Sri Lanka urged to withdraw bill allowing broad detentions

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – An international human rights organization is urging the government of Sri Lanka to repeal draft legislation that would create military-run rehabilitation centers, saying it would give authorities broad powers to detain people without charge and run the risk of being misused .

Rights activists and opposition lawmakers have strongly criticized the bill, saying it aims to suppress people seeking political reform and accountability during the country’s unprecedented economic crisis. A lawyer and an opposition lawmaker have challenged the legislation in the Supreme Court.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said Monday that the Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill would allow mandatory detention in “rehabilitation centers” of “drug dependent individuals, ex-combatants, members of violent extremist groups and any other group of individuals.”

The group said the bill, presented to parliament last month, would create an administrative structure overseen by the Defense Ministry to operate centers staffed by military personnel.

“The Sri Lankan government’s proposed ‘rehabilitation’ efforts appear to be nothing more than a new form of violent detention without charge,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the group’s South Asia director.

Sri Lankans have protested for months against the economic crisis in the country, which has resulted in severe shortages of many essential imported items such as medicines, fuel and cooking gas.

The economic collapse sparked a political crisis with thousands of people storming the official presidential residence in July, forcing then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign.

The protesters also occupied other key government buildings, including the offices of the president and prime minister.

The demonstrations dismantled the powerful Rajapaksa family’s hold on political power. Before Rajapaksa stepped down, his older brother stepped down as prime minister and three other close relatives stepped down from their cabinet positions.

The country’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has since crushed the protests. His first action as leader involved driving out the protesters and tearing down their tents in the middle of the night.

Wickremesinghe was elected by parliament to complete Rajapaksa’s term, which expires in 2024.

Human rights groups say the military has tried to contain the protests since Wickremesinghe took office in July through intimidation, surveillance and arbitrary arrests.

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“The Rehabilitation Act would open the door wide to more torture, ill-treatment and endless detention,” Ganguly said.

Dozens of protest leaders and activists have been arrested since July. Wickremesinghe has promised leniency to those who have committed violence unknowingly or at the instigation of others, but pledged to punish those who intentionally break the law.

“President Wickremesinghe is pursuing an abusive and repressive policy that makes it difficult for Sri Lanka’s international partners to wholeheartedly support much-needed economic measures,” Ganguly said.

There was no immediate comment from the government. Some ruling party lawmakers have called for legal action against those who led the protests and for measures to rehabilitate participants they described as “misguided”.

Sri Lanka is bankrupt and has suspended repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt owed this year pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package

The country’s total external debt is more than $51 billion, of which $28 billion is due to be repaid by 2027.

“Foreign governments must make it clear that they will support the urgent needs of the Sri Lankan people, but they will also take action through targeted sanctions and other measures against those who commit serious human rights violations,” Ganguly said.

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