PTA detainees:Why continued incarceration is bad for security and reconciliation

On Saturday, President Maithripala Sirisena, who was attending a Tamil language event at Hindu College, Jaffna was greeted by protesters demanding the release of suspects held in custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The TNA which had recently been amenable to cooperation with the government, this time boycotted the event. On the previous day, Jaffna was brought to a standstill by a Hartal organized by local groups pressing for the release of PTA inmates.The latest bout of activism over the PTA detainees erupted after three of them launched a hunger strike against the transfer of their cases from the Vavuniya to the Anuradhapura Court and demanding their release. Their cause now appears to be taken by the LTTE-glorifying fringe political groups, which are challenging the TNA’s political authority among the Tamils.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act is a flawed law, but, at a time of high security vulnerability of the country it became a necessary evil, without which much more carnage could have been unleashed in the South. Now that the LTTE has been conclusively defeated and security restored, the PTA has outlived its use. The continued incarceration of terrorist suspects under the PTA defeats the very efforts undertaken by the government to foster reconciliation. Their continued detention is primarily due to the absence of prima facie evidence or any evidence, at all, being confessions extracted under duress, which are not acceptable before the normal courts.

There are an estimated 130 Tamil suspects held in prisons under the PTA. Another 85 had been released since the beginning of this year.

Soon after the end of the war, twelve thousand LTTE cadres, including a number of second level leadership were rehabilitated and released

Soon after the end of the war, twelve thousand LTTE cadres, including a number of second level leadership were rehabilitated and released. They appeared to have posed no security risk since their release. Similarly, at the end of the JVP insurgency, thousands of JVP cadres were released. None relapsed to commit mayhem.There is a reason why it happened that way. In both cases, the top tier leadership was exterminated, which is a sound politico-military decision, irrespective of its ethical aspects, which helped maintain peace in the country.

There is no convincing evidence to suggest the release of a few dozen more PTA inmates would make things different. Most of them are, at worst, foot soldiers and low-level members of the LTTE. If there are any grounds to suggest they pose a threat, their release can be conditioned by limits on freedom of movement and monitoring by intelligence agencies.

However, it is not security concerns, but a vengeful desire to punish somehow, no matter the available evidence not supporting the charges, that is standing in the way of these men being released. That in effect traps Sri Lanka in the past keeping old wounds of the conflict sore, and creating discontent in the North. There is a danger of Tamils being disillusioned with the government, and in the traditional Tamil political parties being exploited by the groups which are unabashedly pro-Eelam. That also weakens the hold of the TNA in the Tamil electorate, especially when its cooperation with the government fails to yield what many Tamil activists consider as even basic and reasonable concessions.The final objective of the military victory should be just peace. There is a rare opportunity to give a shot at it now, thanks to the on-going bipartisan approach to find a political solution to the ethnic problem. Peripheral issues, that can be resolved with a dose of political courage, should not be allowed to harm that momentum.

Many Tamils ask why the President who could reinstall former CJ Shriani Bandaranayake, and pardon former army chief Sarath Fonseka is hesitating to intervene in this matter

The Attorney General cannot take political decisions. That is why the President should step in. Many Tamils ask why the President who could reinstall former Chief Justice Shriani Bandaranayake, and pardon war-winning former army chief Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka is hesitating to intervene in this matter. The President in Jaffna walked into the midst of the protesters and spoke to them, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. That should also be proof of his confidence in the security situation in Jaffna. Continued incarceration of Tamil prisoners under a flawed law is incongruent with this improved security, peace and order.

The President should take a decision, considering the imperatives for national reconciliation. He can offer a comprehensive plan for the release and reintegration of these individuals into society. Harping on a legal process is only dragging this country backward, not least the troubling circumstances in the past would not allow a genuine legal process, but also because, if we insist on that, it should go both ways. Then that is tantamount to opening a can of worms. Few countries that emerged from long-running counter insurgencies have sought to hold everybody accountable for past actions. That complicates the fragile transition.

There is however hypocrisy in Tamil activism over the release of terrorist suspects while, at the same time insisting on war crime investigations into the security forces. Complicity in blowing up civilians in the South in no way is less egregious than certain military action that may have caused disproportionate collateral damage or intelligence operations that may have crossed the ethical lines. The best option for Sri Lanka is a truth and reconciliation commission, which would guarantee immunity from prosecution provided there is a full disclosure. It should apply to both sides of the conflict. One would doubt though whether the Eelam lobby harping on the release of PTA detainees really wants that?