10/07/2022, 17.12
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Activists challenge new bill designed to ‘rehabilitate’ government opponents

by Melani Manel Perera

The government wants to set a bureau to rehabilitate drug addicts, former fighters, and members of other groups. According to human rights advocates, the bill would legalise torture and jail protesters. Some have already been in prison for 50 days. A petition was submitted to the Supreme Court saying that the draft legislation violates fundamental rights.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – A law before the Sri Lankan Parliament risks legalising what would be in all respects a system of concentration camps.

The bill under consideration would set up a Bureau of Rehabilitation responsible for people involved in protests, such as those who took part in the Aragalaya, the people's struggle, that led to the downfall of  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as well as “former fighters" and "other groups".

"People should pressure their MPs not to vote for this bill. It cannot be improved, it must be shelved," said lawyer Swasthika Arulingam speaking to AsiaNews.

"I have read the bill cover to cover,” she explained. “The Bureau of Rehabilitation bill would make torture legal. You can be forced fed with drugs. Disobedience is punished with imprisonment or the use of force.”

“Our country seems to be passing laws to appease the hurt ego of the Rajapaksas," the human rights advocate noted.

“The government claims that the Bureau will serve to rehabilitate fighters and drug addicts but the bill speaks of 'other groups’; to date no one, not even the department that drafted the bill,  knows who will fall into the 'other groups' category.”

Some 50 days ago, Interuniversity Student Council convener Wasantha Mudalige, Venerable monk Siridhamma Thera, and university student activist Heshan Jeevantha were arrested under the existing anti-terrorism law.

The lives of all three are in danger, their lawyers say. Since their arrest, trade unions and civil society groups have been fighting for their release.

For Swasthika Arulingam, protests must continue. "We have elected 225 people to power. Call them, meet with them, and speak to them. Ask them if they were given permission to set up torture camps in Sri Lanka. Go into the streets to demonstrate as we have done in recent months during the economic crisis."

Meanwhile, Ambika Satkunathan, a former member of the country’s Human Rights Commission, has petitioned the Supreme Court, stressing that the bill is incompatible with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.

She argues that the groups of people subject to the Bureau have not been properly defined – she also questions the type of rehabilitation such people would receive.

"The bill," Sathkunathan explains, “uses vague and arbitrary classifications”. What is more, “the rehabilitation process has been militarised”. As a result, people taking part in ordinary protests could be detained.

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