After spending 14 years in prison, three political prisoners belonging to the ethnic Tamil community in Sri Lanka were released by the court on Tuesday, April 4. The court ruled that witness statements in the case could not prove their involvement in conspiracy against the state, Tamil Guardian reported.
45-year-old Thiruvarul, 34-year-old Sulakshan and 33-year-old Tharshan had been languishing in jail after they were arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in May 2009. Justice Manickavasagam Ilancheliyan delivered the verdict stating that the confessions given by them were inadmissible in court.
In December 2021, 47-year-old Thevarasa Sivapala was acquitted in a similar manner after spending 15 years in the Negombo Prison. Thevarasa was arrested in Wattala under the PTA for allegedly smuggling arms in Colombo in 2006.
According to human rights groups, the controversial Act has been used against hundreds of political dissenters in Sri Lanka, often from the ethnic Tamil or minority Muslim community. The Act allows security forces to detain any person under suspicion for at least 18 months without producing them before a court.
It has been reported that prisoners arrested under the Act, irrespective of gender, have undergone humiliation and torture inside prison. Even after their release, those targeted under the PTA continue to face structural surveillance by the state apparatus and also face difficulties in finding employment.
“Sivabalakrishnan, a Tamil prisoner, who was moved from Colombo’s Magazine prison to Boossa on June 2, 2012, was stripped naked by prison guards and sexually assaulted,” reported the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS).
The government is yet to release the total number of individuals arrested under the draconian PTA.
Human Rights Watch, while describing the “legal black hole” that exists in the form of the Act, has stated that the law has enabled authorities for over 40 years “to prolong arbitrary detention, to extract false confessions through torture, and to target minority communities and civil society groups.”
Three student leaders—Wasantha Mudalige, Hashantha Jeewantha Gunathilake, Galwewa Siridhamma Thera—were also detained under the PTA in the fallout of the mass protests against the Gotabaya Rajapaksa-led government in August 2022.
Over 200 Tamil political prisoners are currently incarcerated in different prisons and detention centers in Sri Lanka, according to Counter Currents. Advocacy group Voice of the Voiceless, which has been campaigning for the release of Tamil political prisoners, estimates that there are at least 46 Tamil political prisoners who have been imprisoned for 10 to 26 years. The group, along with the Tamil National Alliance, has been strongly campaigning for their release.
Despite facing trauma and abuse, the resilience of Tamil political prisoners has been apparent. Sivalingam Arooran, who was arrested in 2009, wrote eight novels during his 16 years of incarceration. His novel Adurasalei was later given the State Literary Award.
Individuals arrested between 2019 and 2020 and imprisoned in Colombo’s Magazine prison and other jails have also launched repeated hunger strikes demanding their release.