Sri Lanka: 'De-radicalisation' returns in new garb as 'Rehabilitation'

One year after being forced to shelve a heavily condemned regulation targeting dissent, the Sri Lankan government has now devised a new plan to legalise its ongoing crackdown.

The latest move is to adopt new laws to rehabilitate 'ex-combatants, members of violent extremist groups and any other group of persons'.

A bill to "provide for the establishment of a Bureau to be called and known as the Bureau of Rehabilitation" was introduced to parliament on 23 September by the Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms Wijayadasa Rajapaksha. It has already being challenged in Sri Lanka's highest court. Petitioners argue that the proposed law would violate several of the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights.

In August 2021 the Supreme Court issued an interim order suspending the implementation of Prevention of Terrorism (De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No. 01 of 2021. The regulation was announced in the gazette extraordinary on 12 March, 2021 by the president at the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sri Lankan rights activists and journalists successfully petitioned the court against the regulation condemned by rights watchdogs including the UN as a move specially targeting minority Muslims. The De-radicalization regulations "may allow for the impairment of fundamental freedoms. Its language is broad and vague and permits arbitrary detentions, undermines due process, and limits fundamental rights," said a team of UN special rapporteurs in 14 page letter to the president.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sacked by a mass uprising in July paving the way for Ranil Wickermesinghe who became president with the help of the parliament majority that formed the earlier administration.

PTA against protesters

As soon as the new president assumed office, he unleashed security forces against protesters while using the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to imprison three student activists including the conveners of Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) and Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF).

To continue with the onslaught, he has now resorted to introducing an Act that establishes a Bureau of Rehabilitation to 'rehabilitate' dissenters.

"The objective of the Bureau shall be to rehabilitate drug dependant persons, ex-combatants, members of violent extremist groups and any other group of persons who require treatments and rehabilitation by adopting various therapies in order to ensure effective reintegration and reconciliation, through developing socio-economic standards," says the bill.

Disturbingly, the de-radicalisation regulation was also was planning to work on similar lines over those 'holding violent extremist religious ideology'.

According to the earlier regulation, the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation was authorised to maintain "reintegration centres" for the purpose of "rehabilitating the surrendees and detainees".

Although the suspended regulation had no reference to drug dependant persons or ex-combatants, it had judicial oversight on detention. However, the new Rehabilitation bill is not clear how the Bureau under the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation plans to identify what it calls "members of violent extremist groups and violent extremist persons". Alarmingly, members of security forces will be deployed for its activities that apparently oversteps their service requirements.

"The powers, duties and functions conferred or imposed upon authorised members of the Forces by this section shall be exercised, performed and discharged notwithstanding that such powers, duties and functions are not conferred or imposed upon them by the provisions of the Army Act (Chapter 357), the Navy Act (Chapter 358) or the Air Force Act (Chapter 359)".

The de-radicalisation regulations too, had granted sweeping powers to the security forces.

Anyone who had been arrested by or anyone who surrendered to "any police officer, or any member of the armed forces, or to any public officer or any other person or body of persons authorized by the President by Order, may be referred to a rehabilitation programme in terms of the provisions of these regulations," says the gazette notification.

Sri Lanka's post war rehabilitation programs run by the military to detain arrested or surrendered former Tamil Tiger suspects was described by the UN as arbitrary detention and slammed by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) as a 'legal black hole'.

Many of the post war 'rehabilitation centres' for Tamils have been credibly identified as sites where torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings are widespread.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.