Presidential powers truncated by ATB could be restored – Justice Minister | Sunday Observer

Presidential powers truncated by ATB could be restored – Justice Minister

23 April, 2023

The President’s powers have been diluted through the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB), but the Government could consider returning those powers to the President, Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told the Sunday Observer yesterday.

Dr. Rajapakshe said that many countries that criticise Sri Lanka’s counter-terrorism legislation have stricter counter-terrorism laws than what is proposed in the ATB. He emphasized the need for such laws to protect the lives of people in the country and maintain its sovereignty.

We asked him whether the proposed ATB aligns with international standards. “It certainly was not an experimental effort because experts who know how to draft laws have drafted it.”

While the proposed ATB remains under scrutiny, Dr. Rajapakshe said that the Government is ready to adhere to any determination or recommendation by the Supreme Court. He said that critics go to the Supreme Court and challenge its constitutionality or propose amendments in Parliament for consideration. The Government has taken steps to facilitate this process by rescheduling the presentation of the proposed ATB in Parliament to a later date, following the intervening Court vacation, in response to requests from lawyers and representatives of civil society organisations.

The ATB has been introduced as an extension of the 2018 Counter-terrorism Act draft. There was a request to repeal the powers of the Minister of Defence, who is the President, through the new Bill. It was on this basis the new ATB was drafted, he said.

“We presented the original bill before the Sri Lanka Bar Association. It appointed 17 members who accepted the bill with slight amendments and gave a 33-page report in 2018. The Cabinet approved this. The present Opposition Leader was in that Cabinet,” said Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe.

Dr. Rajapakshe denied that the proposed ATB was an attempt to suppress democratic freedoms. He defended the powers of the President to declare prohibited areas and to proscribe organisations, maintaining that they are necessary to protect the lives of the people.

He said that instances of Presidents abusing powers in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) had been heavily criticised. “We assigned hitherto held powers by the President to issue Detention Orders on terrorist suspects to the Deputy Inspectors of General to make it more democratic because the President is a political figure.”

Regardless of whether the proposed bill is redrafted or not, it will continue to face criticism under the current political climate, said Dr. Rajapakshe. “However, we would like to see how the Supreme Court finally interprets it and if there are any lacunae, defects, or unconstitutional provisions in the ATB. We are ready to adhere to any determination or recommendation that the Supreme Court could make,” he said.

“How can a Government that cannot protect the lives of the people protect the fundamental rights of the people in that country?,” asked Dr. Rajapakshe. “Whether a country has an anti-terrorism law or not, the foremost duty of a Government is to protect the lives of the people-the country-the state, before anything else. That is clearly stated in the United Nations Charter and the Human Rights Charter,” he said.