Freedom of Association

The terror of counter-terror laws

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/10/21/opinion/terror-counter-terror-laws on 21st October 2018

With the second reading of the Counter Terrorism Bill scheduled for Tuesday (23), rights activists are still raising grave concerns about the proposed legislation.

For about 40 years, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) served as a license for torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, and prolonged detention. Three years have passed since the governmental commitment to repeal it, and it must be done now.

There are also many problematic clauses in the draft of the proposed new counter terror law,which has been tabled in parliament, with the original Sinhalese name, and a new English name – “Counter Terrorism”. Crimes must be prevented and responded to, including serious ones termed as “terrorism” and we already have a plethora of laws to do this. It is also possible to amend existing laws to include any new types of crimes that are not included. Therefore there is no need for a new counter terror law.

We have been living in a state of almost continuous emergency for about 40 years from1971 to 2011. Emergency regulations were reintroduced in March 2018 for a short period when there was violence against Muslims around Kandy. Under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO), the President has absolute discretion, without judicial scrutiny, to declare a state of emergency and ‘emergency regulations’ that can override all laws except the Constitution. Parliament can extend such emergency laws beyond 14 days. Emergency regulations can take away procedural protections on arrests, detention, and trials, which are guaranteed under criminal law, and they can be used for entry, search, seizure of assets and properties, providing powers of arrest to the armed forces, and accepting confessions made to the police. 1

Emergency regulations have also introduced definitions of terrorism. Our Constitution also provides for restrictions of rights2 in the name of national security, without them even being required to be ‘proportionate’. In addition to the PSO and emergency regulations, Sri Lanka has about 15 other laws,3 which can deal with offences that are listed under the proposed counter-terrorism law.

The Bill contains vague and broadly worded definitions of the intention required for the offence of terrorism:4 The defined actions include ones that can infringe on dissent and fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution.5 Even the exception clause to the above – the exercising of a fundamental right – is subject to that of being done in “good faith”.

There is no compulsion to protect an arrested person from physical harm. Conveying information about the arrest to the arrestee in her or his own language is not compulsory and where it cannot be given immediately, there is no specified time frame to do so. Even if family members are present at the time of arrest, there is a 24 hour period provided, to notify the family of the arrest details. If family members are not present at the time of arrest, serving acknowledgement of arrest is not compulsory. It is not compulsory for female suspects to be questioned by female officers or have a female officer present.

The time frame for a detainee to be produced before a Magistrate is doubled to 48 hours from the 24 hours limit allowed under ordinary laws, increasing the possibility of abuse. A person could be remanded for upto one year without charges and without bail.

Through Detention Orders (DOs) a police officer can tell the judiciary (a Magistrate) what to do, and the Magistrate must obey, in terms of detaining a person, granting bail or discharging an arrestee. These DOs can last up to two weeks at a time and with approval of a Magistrate, can be then extended for eight weeks. Detention is in places and conditions decided by a Minister. Appeals against DOs are to be made to a“Board of Review”, comprising the Minister the Ministry’s Secretary, and two others appointed by the Minister. A detained suspect’s lawyer and family can only access her or him with the prior permission of the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the detention facility or prison.

Lawyers cannot be present during interview and taking of statements. Police are given 72 hours to notify the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) of a detention under a DO, but no time frame is given for the HRCSL to be given a copy of the DO. The Bill gives power to an OIC to do a medical examination of a detainee to check for visible injuries, and if there are visible injuries, the OIC only has to produce a suspect before a Judicial Medical Officer(JMO)and obtain a report.

If a Magistrate or the HRCSL thinks a place of detention/remand does not conform to the requirements of humane treatment (after a visit), they are to notify the Inspector General of Police/Superintendent of Prisons. However, neither of them are obliged to provide ‘whatever is necessary for humane treatment’.

Under the PTA, only police officers can make arrests, enter premises, conduct searches, and seize material, but the new Bill also grants sweeping powers to the armed forces and the coast guard. Police can seek an order from a magistrate to stop a gathering, a meeting, rally or activity, without a chance for an affected party to be heard. A Minister can proscribe an organization and declare any public place or any other location as a prohibited place indefinitely- without prior possibility for the affected to challenge this- powers that even the PTA doesn’t provide for. Additional powers that the Bill provides but the PTA does not have, are for the President to declare a curfew and call out armed forces so as to maintain public order.

The PTA only allowed seizure and forfeiture of properties of a convicted person, but the new draft law expands this to include those acquitted by courts or anyone else.

The Bill also legitimizes acceptance of a penalty such as a public apology, or reparation to victims of the offence- such as undergoing rehabilitation or engaging in community service. In the context of decades long court cases and high legal costs, the threat of fresh charges with high penalties may compel individuals to admit guilt rather than establish their innocence in a Court of law. The Bill also allows the Attorney General, the prosecutor, to play a judicial role by imposing penalties when withdrawing charges.

The new draft Bill improves on some of the draconian provisions of the PTA, but also goes on to provide the Minister, President, armed forces more powers than the PTA. We must not lower our standards to use a much abused draconian law like the PTA as a benchmark for any new law.

Extraordinary powers should always be an exception for limited purposes, limited periods and a limited geographical area, but the new law is a permanent all island law. It introduces offences that are vague and could criminalize exercise of human rights and dissent. It reduces checks and balances to safeguard life, liberty and wellbeing, reduces judicial discretion and grants extraordinary powers to a Minister, police, army and coastguard on top of the wide powers they could exercise even now through proclamation of emergency by the President. These are powers that have been heavily abused in the past and the new bill can facilitate continuation of such abuses. It can permanently militarize civil life, based more on security obsessed authoritarianism than democracy and rule of law. This must be opposed.

(The writer is a rights activist. A significant part of his work in the last few years has been about those detained under the PTA and those released. He has also been detained under the PTA, has a pending investigation for four and half years, and a court order restricting his freedom of expression)

[1]In the past, this has even included bypassing inquests required under ordinary laws for death of persons caused by the police or the army, or the death of persons while in their custody, and made it mandatory for all media organizations to submit their reports to the ‘Competent Authority’ prior to publication or broadcast.

[2]Such as right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and movement, equality before the law and non-discrimination.

[3] For example, Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure, Offences Against Aircraft Act No. 24 Of 1982, Suppression Of Unlawful Acts Of Violence At Airports Serving International Civil Aviation No. 31 Of 1996, Suppression Of Unlawful Acts Against The Safety Of Maritime Navigation No. 42 Of 2000, Prevention Of Hostage Taking No. 41 Of 2000, Prevention And Punishment Of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons No. 15 Of 1991, Suppression Of Terrorist Bombings Act, No. 11 Of 1999, Chemical Weapons Convention No.58 Of 2007,, Convention On The Suppression Of Terrorist Financing Act No. 25 Of 2005, Financial Transactions Reporting Act No. 6 Of 2006, Prevention of Money Laundering Act No. 05 of 2006 (as amended), Proscribing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Other Similar Organizations Law No. 16 of 1978, SAARC Regional Convention On Suppression Of Terrorism Act No. 70 Of 1988, United Nations Act No 45 of 1968 and regulations made under that to deal with terrorist financing and money laundering and which has led to listing of persons and organizations.

[4] Such as “intimidate a population”, “wrongfully or unlawfully compelling the government of Sri Lanka, or any other government, or an international organization, to do or to abstain from doing any act”, “prevent any such government from functioning” or “causing harm to the territorial integrity or sovereignty of Sri Lanka or any other sovereign country”.

[5]obstruction to essential services, obstruction, interference to any electronic or automated system and causing serious risk to safety of a section of a public.

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Crippling civic organising, mobilising and resistance through Draft Amendment to the Act on NGOs

First published on 22nd March 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/03/22/crippling-civic-organising-mobilising-and-resistance-through-draft-ngo-act-amendment/

The author gratefully acknowledges insights and input from Attorney-at-law Ermiza Tegal.

On February 20, 2018, the Cabinet decided to publish the repressive Draft Act to Amend the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act no. 31 of 1980 (LDO 32/2011) to a gazette and present it to Parliament for approval. As usual, the drafting has been done in secret with no consultations. To the best of my knowledge, the draft Act has not been made publicly available by the Government.[1]

In the face of mounting pressure and questions, today, more than a month after he had presented this draft Act to the Cabinet, Minister Mano Ganesan had belatedly committed to have a consultation with civil society on April 10, 2018 and assured that it won’t be gazettedpending observations at this consultation.[2] This is the same Minister who stated last year that he doesn’t “see any serious reason to regulate NGOs in this country” and that he doesn’t want to use the word, ‘Regulation’.[3]

The draft’s foremost stated purpose is “regulate, supervise & inspect” NGOs through a legalised “National Secretariat for NGOs (Hereafter referred to as the Secretariat)” under an unspecified Ministry. The Secretariat has investigative powers and assumes and duplicates functions of the Police. The extraordinary and excessive powers given to the Secretariat directly infringe on Freedom of Association, Freedom of expression, Freedom of Thought, Conscience & Belief and Right to Privacy. The draft gives the Director General of the Secretariat, the Minister in charge and the Ministry’s Secretary unprecedented control over any grouping defined as a NGO. It comes in the context of reporting and approval requirement currently in place for NGOs, having created a culture and expectations in the districts that NGOs have to be subservient to the local government officials.

Making collectives illegal and crippling independent civic organising and mobilising

The draft tries to capture a broad range of collectives or groups in it’s definition of an NGO[4]and compels them to register and obtain approval from the Secretariat for it’s existence, or become illegal. There are only very few exceptions.[5] This definition and compulsory registration and approval may bring under the Secretariat’s control or render illegal, groups promoting and protecting rights and interests of their members, formal and informal grouping of individuals, groups receiving funding or working voluntarily, movements that may be temporary or permanent and groups involved in initiatives of social entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships etc. It strikes at independent organising and mobilising initiatives and makes very vulnerable those campaigning on repealing or changing unjust laws, such as ones related to gender and sexuality and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Practically, if this draft is enacted, it may bring under its control or render illegal existing civic groups such as Purawesi Balaya (Citizens Power), National Movement for Just Society (NMJS), Lawyers for Democracy (LfD), Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF), Student Unions, Peoples Alliance for Right to Land (PARL), Peoples Movement against Port City, Women’s Action Network (WAN), movements of Relatives of Disappeared etc. One wonders whether groups such as the “Civil Monitoring Commission” initiated and led by Minister Mano Ganesan and others during the Rajapakse regime and “Mothers Front” led by Minister Mangala Samaraweera and others during Premadasa regime, as well as movements of the past such as Movement to Protect Eppawala Phospate Deposits, Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) would have been willing to subject themselves to such controls.

Arbitrary registration, suspensions, cancellations and limited possibilities of Appeal

Under this draft Act, registration (and thereby legality) is dependent on whims and fancies of the Director General of the Secretariat and Ministries or Authorities which are “responsible for activities planned to be undertaken by the organization”. If registration is rejected, the appeals have to be made to the Secretary to the Ministry, under which the Secretariat functions, within 30 days.

The registration can be suspended or canceled (and thereby make the organisation illegal) for range of reasons. These includes if the Director General feels the organization is a threat or prejudicial to national security or public interest. An organisation can also be de-registered if the Secretary to the Ministry feels the organisation is operating contrary to the national interests. None of these terms are clearly defined and only possible appeals are to Provincial High Courts, within the very short span of 30 days.

Attack on ideological and physical autonomy of civic groupings

The proposed Act implies civic groups must agree to “common development needs” of the country as defined by or agreeable to the government. This is likely to marginalise groups that are challenging the government’s model of development, which is often pro rich, pro-market and non-participatory. It also infringes on autonomy and internal policies and practices of civic groups, by interfering and retaining the final say in matters such as a change of objectives, a change in the geographical area of work, the establishment of branches, a change of the group constitution, cooperation with other groupings and the government, networking and forming federations, standards of service, financial and policy management, making donations to other groups, fund raising from the public, change of name, change of address, flag, symbol, logo etc. Information on staff and volunteers can be obtained by the Secretariat up to 6 years after they have left the organisation.

Policing powers beyond ordinary Police powers

In ordinary law, the police requires a warrant to enter a premises and search, examine books, registers or records, make copies and extracts. But the draft Act allows the Secretariat a free hand to do this, without even a clearly defined criteria for reasonable suspicion of any illegal activities. The power to “request and obtain information” implies a group from which the Secretariat “requests” information cannot refuse, as the Secretariat has powers to “obtain”, not just to “request”. The Secretariat also has powers to investigate money laundering and terrorist financing, which ought to be by the Police.

Breaching Banking Confidentiality

Under ordinary law, when the Police requires information from banks in the course of investigations of alleged crimes, they have to provide explicit justifications and orders for banks to release information are only made by a judicial authority. But the draft law confers powers to the Secretariat to breach confidentiality of banking information, without reference to any criminal conduct, rendering individuals and entities engaged in non-governmental activity second class citizens. The draft Act compels banks to inform the Secretariat of deposits over Rs. 1 million and electronic funds transfers and all transactions over an amount prescribed by the Minister. Such control over groups defined as NGOs is in contrast to the government’s policy to liberalise capital flow, under which the new foreign exchange law[6] permits undeclared money held abroad up to the value of a million dollars to be brought into the country with no penalty, while amounts in excess could be brought with the payment of a one percent fee. This puts in an additional layer of surveillance over and above what the Central Bank would be doing with regard to fund flows into the country, again singling out those defined as NGOs.

Broad and Vaguely defined “NGO crimes”

The draft Act creates range of “offences under the Act”, some of which are broadly and vaguely defined and leave room for abuse. Offences includes non-registration, which violates Freedom of Association and the principle of “Voluntary Notification”. Even a simple request for information if deemed inadequately responded to may attract a Rs. 250,000 fine or one year imprisonment and thus, is likely to create a fear psychosis. The lack of certainty runs contrary to the basic tenet of rule of law. Yet, again the hypocracy of criminalising acts that may be administratively corrected, is patently obvious when compared to the Foreign Exchange Act (FEA), which replaces the Exchange Control Act (note the change in nomenclature away from the notion of ‘control’), which was described as a new law that “decriminalised exchange control violations and freed citizens from its draconian provisions. The responsibility to implement the new management system has been vested on the authorised dealers who are subject to neither criminal nor civil proceedings under FEA. Instead, they are disciplined through an administrative process”[7].

Blurring the lines between “government” and “non-governmental”

This draft in letter and spirit, appears to convert NGOs into GONGOs – Government controlled Non-Government Organisations. It attempts to make a non-governmental group primarily accountable to the government – instead of primary accountability being to it’s members and to values they espouse, intended beneficiaries and donors – ignoring that the government is often the very body such groups seek a distinction from and often aim to monitor, critique and challenge.

Civic collectives and individuals involved in such groups must not be above the law – given that problems such as financial mismanagement, sexual harassment, gender based discrimination and abuse of worker’s rights, also occur in these entities, just las they do in government agencies and the private sector. But this must be done through ordinary law, which is applicable to all, without resorting to ultra-intrusive laws, discriminatory laws, which has the high potential to facilitate witch-hunts, to blur the line between what is “government” and what is “non-governmental / civic” and cripple independent organising and mobilising that a government may feel challenged by. Legal frameworks to address money laundering and other criminal activity must be uniformly applied instead of targeting NGOs in this disproportionate and unjustified way.

There is no point in trying to reform or engage with this draft law. It must be opposed in its entirety. If at all we need an additional law, it must be a “Freedom of Association Act” that promotes Freedom of Association, with registration based on principle of “Voluntary Notification” and not a restrictive law to make “non-governmental / civic” groupings pawns of the government.


[1] But drafts in three languages has been uploaded by concerned activists, and are available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HQJTYaXMBzrMFVkABruRnW53WdrwU8ES/view?usp=sharing(English), https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jlZw5mhi5hnHtDZfv-C6nGeeouU7834s/view?usp=sharing (Sinhala) and https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ngRI7i-R-RlglZxsFlykZZRM09lGQp1r/view?usp=sharing (Tamil)

[2] https://twitter.com/ManoGanesan/status/976728773386158080

[3] Statement by Minister Mano Ganesan on 1st July 2017

[4] Includes any association, council, society, trust, foundation, federation, movement, center, consortium, company, guarantee limited companies, private companies receiving foreign funds for non-profit oriented activities, any organization under any written law or incorporated under Standing Orders of the Parliament or any other association of persons, branches of overseas registered organizations,

[5] Examples of exceptions mentioned are places of religious worship, banks, public quoted companies, school development societies, alumni associations, trade unions, political parties and any such organizations

[6] Foreign Exchange Act No 12 of 2017

[7] Statement by Former Central Bank Deputy Governor W A Wijewardene as quoted in article titled ‘Exchange control will become obsolete – Economist’, Sunday Observer found at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2017/12/03/exchange-control-will-become-obsolete-economist