The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has identified significant challenges to the enjoyment of the right to personal liberty in Sri Lanka, resulting in arbitrary detention across the country.
The experts recognize positive initiatives, including engagement with UN human rights mechanisms, as well as the recent accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.
However, they say further urgent action is required to give effect to Sri Lanka’s obligations under international human rights law, as well as the commitments made by the Government in its Human Rights National Action Plan 2017-2021.
“The right to personal liberty has yet to be respected by law enforcement, security forces, judicial and other authorities,” the experts said in a statement, after a three-member delegation carried out an official visit to the country. The Group issued its preliminary findings on 15 December.
They said that current powers to deprive individuals of their liberty extended across a range of facilities, including police stations, prisons, open work camps, centres for juveniles and the elderly, mental health institutions and rehabilitation camps for former combatants, as well as those for drug addicts and people in vulnerable situations.
The experts called for urgent reforms to address problems including the excessive use of remand, a lack of effective alternatives to detention, an outdated legal framework and reliance on confessions, often extracted under torture or duress.
Court proceedings were affected by excessive and unjustified delays, while suspects remained in detention indefinitely, they said, adding that the rights to the presumption of innocence and due process were yet to be fully recognized.
The experts called for the abolition of the special laws and powers enacted during the state of emergency. In particular, the Working Group urged the Government of Sri Lanka to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, as one of the key enablers of arbitrary detention for over four decades. Any new legislation must be in accordance with international human rights law and best practices.
The delegation highlighted that detainees in general did not enjoy some of the most fundamental guarantees of due process, such as immediate access to legal assistance from the moment of the arrest and before their initial statement was recorded.
“The fact that the detainees are interrogated by the authorities without a lawyer, in particular at police stations, is of great concern,” the experts said.
The Working Group also paid particular attention to the deprivation of liberty of those in situations of vulnerability, such as children, women, elderly people, those with psychosocial disabilities, and those living in poverty.
“Despite identifying positive practices in this regard, it is concerning that the legal basis and procedures for depriving people of their liberty are not clearly established,” the experts said.
“There are no effective safeguards against arbitrariness in this context and there is an urgent need to strengthen mechanisms for independent monitoring and oversight.”
During the visit, from 4-15 December 2017, the delegation met Government officials, judges, lawyers, civil society organizations and other relevant groups and officials. They travelled to Colombo, Negombo, Anuradhapura, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Polonnaruwa, visiting more than 30 different settings of detention and interviewing more than 100 people deprived of their liberty.
The delegation was composed of Working Group members José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez, Leigh Toomey and Elina Steinerte, supported by staff from the UN Human Rights Office.
The Working Group will present the final report of its visit to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2018. (Colombo Gazette)