The United States has urged Sri Lanka to end detentions under its draconian anti-terror law and ensure justice for wartime atrocities.
Sri Lanka’s rights record has drawn the ire of the international community with Colombo accused of carrying out war-time atrocities against its Tamil minority during the decades-long civil war that ended in 2009.
Under pressure from the European Union – which threatened to revoke the country’s favourable trade status – Sri Lanka’s Parliament on Tuesday amended its controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) but opposition legislators have said the changes will not stop abuses under the law.
On Wednesday, US Undersecretary for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, stressed “the importance of the non-governmental sector, journalists and civil society, and ending surveillance, ending detention [under the PTA] and ending harassment”, after talks with local leaders in capital Colombo.
Her remarks came a day after Colombo reduced detention without judicial supervision under the PTA from 18 to 12 months.
“We commend the first steps… particularly the amendments passed yesterday to the PTA and the release of soft prisoners,” she said. “There is more to do.”
As many as 78 Tamil prisoners are behind bars under the act without being formally charged — some of them for more than three decades.
Rights activists have also said they face increasing pressure from security authorities while many journalists have complained of attacks and intimidation.
Nuland arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday night on a brief overnight visit after travelling to Bangladesh and India. She said improving human rights will ease cooperation around security between Washington and Colombo.
“As you take those steps (to improve rights), it will open even more space for our partnership, particularly in the security arena,” she said.
The US called for a credible investigation before the UN Human Rights Council into allegations that Sri Lanka’s military killed at least 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final stages of the war.
Colombo has denied killing any civilians and resisted calls for an independent probe.
Nuland also said that Washington was willing to provide unspecified help as Colombo seeks an IMF bailout to ease its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.
Protests have erupted in the country with people lining up for hours for food, fuel and medicines with Colombo short of dollars to finance critical imports.
“As you roll up your sleeves and do the hard work to strengthen and heal the economy here, the United States will be your partner,” she said.