed, signalling that they would be allowed to expire by the end of next Wednesday.

"Today I propose to this assembly the withdrawal of the emergency laws to enable the country to conduct its affairs through its normal laws and in a democratic manner," Rajapaksa said. "I do this because I am satisfied that we no longer need emergency laws for our governance."

Authorities still can exercise similar powers under another law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act. But legal experts say unlike the emergency laws, PTA is inferior to fundamental rights clauses of the constitution.

The move to lift the emergency comes amid widespread international pressure on the government to ease wartime conditions like the state of emergency, investigate alleged human rights violations during the war and share political power with ethnic minority Tamils.

The latest such statement came from India on Thursday when foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, told Parliament that India would push for a lasting political settlement in Sri Lanka.

India will continue to reiterate with Sri Lanka the need of reconciliation of certain issues including withdrawal of emergency regulations and investigation into human rights violations, he said.

The island has been under a state of emergency since 1983 except for brief lapses to help peace talks between the government and rebels. The emergency was allowed to lapse in 2002 and reimposed in 2005, with the assassination of then-Foreign Minster Lakshman Kadirgamar. The rebels were blamed for his death.

With the announcement, Rajapaksa is expected not to proclaim an emergency next month and ask Parliament to approve it.

A suspect detained under the emergency laws can be held up to one year without appearing a court and can't be released on bail. Hundreds of people are detained for many years.

The law also enabled the authorities to displace civilians from their lands and declare high security zones and even to bury dead bodies without a post-mortem, lawyer Jagath Liyanaarachi said.

The military is involved in maintaining law and order in place of police and the authorities can ban rallies and demonstrations under the emergency provisions.

Human rights groups have accused authorities of using its provisions to crack down on the media and restrict freedom of speech despite the end of the war. The government scaled back some of the provisions last year.

Jehan Perera, an analyst with local activist group National Peace Council said with the emergency's lapse, the people's "freedom to engage in public political activity will be enhanced."

"The military can't play a role in keeping law and order and military check points will not be possible," he said adding that the military will also have to keep away from civil administration in the former war zones in the north.

Sri Lankan forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, ending a 26-year civil war aimed at creating an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils.

A United Nations experts panel reported this year that tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed in the final months of the war and said there are credible allegations that both government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels carried out atrocities.