Colombo: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Thursday lifted strict wartime emergency laws that have drawn criticism from the West and neighbour India, saying the advent of peace since the end of civil war in 2009 made them unnecessary.
The regulations gave the government wide powers to arrest people without charge as the country fought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists in a quarter-century war that ended in government victory in May 2009.
“To carry forward the day-to-day activities in a democratic way, I propose there is no need of emergency regulations anymore,” Rajapaksa told parliament. “There has been no terrorist activity since the end of the war in May 2009.”
The regulations, put in place off and on since a Marxist insurgency erupted in 1971, have been continuously in force since August 2005 after an LTTE sniper assassinated foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in the capital.
The government still has the powerful Prevention of Terrorism Act at its disposal, which allows warrantless arrests and searches if a person is suspected of involvement in “terrorist activity.”
The defence minister , currently, President Rajapaksa , can also order detentions of up to three months at a time for a maximum of 18 months. Under the law, suspects do have a right to trial but not by jury.
The Island Nation has been relaxing the emergency laws in steps since May 2010, as it seeks to open itself up to post-war investment to boost its $50 billion economy.
“We appreciate the removal of the emergency,” opposition leader Ranil Wickremesignhe told parliament. “There should be a political approach to the national issue and we can minimise the pressures coming from external forces if we can work together.”
Rajapaksa’s government resisted Western and Indian pressure to lift the laws right after the war to promote reconciliation. The government said Sri Lanka needed time to catch LTTE remnants and prosecute those arrested under the emergency laws.
Rights group and Western governments have blamed Sri Lanka’s government for using the laws to suppress media freedom and harass political opponents. Rajapaksa’s administration rejects the charges.
“We should also hope that the expansion of freedom and democratic rights will not be restricted by other means such as adding new provisions to the Prevention of Terrorism Act,” said Jehan Perera, head of the National Peace Council think-tank in Colombo, which has often criticised the government.
Sri Lanka is also under heavy pressure from rights groups, Western governments and well-funded pro-LTTE groups in the Tamil diaspora to probe alleged war crimes in the final months of the conflict in 2009.